High Noon showdown at St Johnston
SHOWDOWN AT ST JOHNSTON AS LAST DAY DRAMA LOOMS
Eighteen league matches and as many or as few cup games as clubs could earn themselves and it all comes down to the last day of the Division 1 campaign on Saturday with something very special required to prevent the title heading back to Strabane and the Saints heading back to Division 2. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look back at all the runners and riders and where things were won and lost but for now it looks like being quite a finale to both Divisions of the Billy Henderson Properties league.
At the top of senior 1 Strabane are in pole position; Jonathan Beukes side would have had your arm off at the start of the season if they were offered the chance to go to Limavady on the final day with the title up for grabs, so with all due respect, to be going to the Saints is a total result for them. The Red Caps have been really good this season and as well as being in control of the title race they had a cup final appearance and made the last four of the Club Turf – not bad for a side who lost their top run scorer from last year and played a month of the season without either of their opening bowlers in the team. Skipper Jonathan Beukes has been solid without being outstanding therefore it isn’t difficult to work out where the impetus has come from and although we will obviously take a look at Strabane’s season in depth in due course, the brothers have accumulated nearly two and a half thousand runs and 75 wickets between them.
Peter Gillespie had a very interesting take on their season when we spoke recently, the Ireland cap centurion reasoning that for the past couple of seasons there has been no “dominant force” in North West cricket. “Usually you find one side going through a period of dominance that could go on for several years; Donemana, Limavady and Brigade have all done so in the past couple of decades. That dominance can be difficult to end but for the past two years no-one has been way ahead of the pack and I think we have taken most advantage of that”
The fact that Strabane will be going to St Johnston is littered with irony, not least because the visitors can have no room for sentiment in the fate of their hosts. Andrew Fleming’s side of course was the last team to beat the champions elect in the league but there is nothing about revenge on this agenda. Strabane have a job to do and by doing it well they will rubber stamp the Donegal club’s early return to Division 2.
I say rubber stamp as relegation is never about one game and as we noted in detail last week, this has probably been on the cards for a while. The Saints have a wonderful opportunity to crack on from here regardless of what happens on Saturday and now have a firm structure in place both in terms of facility and catchment. They marched through Division 2 with more or less the same team last time but have proved once again that the gulf between the two leagues is as wide as it has ever been. I’m sure that if they do go down they won’t be away for long and I would hazard a guess that they may do things just a little differently next time.
Eglinton will have breathed a huge sigh of relief following their win on Saturday and the powers that be at the village club are experienced enough to know that they can’t let two wins against the same side over the course of a season paper over the cracks. The North West needs Eglinton fit and firing and doing what they do best, which is hosting top class cricket. They were hit by serious personnel losses just before the season started but instead of rallying and regrouping, the heads went down from the start. You can’t do that at this level and get away with it and it could have been very costly in any other year. That said; Johnny Gardiner, Chris Pierce, Stephen McCloskey and Karl O’Doherty can all hold their heads high whilst the benefit of all that coaching is also starting to shine through among the younger members of the club.
Brigade’s win over Bready at the weekend will count for little if Strabane go on to complete the job but the manner in which Mark Simpson’s side carried out their work was ruthless in the extreme. It’s quite possible that the loss at Donemana earlier in the week had taken the wind out of Bready’s sails but they were never at the races on Saturday. I took in a bit of that game and whilst Brigade were impressive in every department I have a tiny observation. Spin bowlers will always get hit for fours and sixes; many of them feel it’s the tools of the trade but some take it more personally than others. A little edge is great in any sport and Lord knows we could often be doing with a bit of livening up ourselves but I’ve often wondered why it’s always number 8’s or 9’s who are targeted for a “send off” at the end of a bat v ball joust.
Anyway, business now seems sure to be finalised in Division 1 this weekend but it’s beginning to look more and more likely that matters in Division 2 may require a little longer. On Saturday past Ardmore hit Killyclooney for 333 runs in their 45 overs, losing just 2 wickets in the process while at the same time Bonds Glen were hammering Burndennett in similarly emphatic fashion. Ardmore have been very impressive in the league this season and have improved week on week as the campaign progressed. They have lost just twice all season, ironically to the Bee Gees on both occasions whereas their fellow challengers have been fantastic on all fronts.
Gary Hamilton’s side had threatened to break into the promotion race many times in the past decade without ever really seeing it through but it would be a brave man who would bet against them now. They have a home game against Ballyspallen this Saturday which, with the greatest respect in the world to Clive Rodgers’ side should pose few problems. A win there moves them joint top with Ardmore with both sides then having one game each before quite possibly squaring up thereafter in a promotion play-off. One thing that will no doubt be playing on the Bee Gees minds’ is that they have steadfastly refused to become involved in the pay to play scene and have never even contemplated bringing a professional. Should they go up this season that approach will require a major re-think not least in light of St Johnston’s experience this year. That is something the club will deal with as they see fit however and for now Gary Hamilton will be thinking about nothing other than Ballyspallen on Saturday.
So this is it for Strabane and St Johnston and weather permitting the quiet Donegal village will become the capital of North West cricket on Saturday afternoon. No visiting side has left that venue empty handed in 2010 and Strabane will be fervently hoping that they aren’t the first. The Red Caps may have broken their title hoodoo with a share of the trophy last season but you can bet your bottom dollar that no matter what was said in 2009, winning it on their own steam on Saturday will mean so much more. You don’t win titles by accident of course and few would deny that their record this season is deserving of the honour that goes with the championship. The Saints will see this as their final chance to wrestle something from the season and that will make them a very dangerous opponent so the very best of luck to both of them.
I believe several clubs have taken steps to start their matches at noon on Saturday as well. What a great idea that is………