It was a Sunday, I’m not sure exactly what year, definitely in the mid-90s. The venue was Wallace Park and the two best NCU sides of the moment had each other (metaphorically) by the throat.
Lisburn, with Neil Doak and Derek Heasley at the peak of their cricketing powers, were engaged in an enthralling battle with Cliftonville, young, brash and talkative, all clad in matching bright red caps.
The Patterson brothers, Mark and Andy, and Kyle McCallan, were the on-field cheerleaders with the talent to back up the chat, the overseas pro was an evergreen Kamal Merchant, and they were captained by Alan Neill, the veteran batsman.
An enduring image of that afternoon is of a dynamic Doak crashing Mark Patterson, an Ireland team-mate, back over his head for six, as Lisburn edged out this team of confident, perhaps cocky young players.
It was a battle for the NCU ages. Between 1995 and 1997 Cliftonville were NCU champions three times, winning it outright in ‘95 and ‘97, and sharing it with that very fine Lisburn side in ‘96.
But one by one, that Cliftonville team was gradually eroded. Neill was already in the twilight of his career and county cricket lured both Pattersons away. Andy enjoyed a stint with Surrey and Mark, who had genuine pace, was also at The Oval before persistent back injuries ensured he never fulfilled his potential. Both brothers took teaching jobs in England and have never returned home to live.
In later years came perhaps the watershed moment as McCallan, in 2005, switched to Waringstown, partly because he had moved home to Portadown and partly because of the likelihood of winning more club trophies at The Lawn. Jonathan Terrett, another homegrown member of that mid-90s team, also went through the exit door, joining the then dominant force in the NCU game, North Down.
As the exodus went on things reached a grim nadir. Cliftonville, a club who once looked poised to dominate NCU cricket for many years, were staring into the abyss.
2008 was the annus horriblis, Cliftonville were relegated from the top flight and lost eight first-team players and an entire youth section and then left their long-time Greenisland home following a dispute. But for the determination of a few, including Neil Cahill and Davy Munn, who knows where it would all have ended up.
Things stabilised following the relocation to Mallusk and a partnership in late 2013 with the University of Ulster. The club has looked to relocate its base to Jordanstown and courtesy of a joint investment, were able to instal indoor nets, an artificial pitch and outdoor nets. Perhaps most crucially, the club’s once thriving youth section is strong once more and the first team has a young skipper in Matthew McCord.
There was more heartache, relegation to the third tier of the NCU took place in 2015, before the green shoots of recovery last summer with an immediate return courtesy of winning Section Two. Terrett, now in his late 30s, has returned from Comber while Brian Anderson, who led the attack two decades ago, is still running in strong for the first team.
Which all brings us to last Saturday and the bizarre row over about Paul Stirling’s appearance for Cliftonville against Armagh in NCU Section One.
While he was obviously way too young to have played a role in those great Cliftonville teams of the 1990s, Stirling is almost a last flickering symbol of that glorious era. Like the Pattersons, McCallan and Terrett, Stirling is one of Cliftonville’s own, the local boy made good, a player who everyone in the NCU should cherish and most do. He is one of the most exciting batsmen that Ulster cricket has produced, good enough and confident enough to treat some of the world’s leading bowlers with disdain, not to mention county attacks week in and week out in white ball cricket in England.
What local cricketer, you think, wouldn’t want the opportunity to play against such a precocious talent?
Armagh’s frenzied reaction to Stirling’s century off little more than 50 balls has been well documented but has received precious little sympathy.
Firstly, Cliftonville played an undeniably crucial part in Stirling’s development so when the Middlesex player decided, with a weekend off back at home, that he would give something back to his first club, who would deny him that right? We should be thankful that Stirling, and indeed Gary Wilson with CSNI before him, wants to put something back into the local game, that he hasn’t become so accustomed to the good life that he has forgotten his roots. I played against Wilson in second and third eleven cricket when he was barely 15, and there is something strangely wonderful about his social media posts willing on his boyhood club, celebrating their success and mourning their defeats.
No rules were broken. After all NCU clubs voted last winter at their annual general meeting to continue allowing Irish first-class players the right to play at a level below the Premier League.
It should have been an afternoon to cherish. The ensuing row smacks of sour grapes.