The Interviews: Heartbeat of the Side

When the concept for ‘The Interviews’ was conceived there would have been few more wildly anticipated than that of Ricky McLarnon. The custodian of the First XI gloves for more than a decade, McLarnon arrives at the Albany on the Lisburn Road in fine spirits, relishing the opportunity to discuss twenty-five years of commitment to the Bangor cause along with many other aspects of NCU / Irish cricket. Never one to shy away from controversy and with the club lawyers sitting nervously at the next table, there will be no lemon and ginger herbal tea drunk tonight. Of course, one such controversy threatened to derail McLarnon’s glittering career, at a relatively early stage.

“When you take into consideration everything, I was man of the match. Well, not the actual man of the match, one of the Lisburn boys was probably man of the match – the guy who took eight wickets. We were all out for 40 and I was second top scorer with seven. I’m pretty sure I took the catch as well for their one wicket, so I was definitely a candidate on the Bangor side.”

A massive grin goes some way to unravelling the spin put on this opening gambit. Back in 2005, Ricky and another member had just arrived back from university and were called up, late in the week, to the 2nd XI. Always available, Ricky was keen to play but did explain that he had plans on the Friday evening, “I told the skipper that there was more than a fair chance that both of us would not be in a fit state to play, but we were available if necessary. The event was pre-scheduled. We couldn’t get out of it, but we arrived on time. Not in great shape but on time.” I’ve spoken with Ricky on numerous occasions through the years because, to this day, I still don’t buy the ‘whiter than white’ telling of events. “So, you had no indication, at all” I probe, “that some of your team-mates were unhappy with your ‘performance’?”

“There was nothing said about it on the day. I got the call from Simbo while I was at my summer job in Argos. I was informed that there was no space in the five teams Bangor were due to field that week. Feedback had been received at selection that I had acted inappropriately and that I wouldn’t be selected that week.” On hearing the news that he wasn’t to be part of the club’s plans for that week, Ricky acted with the same indignation as he holds now, “I asked for my subs back and declared myself unavailable for the rest of the season. Every Saturday, I took a cool-box packed full of cans down to the Conn McCall bench and cheered on the boys in full view of everyone at the club.”

It’s a typical McLarnon response and one that has me laughing even now. Forgetting the rights and wrongs of the situation, cricketers are sensitive souls at heart and many would never have been seen again at the club having been, in their mind, so viciously singled out. Thankfully, Ricky made his peace with the club at the beginning of the following season. The story now resigned to folklore, he has been a constant presence around the club ever since. He went onto captain the First XI for three seasons from 2012-2014 and even now he remains the heartbeat of the side and very much it’s humour.

For Ricky, the motivation to play cricket remains the same as the day he started, “Although we all complain about the length of the games there are few games that give you a hall pass to be with your mates for all of the day. I love playing with guys I’ve grown up with, guys from the same town, especially when you play on a winning team. That’s why I can’t fathom clubs who hire guns who don’t know each other to play in Section One.” I see where this is going and I’m anxious to keep the interview from spiralling out of control, but I can’t contain it, “Like seriously, the money in cricket through a number of rich benefactors is baffling. What do you do when the money dries up or the benefactor has changed his mind and you’re left with a number of guys who don’t have any affinity with the club they find themselves at? Or the team gets promoted and half of the team are dumped in favour of more talented players that can help them compete in the league above? The original clubmen will leave, and you’re left with a massive problem.”

It’s a valid point and one that this process would be remiss to ignore. Ricky takes the example of Bangor and especially his successor as Captain, Mark English and his brother Paddy, “Do you think Mark and Paddy are going to come back into the fold to play on a team with people they don’t know or have never even heard of? They just wouldn’t want to. These are the guys that we need to get back into local cricket. The guys who have gone away either due to family or work commitments. Their considerable talents still have a place in our club, but it just wouldn’t happen if the community of the club is decimated.”

