To many observers, one man above any other epitomised the great North Down team who dominated NCU cricket for more than a decade.
It’s remarkable to consider it in retrospect but when the 1999 cricket season got under way, Robin Haire was 38-years-old and had never once lifted the coveted Senior League trophy.
There had been three Irish Cups, Challenge Cup victories at North Down and, people may forget, during a spell at Downpatrick, but the league title was still eluding this former Ireland international as he entered his veteran years.
In 1999 Haire returned from Downpatrick to play with one of the most talented group of young players the NCU had seen.
“Unfortunately during my Downpatrick stay North Down were relegated,” he said. “This however gave the youngsters the chance to build confidence in themselves and they were promoted back to Senior 1 the following year. So by 1999 when I arrived back at the club, and a certain Taimur Khan was signed, I knew we had a decent side. It soon became evident, after winning our first six games with Ryan Haire, Andrew White, Peter Shields, Neil Russell, Marty Moreland all contributing, we had more than a decent side.”
Like all great teams, North Down never rested on their laurels after that 1999 title, under Shields strengthening the squad almost every winter, but to the outside observer, you felt it wouldn’t have been quite the same without Robin Haire, the daddy of the team, digging them out of trouble in the event of early wickets, or taking the game out of the reach with some ferocious hitting at the end of an innings.
“From David Kennedy’s arrival in 2003 my role was around six or seven in the batting line-up,” Haire continued. “I enjoyed this immensely as I was able to adapt to different situations, either trying to score quick runs or staying around in the few times we had bad starts. It was certainly a very enjoyable 10 years playing in such a talented side, seven league titles, six Senior Cup wins, two Ulster Cup wins and two T20 wins.”
Haire is glowing in his praise of Khan, the Pakistan all-rounder. “Taimur Khan was simply the best professional around during our successful decade. A very gifted and adaptable cricketer, in his pomp he won games on his own. During that era we encouraged Taimur to outplay the opposition professional, this he did and more. He was the catalyst to our success.”
If there was a regret during North Down’s unparalleled success in the NCU, it was the failure to crack the Irish Cup. But, as Haire rightly points out, circumstances were against them.
“Of course it is a massive regret that we weren’t able to lift the Irish cup during that dominating period but let’s not forget I distinctly remember a quite brilliant North County side winning it five times,” he said. “We just didn’t perform when we needed to on several occasions, although it was quite strange playing against three or four foreigners every time we went south of the border and our own Taimur Khan had to sit and watch from the sidelines.”
After 33 seasons, and at the age of 47, Haire called it a day in 2008, but his career wasn’t just about that final golden period. He recalls North Down as a “yo-yo team” in the 1970s, not good enough for Section One but too good for the second tier. The arrival of a professional, Michael Reith of Waringstown, in 1980, changed all that and arguably began a new era.
“A proven winner and current Irish international, Michael changed the club’s attitude to a winning one, lifting the Senior Cup in 1981. He had a massive influence in shaping my cricket career during those three years, being a superb tactician and having that hunger to succeed,” he said.
“The three Irish Cup wins in 1989, 1993,and 1995 were huge highlights in both North Down’s history and mine. We also reached three Senior Cup finals in that six-year period, winning one and tieing one. The 1995 win over Bready was particularly pleasing as it was played in front of a huge crowd at The Green, with the great Sir Everton Weekes presenting me with the trophy.”
Haire described it as a “massive wrench” to leave North Down in 1996, but Jim Patterson, the Downpatrick captain, “was very persuasive”. He went on to enjoy one of his most successful batting summers at Strangford Road.
He speaks with refreshing honesty about his regrets over an Ireland career cut uncomfortably short.
“I got selected for the Ireland tour to Zimbabwe in December/January 1985/86 and played in four games against some top-class cricketers such as Graeme Hick, Dave Houghton, Andy and Grant Flowr and Kevin Curran. I did quite well on the tour and was optimistic that more caps would follow if I kept performing at club and provincial level but it didn’t happen.
“During my twenties I probably ruffled a few people up the wrong way but I was one for saying what I thought and was told on numerous occasions that it hadn’t helped my cause. So looking back I suppose there is a tinge of regret on my part.”
Robin recalls the influence of his parents on his sporting interests and cricket career. “My father was a huge follower of football and cricket.From my early primary school years I was taken to Ards football matches, indeed my local hero was Billy Mcavoy who won the irish cup for Ards in 1969, scoring all four goals against Distillery in the final in front of 25,000 spectators at Windsor Park.
“Dad was also able to organise for me to meet my idol George Best several times at Castlereagh Park as Northern Ireland trained there regularly, so football was really my first love. In 1972 I joined Regent House school.D.A. McMaster and Charlie Corry, who was the opening batsman for Cregagh were my cricket tutors.
“Many hours were spent bowling to Charlie in school, enticed by the 50 pence he placed on top of the stumps, if I bowled him the money was mine. Suffice to say it didn’t happen too often.
“Both my parents were very supportive and regularly attended school and club matches throughout Ireland. They contrasted very well with mum giving out the praises and dad urging me on to keep improving my game. I miss their company greatly.”
When Robin finally called in quits there were no regrets. “I played senior cricket for 33 seasons so I had a wonderful innings. Yes it was difficult to let go as it was so enjoyable, especially the latter years playing in the same team with my two sons Ryan and Andrew, but fielding was becoming irksome so it was time to bow out.”