IN THIS SPECIAL TIMES FEATURE, FORMER BALLYMONEY MAN JOHNNY MCDAID, NOW LIVING IN ENGLAND, TAKES A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE REGARDING THE FORMER CRICKET PARK FOOTBALL PITCH IN BALLYMONEY (FOR YOUNGER READERS TESCO IS THERE NOW).
‘OVER the years some of our greatest footballers have graced the wonderful playing surface of the former Cricket Park in Ballymoney.
Four of Northern Ireland’s greatest goalkeepers - Harry Gregg, Iam McFaul, Jim Platt and Pat Jennings, have all appeared there.
George Best and the great Welsh international John Charles also showed their magnificent skills on the hallowed turf.
The Hughes family, the local restaurant and bakery firm, sponsored a cup competition of the same name.
They came from all over to try and put their name on the trophy.
Shankill Strollers v Derry Harps; Ballymoney United v Cullybackey; Coleraine Olympic v Garvagh United. The list went on...
My cousins and friends, as young lads, always looked forward to these fixtures.
I remember a guy called Mal McDonnell, who played for Ballymena United in the Irish League, scored some great goals.
He was one of those forwards always in the right place to find the net.
Our own international striker Des Dickson (Coleraine) and Brian Mulgrew (Bangor) also showed the locals what goal-scoreing was all about.
Two ‘flying machines’ as they say, no defence could rest easy when these deadly strikers unleashed their thunderbolt shots.
Middlesbrough goalkeeper Jim Platt played centre-forward for his local Coleraine team and once scored a hat-trick. They couldn’t cope with his strong shooting.
Pat Jennings was a spectator at one of the matches and we all ran down from behind the goals to the look at the size of his legendary hands.
A pub team from Belfast, called Terminus Inn, had two Northern Ireland internationals playing for them - Danny Trainor and Tommy Jackson.
A hand-written sign, tied to two big black iron crates, at the entrance to the park gave us all the information we needed. At the top of the lane, a wooden table had to be decorated with your sixpence, shilling or two-bob.
Some teams had an entourage of 30 people. Once they alighted from their vans and cars, half of them were escorted to the mahogany ‘turnstile’.
The matches were officiated by the late Billy Dunlop. He took no nonsense from any player and his whistle was law.
Grown men, who in their everyday lives, wouldn’t say boo to a goose, got carried away with the emotion of these matches, shouting abuse at players and officials alike.
That’s what football does to you!
Ballymoney United once won the Hughes Cup with a young Ivan Murray receiving his medal from the late Mrs Hughes on a flat lorry trailer. Ivan played with one of the greatest passers of a ball in the history of the game, Johnny Haynes at Fulham who was the England ‘62 World Cup captain.
On the way to the game you called in to John and Mrs Johnson’s or big Bobby Graham’s sweet shops. You got your crisps or penny chews or a bag of brandy balls.
An ice-cream van greeted you inside the park.
Bets would have been placed by some spectators. The crowd was right on top of the players and every word, good or bad, was heard loud and clear.
There were no boot-deals, sponsorship or flashy cars. Players got a few pounds and some got nothing but pure enjoyment from participating in our glorious Hughes Cup competition.
My cousin Tony and I used to ‘scame’ woodwork class on a Friday at 2pm to sneak over and watch the late Bill John Kirgan cut the grass, his machine working wonders on the lush green turf.
Our teacher never, ever, came looking for us. He probably realised he was saving good wood!
After the games finished we all hid in the adjoining ‘Priest’s Field’ until the last car was out of sight, down and out of the lane.
Once the coast was clear then ‘Law, Best, Eusebio, Pele and Greaves’ took to the field. Sometimes they didn’t take the nets down and we were in heaven.
The sound of our plastic ball hitting the net was music to our young ears. You always had to shout who you wanted to be. I always managed to be Denis Law. My cousin once shouted he was Johnny Giles, that wonderful Leeds United two-footed player with fabulous passing skills.
Harry couldn’t pass, shoot or control a ball but he owned the plastic one so if he wanted to be Giles then we were quite happy!
We stayed ‘til dark. We wore the same shoes we had for school.
The most important thing was striking that ‘cobweb’.
We had no mobiles or computers but after the tv programme ‘The Big Match’ on a Sunday that was the signal for us all to make our way to the Cricket Park.
As we grew older some of us played in the famous Hughes Cup. There were no 70,000 cr owds not even a prawn sandwich in sight but the magical Cricket Park was our ‘Theatre of Dreams’. ‘