It is clear McLarnon is passionate about this idea of community and respect. He goes on to illustrate it beautifully, explaining how a meeting with Club Chairman Chris Escott at the beginning of 2018 turned our club around. “We had a problem with negativity. It happens when you play cricket and especially if you are losing matches. Chris simply pointed out that this needed to change by invoking the names of Bangor Cricket Club legends that had children who were now starting to play the game. When you hear the names of Chris Yeates, Andrew Williamson, Stuart Johnson, Paddy McMillan and the Chairman to name but a few, you remember how they played the game, you know you owe it to them to provide a serious set-up to give their kids something to aspire to. Escott was quite clear with us, ‘if you don’t want to play, then don’t’. To a man, we agreed. We said no negativity and we had what I believe to be the best season since 2004.”

To hear these words from a Bangor stalwart, like Ricky, points further to the club as a collective realising what they are trying to achieve. We both discuss the fact that we are proud to be members of a club that has this sense of community and moreover have only ever paid one player in a season to play cricket. This fact gives us a moral high ground and it’s one that the team like to utilise to our advantage. I’m interested in how that manifests itself on the field. Ricky is only too happy to tell me, “You know you can have all the money in the world but if you fail to provide a beer at the end of the match, what sort of club are you?!! Other clubs get annoyed by us being factual, whether that’s on social media or in the course of a match, they seem to have a massive problem with it. I get annoyed when I have to take a tweet down because someone from another club, who started on our great club, is threatening to write a letter to the NCU. As for people selling ballot tickets…”

On a roll now and flirting with legalities, our attention turns to a controversial late season match when Ricky himself was the 11th bowler of the Bangor innings, I ask him were we wrong to do that. “Yes the team made a crucial error that day. It’s quite clear that I should have been on ten overs before I was. I bowled four overs this season and took three wickets, two of them that day. What I would say is that people questioning our integrity should study the scorecard. Nine, ten and eleven took the majority of the wickets that day and stopped Lisburn getting to 400 as they were on for at one point. It is easy to take to Twitter and write uneducated comments about another team. Of course, instead of threatening the clubs of our accusers with letters to the NCU, we readily welcomed the online debate. Something we would never shy away from.”

Time evaporates when you talk to Ricky. He talks earnestly, intelligently and humorously about all aspects of the game. We turn to his future ambitions and whether he sees a Premier League appearance for this side as his skipper had the week before “I would say that is still a bit away and for me, I don’t know. I have a bulging disc in my back and it is adding to my deteriorating cricketing ability. I may do what all ex-cricketers end up doing and take up golf.” I suggest badminton because it uses different muscles to those that are needed to play cricket, but Ricky is not so sure. “On second thoughts, I have no problems slipping down to the twos and staying about the club as long as we’re playing a sensible amount of overs.”

The number of overs that are played is a massive issue for Ricky, as he sees it as what is killing the game. “We need to consider the people we lose. I am forever seeing statistics from Cricket Ireland about the ever increasing number of people who are playing the game but from what we see on the ground it doesn’t add up. In the last three seasons we have seen a number of clubs merge in the NCU and Limavady have disappeared. When you think of what they were. The only constant is 50 overs. The only people who want to see 50 overs are those who have finished playing the game. It has to change or many clubs could be in risk within five years. Even the effort made to appease by allowing two skippers to reduce to 40 isn’t enough because you don’t know until you arrive at the ground whether it’s going to be 50 overs or 40 overs. What do you tell your respective other? Could be 5pm, could be 8pm…”

Before you know it three and a half hours have passed. We draw the interview to a close and start walking to the car. Ricky talks excitedly about Grasshopper Tours and what makes cricket the game we all love, “I played for one season in Scotland and been to like six of those guy’s weddings. You just don’t get it in any other sport. I’ve forged lifelong friendships through cricket and that’s what it’s all about. Playing with your mates, playing for each other.”

I’m inclined to agree.

Ricky McLarnon was talking to Paddy Dixon

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