I have probably lost count of the number of times Downpatrick captain Paul Tate has invited me down to The Meadow to watch a game. Previously I have said yes only to be scuppered by the weather.
He even went as far as extolling the virtues of the teas, which by the way he was not wrong about! So when I announced on Twitter that I would be there last weekend he came back with, “Good man, with all those big games on you are choosing us?”
The reasoning was pretty simple; two clubs with a great Challenge Cup tradition, going through what might be described as a difficult period in their existence. Roll the clock back about 50 years and I guarantee Downpatrick v Woodvale would have been game of the round; Strangford Road would have been jam packed.
Downpatrick has won the Irish Senior Cup twice and the Senior League and Challenge Cup both on six occasions. For many years it was home to the Challenge Cup final and hosted numerous Ireland international matches.
Off the field facilities are of the highest standard, including boasting an excellent restaurant; however the playing side has slipped from the glory days, with the club last achieving Challenge Cup success in 1997.
To those who know the game certain names are synonymous with particular clubs; at Lisburn it is Cecil Walker, at Waringstown, Roy Harrison, at Downpatrick that name is Alfie Linehan.
Getting out of my car just after the match had commenced I glanced along the vehicles parked looking directly across the ground; I spotted him watching every ball intently. It seemed almost sacrilege to interrupt, but he beckoned me over.
Perhaps it is worth reflecting at this stage that five of those league successes came whilst Alfie was in the team. A softly spoken man, but time has not dimmed the steely glint in his eyes, doubtless the same look with which he fixed opposing bowlers in his pomp.
Currently he is club President, a role he fulfilled with pride for both the NCU and Ireland. As the home side slipped to 46 for 4 it was apparent that he was not best pleased with shot selection.
I took his leave and wandered round with Paul Tate, chatting about the game: “The Challenge Cup is for me still the best club competition around locally and I would really love us to get a run in it,” he said.
“Not a great start here today, this is a key part of the game that we have talked about, we just need to knuckle down and grind out a competitive total.
“The ambition has to be to get back into the Premier League but it is not the be all and end all. We are struggling to get young players to come through at the moment. Aaron Cairns who is batting, a good talent, but next week he heads off to New Zealand to play rugby.
“You got to respect things like that it is not his number one sport. Young Thomas Magowan is on crutches and we don’t know when he will play again. We have experience in myself and Dale Mullan who played in that 1997 final plus Gavin Ringland, batting with Aaron at the moment.”
We will return to Ringland, but we were joined by David Rea the club chairman and Paul who was obviously living every ball, sprinted onto the pitch as drinks were being taking to encourage his colleagues.
David highlighted the problems faced by the illustrious club: “We probably only have about 35 players registered at the moment so it is a struggle to get out a 3rd eleven. A number of our younger players are missing for a variety of reasons, perhaps that is a slight positive in that it is not all for one reason.
“This year we will not have an Under 15 side, or a Colts but we still have an Under 13’s going. We are working with the local schools such as Downpatrick Primary, Cedar Integrated, Derryboy, Blackwater and of course there is the on-going partnership with Down High School.
“I suppose if I was looking at one thing that would help it would be that some former players, if you like made a reinvestment in the club and put a little back into the game, but it is definitely not easy at the moment.”
As an outsider perhaps my comment would be that this looks like an area ripe for assistance or a resource from within the NCU, if they have not already offered.
On the field, things are starting to look a little better now with Ringland playing a few shots. Another true Downpatrick man, what could be better than to make runs on a wicket you have prepared yourself, then you can truly say it was a perfect batting strip.
As Ringland reaches 50 I glance to the car park, a door opens and the great man is on his feet applauding. Believe me we were watching an innings of quality, Ringland perhaps better know as a hitter was batting with maturity, now in the company of another veteran Dale Mullan.
He was out in the last over; 85 from 95 balls with nine fours and as he walked off to a standing ovation for a fleeting moment I thought I noticed a smile in the direction of the car park.
Woodvale set off like a train in pursuit of the 185 required for victory, but in truth once Tate handed the ball to Amit Patil and Dale Mullan it was all over. Ten wickets fell for 50 and between them the two bowlers bowled 20 overs for 40 runs, with seven wickets for good measure.
Man of the match adjudicator, who else but Alfie Linehan. Such was the domination of Gavin Ringland that the next highest score on either side was 27. I think Alfie himself would have been proud of that one.