Millpark may have exited the Goldblatt McGuigan Junior Cup at the quarter-final stage last weekend, but it was obvious from the messages on Twitter that the club had made a lot of new friends.
For most of the Lisburn team it was probably their first time at the ground, but the compliments were flowing about the setting, the wicket, the teas and hospitality in general. The problem for Millpark is an on-going battle to keep and recruit players, a challenge I am seeing replicated across a number of clubs.
Just prior to the start of this season the club were at least being proactive and sending tweets to all the sports clubs in the area asking for new members to come along.
On Monday that initiative was taken to a new level as more than 120 school children flocked to the ground to take part in a day of coaching in conjunction with the NCU, Cricket Ireland Development team and the University of Ulster.
Pupils from Bocombra, Moyallon, Edenderry and Abercorn Primary Schools, all benefited from the experience at Banford Green.
Nigel Jones is the Cricket Ireland Regional Development Officer in the NCU and for him it was another box ticked in terms of grounds he had visited.
“It’s amazing, there you are just driving along, suddenly you turn a corner and there is a cricket ground,” he said. “Absolutely stunning setting with the trees all around and the big house on the hill overlooking the pitch looks like a great place to play.”
For a moment I thought he was describing his home ground at Stormont!
Credit to both NCU and University of Ulster for linking up to put something like this in place. NCU Chairman, Andy Clement, despite heading off on holidays yesterday, took the time to come down to Millpark to lend his support.
The real driving force behind it though is the University of Ulster and I spoke with Nigel Dobson, the Head of Sports Services.
“What we are looking to do is to help develop a link with the schools and via that to the clubs,” he explained. “We have five students who are doing this as part of their degree course; the local one here is Ryan Dennison.
“We have developed the idea of five clusters throughout the province and then we will act as facilitators with the clubs and schools. There are even £2,000 scholarships available from the Department for Employment and Learning leading to the award of the Advanced Certificate in Management Practice.
“Originally we did not have cricket as part of the programme, but when we thought about it there was an easy win, when you consider former students such as Kyle McCallan, Andrew White and Ryan Haire.
“Equally you do not necessarily have to be doing a sports degree to take part and it also reduces your tariff by 40 points for entry. We plan to have another five in our new intake in September with an ultimate aim of around 35 being available to work with schools; this will be their third year placement.”
So where does Nigel Jones and Cricket Ireland fit into this?
“Really I am here to support and if I can offer advice, it is great to see this partnership flourish. When this reaches its full potential we can have people reporting back into both the NCU and the University.
“Days like today are fantastic; but I want to ensure that it is actually sustainable. I have been chatting to Paul McCart and it is up to me to give guidance around how the club take this to the next level.
“It is all about having a development plan for the club going forward and I have a real sense of Paul’s enthusiasm for his club and I see my role as harnessing that and growing the playing numbers both here at Millpark and throughout the province.”
So how was it for Millpark? I asked Paul McCart, club captain.
He said: “We are a small club but we have a history going back to the war, founded in 1939, when the ground was on the other side of the road. The mill house you see up above was owned by David Cook, a founder member of the Alliance Party and former Lord Mayor of Belfast.
“The club negotiated with him to buy the land and expand the ground, which we were able to do with the support of Lottery funding and our trustees, so now we have control over our own destiny.
“Our finest years were probably in the late 1990’s when we won Section Four and shared the Junior Cup in a tied game in 1999. We have had many fine players and we need to develop more young players to secure our future.
“A day like today has to be the beginning for us not the end. We intend to follow this up with another family fun day on 18 July when we hope many of the pupils here today will come back to play again and bring their parents with them.”
A fine heritage indeed, a quick look inside the pavilion and you are met with pictures of former Ireland internationals, David Dennison and Noel and Alan Nelson, all of them started and ended their careers at Millpark.
Great to see the support from coaches like Nigel Jones, Cliftonville’s Andy McCulloch and Carrickfergus’ Indrajeet Kamtekar.
For Nigel Dobson it was just another building block in an on-going process, next stop closer to home tomorrow with another youth festival at Jordanstown. On my part, I am reminded what Andrew White said to me: “Clubs need schools and schools need clubs.”
There is, however, an onus on both to make it mutually attractive.