There are few men that are part of the Bangor 1st XI squad that are held in quite as high regard as Nicky McCollum. The five previous interviewees in this series have paid tribute to how important Nicky is to the squad and, uniquely, have used varying scenarios to illustrate this. His partnership at the top of the order with Chris Burns, combined with his deadly brand of occasional off-spin has been a massive factor in the success of the 2018 season. A product of the Lurgan youth system, it is chilling to think that a talent such as his had all but retired from the game at the ridiculously young age of 20. Only happy coincidence and a trio of Bangorians reignited the passion for the sport and it burns brighter than ever today.
“I had been playing Senior Cricket since I was 16. Batting eight and hardly ever getting a bowl, week in, week out. All the guys I had grown up playing with were on the 2nds and I just hated it. I moved up to Belfast for university and it wasn’t like I could even have a drink after the matches. It was no longer in any way enjoyable.”
It’s a cautionary tale for any teams who pack their team with willing but not yet able school children. The pain is etched across Nicky’s face as he recalls those days and if someone of his talent is prepared to give the game up and still hold unhappy memories then you have to imagine that many youngsters around the country would do the same. For Nicky, the joy from the game was lost and he stopped playing completely. As chance would have it, he fell in with a bad crowd at university and through peer pressure (or borderline abuse) they were able to coax him back to the game, “I lived with Andy and Mark (Nixon) and they were constantly at me to go and play for Bangor. I went on a Grasshopper’s tour and roomed with Ricky (McLarnon) and he was at it as well.” Like Komodo Dragons poisoning their prey remorselessly, the three managed to convince a relenting McCollum to sign for Bangor, “At the back of someone’s Instagram there is a photo of the moment when I became a pay for play Bangor player, Ricky gave me a fiver to sign on.”
Bangor’s gain was of course Lurgan’s loss ultimately. I am interested in how difficult that part of the decision was, to leave your boyhood club behind. As ever, Nicky gives a classy response. “It was difficult to explain at the time, especially to my uncle, but I had already had a clean break. I had stopped playing cricket when I was 20 and didn’t sign for Bangor until I was 24. The draw for me was to play cricket with my mates. We could carpool making getting to the games easier. Through Andy, Mark and Ricky, I knew the other guys pretty well. It was an easy set up to join.” We discuss briefly Lurgan’s current malaise and the irony of being part of the team that relegated his boyhood club. “I think everyone on the Bangor side was sad that day, except for Josh who was oblivious. I will always have fond memories of Pollock Park, my Dad captained Lurgan to league titles in the late 80s and early 90s. The club is probably missing a generation, the old guys went on too long but they would say there wasn’t enough coming through. It’s a worrying time for the club.”
Nicky joined Bangor in 2013 and became quickly an integral part of the squad. Back playing cricket with his friends his enjoyment of the game was reinvigorated, “I have always enjoyed playing for Bangor. Even when we lost more than we won back when I joined first, it was just a very enjoyable experience to be out there with some of my friends.” For a number of seasons Nicky floated around the batting order, plugging the gaps with a classical style. It wasn’t until the 2018 season that he was offered the position of opening with the ‘dinger’ hitting machine, Chris Burns, that McCollum really found his niche. “I’m much more of a classical or traditional player. Opening the batting suits my style, especially if the guy at the other end is scoring so quickly. I would much rather bat and provide a solid basis for the team than try and blast the ball out of the ground.” This attitude is refreshing in the modern game and it allows for the basis of a true opening partnership. Bangor’s two openers know each other’s game inside out and it enables each of them to be better. “It is amazing to have a front row seat for Burns’ hitting. I’ve never seen the ball struck so sweetly and it makes my job of playing a supporting role much easier when the scoreboard is ticking over.”
The excitement with which McCollum discusses this and other aspects of the game is clear to hear in his voice. If you rewind one year, Bangor had narrowly avoided relegation and it is very likely that the boys would have been more reluctant to sit and discuss cricket in any detail with me at all. As a senior member of the squad Nicky was summoned to the now infamous meeting with Chris Escott to discuss the direction the club was going in. “Two factors came out of that meeting and they both went hand in hand with each other, availability and mind set. In 2017, we had a phenomenally bad start and that was down to availability. Losing became a habit and morale was low collectively. Chris leant on us about ‘creating a club where his kids could play cricket’, improving the mind set and enjoying the game.” The response to this meeting was impressive as the leaders in the squad brought about an overhaul in the psychology that had held the team back in previous seasons, “it was strange. We didn’t discuss it as a group, nobody said anything in fact. We were all alone with our thoughts. It all happened organically and sure enough, as we began to start winning and playing well, we all started to enjoy the game more and that reflected itself in our performances last season.”
The conversation meanders naturally towards leadership and moreover the captaincy of the side. It is unthinkable that a man with Nicky’s standing, calm and affable nature combined with an astute knowledge of the workings of the game hasn’t been considered for the captaincy of the club. McCollum allows himself a rye smile as he considers his answer. “Captaincy is an area of the game I do enjoy. I like outthinking our opponents, where they are looking to score and executing game plans. That said, I think we have the running of the team exactly right at the minute. I think in 2017 Andy found himself a bit isolated and it affected his enjoyment of the game. We are so fortunate to have Steven (Burns) who is prepared to do so much around the club. The breaking down of the roles has taken the pressure of one man and allowed us to progress as a team. I’m happy to do the on field work with Andy. It’s easily the best system we have had.”
The team has undoubtedly progressed. As someone who has been fortunate to watch this progression from the position of scorer, there are few better feelings when squaring up the book after a victory and hearing the refrains of Avici banging out from the Bangor changing room. As Bangor’s resident DJ, Nicky laughs at the mention of this, “I would bring the beat box to the matches and we all just loved the song. It became the ‘Party Boys’ anthem. We would play it after any victory. Fortunately we played it a lot in 2018.” I am interested to know how far McCollum thinks that the side can go in 2019 and beyond. “It’s a common misconception that we don’t want to win the league. If it hadn’t been for the ludicrous abandonment of the Derriaghy match we would have had a real chance of winning that league. We will go into 2019 with the same attitude. Do our best to win the league and worry about the consequences later, in true ‘Party Boys’ fashion.” Nicky is keen also to pay tribute to Bangor as a club. “It is great to play on a side where there is no segregation. I can honestly say that there isn’t another member of the side that I don’t get on with and you don’t normally get that in a cricket club. You can see how this translates around the club in social events and the place is a good place to be at the minute.”
Looking to 2019, we discuss the challenges that lie ahead. While a demon exponent of off spin, Nicky is concerned about the exodus of bowlers. “It will be difficult without Taj (Onyekwelu), Ross (Miller) and Josh (Bates) but getting Mike Grossett back is a big boost to the side. One of the consistent factors of my Bangor career is that if I come on to bowl first change, we are normally in trouble.” Refreshingly, McCollum is not as concerned as some of his esteemed colleagues about the potential loss of overs next season. “It suits to me to play more overs because I don’t score as quickly as some of the others. I wouldn’t want the game to be less than 40 overs for the very reason that I left the game in the first place. You can’t have a group of people batting down the order who are only there to field. 40 overs will still allow batsmen enough time to bat and bowlers enough time to take wickets.”
Nicky’s story really hits at the heart of the reasons for playing cricket. He is a guy with talent to burn who gave it all up because the game was made unenjoyable to play. Back on a side where he is enjoying himself, his cricket is flourishing and the team is reaping the rewards of that. Playing for each other and playing to win should be the motto of any cricket club and we all have a responsibility to make this game that we love as enjoyable for the next generation.
Nicky McCollum was talking to Paddy Dixon