The Interviews: Making an Icon

It was at an end of season dinner in the Bangla that I mentioned first the concept for “The Interviews”. Being a shy and retiring bunch the idea was met with unilateral positivity as suggestions for shape and content began to fly around the table. One of these suggestions, made by this week’s interviewee, Paddy English, was that these should be in the form of ‘Fireside Chats”. How delighted I was to see a raging fire lit on a cold Tuesday evening in the heart of Ballyholme when I arrived at the English household. I feel guilty for taking Paddy away from his wonderful family as I apologise to his wife, Kate, and thank her for allowing me the time to interview her husband, who is a true Bangor icon. Kate looks at me as if I am quite mad, shakes her head and laughs at the mere suggestion of this.

“I had just scored a century against Lurgan, won us the match and was on cloud nine. Beachy’s wife, Jude, had been at the game and she had texted Kate to tell her. I bounced back into the house and before I had a chance to open my mouth I was greeted with ‘I know you scored a hundred, and I just don’t care’.”

It’s definitely a story that many cricketers can relate to and behind the levelling humour it displays the sacrifices that ‘cricket widows’ have to make to allow their husbands to play a game of indeterminate time on one or both days at the weekend.  Paddy explains that these pressures very nearly stopped his comeback before it had even began, “I had just come home from England and Mike Kwelu was captain of the 2nd XI. I committed to playing again but I hated it. There were four or five guys in our age group that indicated that they might play but they played once or twice and were never seen again. I spent most of that summer praying for rain.”

At this stage, playing First XI cricket seemed extremely unlikely. A chance conversation with a peer from another club in 2014 was enough to alter Paddy’s thinking and set him up for a return to the Bangor 1st XI. “I was watching the firsts play Donacloney at Uprichard and they were just awful. Wandering round the ground I bumped into Steven Hanna who I would have played with when I was younger and he claimed ‘this is the worst Bangor side I have ever seen’. As I watched, I began to feel that maybe I should make myself available at this level again.” The next season, Mark English was captain and Paddy was back in the fray. “I think in my first match back we played Laurelvale. Andy (Nixon) scored a century and I got about 35 no. I knew I could do it after that.”

It is impossible to imagine the last four seasons without Mark and Paddy in the side. What they bring to the side cannot be measured in runs and wickets. From the richest of Bangor heritages, they have nurtured a talented, but ultimately rudderless side, into a team that is competitive and has a winning mentality. For Paddy, it is this desire to be competitive that has driven him to be part of this squad, a desire that was ingrained in him at an early age. “I grew up playing cricket when Bangor had six teams and we played competitive cricket. You played at Ballymac under John Kennedy and you looked up to the First XI. At that stage, our first XI had Neil Sinclair, Jeff McMaster, Peter McCall and Ian McClatchey who were phenomenal players. It was a real honour to play for our first XI and something to work hard for and aspire to.”

Paddy remembers the early days of his Bangor cricket career fondly as most of us are prone to do.  He talks with great joy about the opportunity to play cricket with his father, Tim, and many of those who now grace the boundary at Uprichard, “I played with Lowry Cunningham, John Elder, Michael Rea, Chris Harte and Ian Houston. The first time I saw my Dad swear was in the changing room of the 1990 Junior Cup Final. After a poor fielding performance, he asked us in no uncertain terms if any of us actually wanted to win the match. Jonny Hewitt, in his own inimitable style, assured Dad ‘don’t worry Tim, I’ll just score a 50 and we’ll win it’. A feat he achieved with ease.” Paddy talks with excitement and reverence about these memories, cricket is the ultimate form of nostalgia after all.

On gaining a place at Queens, Paddy’s cricketing career took an unexpected turn. “The years at Queens were great fun, but they were bad, bad men. It was very much a social club that played cricket, with an emphasis on the social.” While thanking various deities for the lack of smart phones and social media in the early 90s, Paddy tells stories that are scarcely believable. Especially, when you consider that many of his peers from those years now have very respectable jobs and form the fabric of Northern Ireland society. From Queens, Paddy moved to England to complete his PGCE and won a Lancashire Trophy with Lancaster before moving to London. Here he played at a high standard for Old Rutlishians in the Surrey League.

