Saints up for the fight in survival battle

St Johnston veteran Andrew Fleming
St Johnston veteran Andrew Fleming

No subject has probably been debated more in North West and NCU cricket this summer than the merits of the respective eight-team premier leagues.

There are fierce critics of the set-up, with some clubs openly declaring that they don’t want to seek promotion to the top flight.

There are others in the top flight, most notably Lisburn and Ballymena in the NCU, who are honest enough to admit that they wouldn’t view relegation as a big disappointment.

However, St Johnston, back in the North West Premiership after an absence of four years, seem to have a more optimistic take on life in the top flight, despite their early struggles.

Last Saturday’s 87-run thumping of Ardmore at The Boathole has put a spring in the step of a young side that had previously lost four consecutive league matches. It was also a remarkable piece of history as the first time St Johnston had recorded a home league victory in the top flight for 22 years.

“1993 was probably the last time,” said veteran Andrew Fleming. “When we were last up in 2010 we didn’t win a game at home so it was nice to get one as a reward for the hard work the young lads have put in.

“What we have done with the youngsters is starting to pay off. They are a bit raw but they are certainly better than they were showing right at the start of the season.”

As the chairman of the North West, Fleming is a high-profile advocate of the eight-team top flight. However, he equally acknowledges the gaps that exist between the top two divisions in each of the northern unions.

He claimed St Johnston’s policy of shunning an overseas professional in the Championship had prepared them better for the Premiership.

“The big difference between this team and the last one that came up in 2010 is the average age of the players. This time it’s around 24 but it was more like 34 back then. That’s a big difference and it’s showing in the field.

“Also we came up without a pro and to do that you have to already have a decent side. Sides have gone up in the past on the back of a good pro and I think that can be a problem. In my opinion you need to be good enough in your own right without an overseas pro.

“That might stand us in good stead but not having one in the Premiership might hold us back.”

Fleming insists that team spirit, coupled with the unique features of The Boathole, can be their aces in what promises to be a fascinating relegation battle.

“It is a unique ground and I don’t think anyone will relish coming here,” he added. “It’s very spin friendly in terms of the way it’s set up.

“The win against Ardmore was massive. If we had lost we would have been cut adrift at the bottom. Ourselves, Ardmore, Bready and Strabane are all down there.”