They might be one of the great bastions of NCU and Ulster cricket, but ‘North’ have been through more than their fair share of near crises over the past two decades.
While Waringstown and North Down, the two other traditionally most successful cricket clubs in the NCU, have continued along their merry way, the path has nowhere near been as straightforward for Civil Service North, as they are now known.
But after two Challenge Cup successes in the last three years, it seemed that the Stormont club were embarking on an exciting new era, a talented first eleven squad coupled with successful junior teams,
But the stunning weather of the last fortnight is not reflected in the mood off the Upper Newtownards Road. Andrew Cowden’s team, without a win three matches this season, go into today’s daunting Irish Cup tie at The Hills with player-coach Shane Getkate having finally departed to Instonians after a protracted and sometimes bitter ‘will he or won’t he’ saga.
Of course it would be wrong to blow the importance of Getkate’s departure out of all proportion or even to start beating the relegation drum so early in the season.
But, following the hammer blow of Jason van der Merwe’s move to neighbours CSNI in the autumn, Getkate’s switch to Shaw’s Bridge leaves CSNI favourites for the drop and may herald uncertain times at a club that has had to come back from the brink several times before.
Ormeau, North’s former home, was one of the great Irish cricketing venues, full of character and history, but after it hosted its final fixture in 2001, the club stood at a difficult crossroads.
The club of Irish internationals like the great Simon Corlett and Paul Jackson had won the Challenge Cup, the most prestigious and famous of the NCU’s competitions, 20 times by the time it changed its identity to Belfast Harlequins.
But the change of name and move to Deramore off the Malone Road was not a success.
While the base had been at Ormeau, there was a natural feed from Campbell College and Queen’s University students. But when the club moved to south Belfast and later became Belfast Harlequins in 2002, the students from Campbell did not follow, Queen’s cricket set-up folded and nearby Methodist was not a school of notable cricketing strength. With Academy, Cooke and Instonians already established in the area, there was too much competition, and it’s not an exaggeration to say the club’s future was hanging in the balance.
A handful of senior players, including then captain Wayne Horwood, Stephen Dyer, Gary Wilson, Allen Coulter and Neil Black were instrumental in holding things together and another relocation took place to Stormont.
Times were tough, with the club now in the second tier, and battling for a slice of the pie with CIYMS just half a mile away and well-established North Down at nearby Comber.
But it is a tribute to the hard work behind the scenes that Civil Service North became a force again. Since those tough early days at Stormont, the youth set-up has grown beyond recognition, with 150 children receiving regular coaching, including 90 from primary schools. There are around 20 girls playing regularly and the second eleven, so strong in recent seasons until several winter departures, includes four to five under-15s.
There were several important figures in the renaissance, not least Ewen Thompson, the New Zeland professional who, according to Horwood, “changed attitudes”. He said: “ET was passionate, he rallied people, he was not always everyone’s favourite but always wanted the right thing for the club and became part of the furniture.”
Nigel Jones, the New Zealand born all-rounder, was also key. He struggled in his 2006 debut season but soon found his feet realising, according to Horwood, how good his seam bowling could be. The Challenge Cup followed in 2008, when only a technicality prevented them sharing the title with North Down, and Jones became an Irish international. The 2008 team, which also included Regan West and occasionally Wilson back from county duties with Surrey, was highly formidable.
Various successes followed under Jones and several near misses but many predicted the club’s demise again when Jones went to CIYMS for the 2015 season, but even then there was resilience and an unexpected cup triumph over CIYMS inspired by Getkate and van der Merwe last summer.
But with both cup final heroes gone, John Costain edging towards retirement and several fringe players having moved on, these are testing times for everyone at Stormont. The reality now is that CSNI may have to take a couple of steps back before they can go forward again.
If there are tough times ahead, and that looks highly likely, history shows that this is a cricket club that will fight back from adversity, and isn’t resigned to its fight. A popular club among many in the NCU, most will wish them luck.