Paddy has been a leader in the side since 2015. I’m fortunate to be included in various planning and social media groups and the reaction to English from the younger members is one of sheer adoration. “Kate can’t believe it. She thinks they are winding me up.” They are not. His calm demeanour and engaging personality is the focal point of the squad and Paddy is quick to say how much he appreciates his junior colleagues also. “Playing with Ross (Miller), Marv (Evan Fraser) and Taj (Onyekwelu) amongst others makes me feel young again. He discusses fondly his partnership with Taj to win the match against Lurgan and praises the young man’s nerve. “We needed over 100 and had only four wickets left. I went down to Taj at the first change of over and said ‘we can do this’, to which he replied ‘I know’.

It would be incorrect to say that since the return of the English brothers that it has all been plain sailing to this point. The progress has been hard fought and suffered numerous setbacks. The glorious hundred that Paddy scored against Lurgan was followed up by a now infamous trip to Ballaghdereen the very next week. A ten hour trip as designated driver, driving a school mini-bus to what can be described as a municipal field with football shuttle cones marking the boundary to play a team that had only been in existence for two seasons, is hardly what anyone would suggest is satisfactory. As the makeshift Bangor side collapsed to 78-8 chasing 150, Paddy launched into a speech claiming that “this must be the lowest point in Bangor’s history.” It invoked Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ speech but without any of the optimism. Hardly ideal for me as number 11 that day listening to this, it was as if Paddy had no confidence in me getting the runs. We were 79 all out.

Another such moment was the first day of the 2017 season. Downpatrick were the visitors and Ryan Smyth took a liking to the Bangor bowling attack scoring a handy knock of 249 no. Adding to the pain for the Bangor team was that this was a chanceless innings. “I had spoken to Burnsey the previous season about stopping it but he convinced me to stay on. That day at Uprichard was the coldest I have ever been on a cricket field. He must have been on about 170-180 and the ball was being looked for in the houses again. I remember saying to Nicky (McCollum), there are still nine overs to go. It could have very easily ended that day.”

This defeat set the tone for the first half of the 2017 season as Bangor languished near the foot of the table for the entire season. “I think, all things considered, the fact that we stayed up last year was my best moment in cricket. We had to fight so hard and everyone really battled. Given the way the league panned out, it was a remarkable achievement.” Paddy pays tribute to Club Chairman Chris Escott at this point for capitalising on this momentum and creating an air of positivity around the club, “He got the key men on the side bought in and it is now and enjoyable place to be again. 2018 was a great year and we now have to capitalise upon that next year.” Rightly, Paddy points to the attitude shown in the game against Lisburn towards the end of last season, a game in which Bangor were beaten soundly. “That would have been a game that would have been miserable in past seasons, but we were competitive all the way through that game and it was still enjoyable.”

Fortunately for Bangor, Paddy has found a way back onto the side but many of his generation have not. Both of us being in the 35-45 age group; we discuss what our club, but moreover, the NCU could do to attract more people of that age to the game. “For me the time between 30-40 overs is just too much. You can be in the 32nd over and still have over 90 minutes cricket left in one innings. You aren’t going to attract any people our age to the game due to outside commitments. I played very little 50 over cricket in England and it is something that needs to be addressed.” Regarding his own future, Paddy would love to replicate playing on the same team with his own children, as he did with his father. “They are beginning to show a little interest. If it happens it would be absolutely amazing. I think a father-son game at Bangor may help bring in more adult playing members who would like to play on the same team as their children.”

It is easy to see how important Paddy English is to the Bangor squad. Popular, engaging and funny he adds a wealth of experience to an already talented outfit. I’m sure I am not alone in saying that I hope he appears in a Bangor shirt for many years to come.

Paddy English was talking to Paddy Dixon

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