When George Best wowed the crowds at a packed Cricket Park

The Cricket Park in Ballymoney may sadly be no longer with us, but it will live long in the memory of football fans in the area.

Friday, 5th June 2020, 5:21 pm
George Best (back row, second from right) pictured with the Ballymoney Select side

It may have been called Cricket Park but football was the name of the game at the famous old ground in the north Antrim town.

Numerous Northern Ireland internationals graced the turf, which is now the site of a supermarket.

Four of ‘Our Wee Country’s’ greatest goalkeepers - Harry Gregg, Iam McFaul, Jim Platt and Pat Jennings - all appeared there.

Relaxing in the changing room before the game

Platt in fact played centre-forward for his local Coleraine team and once scored a hat-trick in the Hughes Cup, which was played at the pitch, attracting teams from all over the country.

Writing in the Ballymoney Times, local man Johnny McDaid recalled growing up in the area and the excitement of watching the games.

“We had no mobiles or computers but after the television programme ‘The Big Match’ on a Sunday that was the signal for us all to make our way to the Cricket Park,” he said.

“As we grew older some of us played in the famous Hughes Cup. There were no 70,000 crowds not even a prawn sandwich in sight but the magical Cricket Park was our ‘Theatre of Dreams’.”

The team sheet from the night

Northern Ireland’s greatest ever player also graced the turf at the Ballymoney venue.

George Best, who won two First Division titles with Manchester United as well as the European Cup, is widely remembered as one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game.

In 1984 he gave the people of Ballymoney the opportunity to see his silky skills up close when he played in an exhibition match at the Cricket Park.

The game between a NW International XI and Ballymoney Select was an exhibition match with part of the proceeds going towards a new heart monitor at the former Route Hospital in the town

Playing alongside Best was Coleraine favourite Dessie Dickson, former Middlesborough and Northern Ireland keeper Jim Platt, Roy Coyle and the legendary Jackie Fullerton.

Gerry McAleese, a long-standing committee member with Ballymoney United, had fond memories of the game, which unsurprisingly drew massive crowds - all wanting to see the main man.

“I was always a big fan of George Best and had been fortunate to have met him on a number of occasions but it was really special to have him play in Ballymoney,” he told the Ballymoney Times.

“There were huge crowds at the game at the Cricket Park and the club was coming down with people all wanting to meet him or get a photograph with him.

“I had a drink with him after the game but because we were so busy trying to deal with the huge crowd of people I forgot to get my photo with him or even to get an autograph.

“I still have the ticket and programme from the game and Admission was only £2, which is hard to believe.”

The match report from the local paper said: ‘George had a quiet first half as did most of the other past masters on view, with the North West dictating most of the play.

Former Coleraine star Jimmy Nicholl put the North West one up after 20 minutes and the score remained that way for the rest of the half.

All the real action came in the second half when the Ballymoney Select clicked into gear.

A particular favourite was Coleraine star Dickson, who was born in the town, and who actually played alongside Best in the Northern Ireland team against Scotland at Windsor Park and against Wales in Swansea 14 years prior.

He tormented the North West defence in the second half. Best got himself on the scoresheet when he equalised from the penalty spot after former Leeds United and Ards player Billy Humphries was brought down in the box.

Excitement reached fever pitch when Best put the home side in front when he cleverly beat the keeper from an Arthur Stewart cross.

The goal of the game came after Best sent Dickson away with the Showgrounds favourite brilliantly lobbing over the head of the keeper.

One of the biggest cheers of the night came when ex-Coleraine player Johnny McCurdy, who came on for injured Hibs player Bill McMurdo, scored after being sent through by Dickson.

With 10 minutes left, Fullerton scored a brilliant goal to make it 5-1 with the North West equalising through John Duffy of Finn Harps to make it 5-2.’

Watching on from the sidelines that night was a 19-year-old Paul McFeeley.

He was a player with Ballymoney United at the time who ended up having a spell at Coleraine after he was signed by Jim Platt, who played on the Ballymoney Select side in the exhibition game.

“I remember Dessie Dickson scoring with a lob and Johnny McCurdy coming on as sub,” he recalled in the Ballymoney Times.

“It was probably the biggest crowd I ever saw at the Cricket Park.

“I was a young player at Ballymoney United at the time and there was much excitement leading up to the game as you could imagine all the players were hoping they might get a chance to be selected to play alongside the great Best.

“Eventually Derek McComb and Billy Atkinson, who had both been long and loyal servants as players at Ballymoney United, were selected to play.

“It was great to meet Best briefly as he mingled with the crowd in Ballymoney United’s old social club after the game and I got my programme signed.

“Best had turned out for Tobermore United against Ballymena in the Irish cup in February of that year and I was lucky to be at that game too.”

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