One of the biggest problems that local cricket clubs face is the exodus of talent that leave these shores to make their lives elsewhere. Indeed, the best aspect of the festive period is the influx of friends and family who make their way back to Northern Ireland to be at home at this very special time of year. Since 2014, former child protégé Mark Nixon has lived in Naples, training to become a doctor but through a combination of family ties and friendships forged in former years he has remained close to the Bangor squad from afar. With the world now more connected than ever before through the power of social media, Mark has instant access to how his friends and teammates are getting on back home. He is quick to point out how this can be a double-edged sword.
“The Interview series is undoubtedly the highlight of my week. It normally coincides with my journey home from work that takes about 45 minutes to get me back into Naples. Quite often, I’ll just be laughing on a rickety, 1950s style train as I read them, but it can depress me as well, just being away from the pleasures of home.”
Having spent part of this decade away from home myself, I know exactly what he means. The pull to your home, friends and club is magnified in absentia and while it is fantastic to hear of what is happening on any given Saturday, it can be painful as well. During the season, it is amazing to see Mark’s contributions on the Facebook updates and allows him to be involved form Italy. Mark goes on to recount a story that happened earlier on that day that further highlights how different life is in Italy compared to Northern Ireland. “I jumped on a bus and only had a £20 note and the bus driver had no change. The guy behind me, who I’ve never met, just pipes up ‘I’ll pay for you mate’. That just wouldn’t happen in other places. People here are so friendly and you don’t actually realise it until you have been away. I thought it would be the same everywhere but it isn’t.”
This ability to analyse and articulate is what makes Mark such enthralling company. I’ve been fortunate to know him for half his life now and he has always been like this. My mind recalls our first meeting in the changing rooms at Shaws Bridge in May 2004. The club had asked Gareth Archer and I to set up a 4th XI to allow a forum to play for the embarrassment of riches Bangor had coming through the youth system at that stage. As it was a new endeavour, we had picked 12 players to ensure we had enough, and I (as the least talented player on the side) had made the decision to stand down. Before the game started Mark berated me for my decision, telling me it was wrong and he didn’t feel right playing in my place. Thankfully, I was able to convince him to play because if I had opened with his brother that day, I doubt it would have been a match winning opening partnership as it turned out to be.
As it was his first season Mark remembers the glorious summer of 2004 fondly. “Andy and I weren’t from a cricket family so we had no idea of the fabric of NCU cricket. We didn’t know the history of the big clubs in the NCU such as North Down and Waringstown. For us, we were playing for our local club and we had joined the best club in the land. That is a fact. During that year Bangor Cricket Club was the best club in the NCU.” We allow ourselves to get lost in a reverie to remember just how good that season was, as members of Bangor Cricket Club are prone to do when it is brought up. Every single team won a trophy that year and indeed Mark’s contribution to that will always remain very close to my heart in particular. Having set 196 to win in the Minor Qualifying Cup final at Pollock Park, our opponents Larne were racing towards the total at 89-1 after 17 overs. Having used four bowlers already and at an absolute loss, I took counsel from Jeff McMaster as to what to do. He suggested that Mark might be as good an option as anyone. I threw the ball to the fearless 14 year old and then watched through my fingers as he proceeded to throw up a high loopy full toss. The batsmen’s eyes lit up and he middle the ball straight into the hands of Gavin Campbell at square leg. It was hit so hard Gavin needed medical assistance as it made his fingers bleed. Larne capitulated, falling 30 runs short and Mark’s name is on the trophy, as is mine.
The following season saw Mark play for the six senior teams and become fully immersed in the club. A key member of the 2005 Graham Cup winning side, he pays tribute to the coaching he and his peer group had at that stage, “The youth training we received at Bangor was so strong. In school we all improved under the guidance of Chris Harte. At the club we had Regan and crucially Hutchy. He was instrumental in our development and we were all came on so much because of him.” As with Andy, Mark made his breakthrough into the 1st XI in a T20 match in Comber in 2005 and he became quickly part of the Bangor squad. “It was a great experience for me as I viewed the senior guys at the club as superstars, so to be playing with them so soon was amazing.” Mark points to famous victories over North Down as notable highlights of his Bangor career. “I’ll never forget Andy smashing Taimur (Khan) who was in his prime over the trees at Uprichard, en route to winning the match.”
The face of cricket was about to change in the NCU. “That 2004 team broke up very quickly. Most of the guys had achieved everything they wanted to and it was a natural time for them to stop playing, but the loss of Jonny (Hewitt) was massive to us at that stage. Nobody could blame him for going to be paid at CI, but it was hard to take.” It was indeed a huge loss to Bangor at the time. CIYMS had started to pay players and this marked a huge sea change in the way the game was going to go in Ulster. The break-up of the team led to a new Bangor side having to compete in a league that was increasing rapidly in quality. “Quite often, it was just Hutchy holding the team up on his own. We would chip in where we could but he was our only international quality player. It became very difficult very quickly.”
By this stage competing pressures had begun to take precedence in Mark’s life. As is quite often the case with players as they begin to work, they find their love for the game diminishing. Mark had reached that point early in 2012. “I was working taking pictures for Ollies, not finishing until 1am in the morning, getting home and then having to spend all day playing cricket. The games were so long and I was losing interest as each one passed. The key thing was that I wasn’t contributing, not at all. I think I had a run of innings where I had four ducks in a row and I was gone. I spoke to Ricky (McLarnon) who had just taken on the captaincy. It was awful. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Ricky is a great friend of mine and it felt terrible to do, particularly early on in the season but it was a decision that had to be made.”
As difficult a decision as this was at the time, it was definitely the right one for both Mark and the club. The move to Italy a couple of years later may have meant that he drifted away from the game for good, but it seems to have galvanised his interest not ended it. “Bangor Cricket Club is a special place and I always took it for granted. There is no feeling like walking back into that changing room and just seeing the people you have grown up with around the place. You slot back in. It’s amazing.” Mark has returned to the team for flying visits over the last two seasons and finds a club in much better shape than when he left in 2012. “I think when you’ve been away and you come back you really notice it. You see other clubs who are paying players and they have nowhere near the sense of community that we have. That sense of playing for each other and there being no egos in the team. That’s why the captaincy by committee has been brilliant for us. The guys are now all responsible for their decisions.” Mark expands on this sense of community in comparison with what he has seen at other clubs, “It’s funny when you come up against other clubs where there is an obvious hierarchy in place. Young lads scared to say anything against seasoned players at clubs. It just wouldn’t happen at Bangor. This side are all in it for each other and no one person dominates. It’s almost political socialism through cricket.”
With this in mind our attentions turn to the future, what are the chances of seeing Mark Nixon in a Bangor shirt in the coming seasons? “I’m endeavouring to rush through exams as quickly as possible to see if there is any chance of getting back for two months in the summer of 2019. I would love to be available as much as I can be. If not it will be 2020.” What is perhaps most exciting is Mark’s desire to ensure he is playing to the best of his ability. “I want to give a good account of myself. I want to practise and ensure I am enhancing the team. Cricket is such a mental game and I feel that I am stronger mentally now and feel that I can make a massive contribution to the side.” There is little doubt that someone of Mark’s talent, fully fit and fully engaged to play, is a mouth-watering prospect for fans of Bangor Cricket Club.
Mark Nixon was talking to Paddy Dixon