50 YEARS & COUNTING
On Monday 5th March 1962, at the invitation of Jimmy Cummings, I made my way from my East Belfast home across the city by two buses to Twaddell Avenue on the Woodvale Road to join Duncairn Nomads. Almost exactly 50 years later I will step down from my two year stint as President of Athletics Northern Ireland. An amazing journey and one which I hope will continue for a few years yet.
Life in Belfast half a century ago was a very different experience to that which prevails today. The ‘Troubles’ were still a few years away, house phones let alone mobiles were few and far between; television was a couple of channels and the Queen was just a youngster with only ten years under her belt.
As the year began Z Cars with Jimmy Ellis was just starting on the small screen while in the cinema a little girl by the name of Hayley Mills was starring in ‘Pollyanna’. Fifty years later, and still as beautiful as always, Hayley has switched to the small screen starring in the safari park programme called “…………………………..”. The ‘pop generation’ were sucking their throat lozenges and polishing their winkle pickers in preparation for the impending visit of ‘Cliff Richard and the Shadows’.
In the world of athletics Cross Country was paramount with a short eight week period of road races followed by a Track and Field season with a two tier league structure and then back to the serious stuff again in October. If there is one link between 1962 and 2012 it is that T.J. Welsh was the timekeeper then and now but the Queen took all of that next 50 years before she decided to give the man his well deserved MBE.
When asked the winners of the ‘Junior’ and ‘Senior’ Cross Country in 2012 future historians will answer Jarleth Falls and Joe McAllister. The answer to the same question relating to 1962 is more complicated as there were two of each. The ‘Northern Ireland’ Junior was won by an ‘unknown’ youngster from Portadown College called Les Jones while the equivalent ‘Senior’ was won by Derek Graham. Both in future years would, in their different ways, write their names large in the annals of athletics both at home and abroad. The teams titles went to Duncairn Harriers and 9th Old Boys respectively – neither remain in existence.
In what I like to call the ‘parallel universe’ of the Ulster Council of the NACA the 43rd War Memorial Junior Cross Country took place on Sunday 7th January at Lurgan with team honours going to Laragh ahead of Limavady and West Belfast – like their NI counterparts they too have drifted into history. The individual champion was Pat Callaghan of Bailieboro ahead of Armagh’s Johnny Toner and local man Pat McGibben. Laragh also took the Ulster Senior title with victory going to Sheffield based Francie McDermott ahead of Derry man George Williamson.
Thankfully, despite the fact that it still requires two separate bodies to control the sport in this massive land mass of Ulster, at least this year the magnificent War Memorial Trophy was contested by the best of both organisations.
While the Ulster Council held their first championship in the first weekend of January the NIAAA clubs were preparing for their season with ‘combined runs’ and club races. On Saturday 6th Jnauary for example members of Duncairn Nomads, Lisnagarvey, Co. Antrim and Hollerith got together for a ‘friendly’ training run divided up into ability groups each with a ‘hare’ and a ‘whip’. In East Belfast, Willowfield Temperance Harriers held their McKeagh Cup over 3 miles and McCullough Cup over 7 miles with wins for Trevor Orman and Henry Pairs.
The track fraternity entered what was for them a big year with the Empire Games being held in Perth Australia late in the year. Dick McColgan, who would in later years become the local ‘guru’ of the Empire and Commonwealth Games, was leading the Winter indoor coaching sessions at Victoria Barracks in Belfast attended by most of the leading athletes and coaches like Mary Peters, Sean and Maeve Kyle, Don McBride and Des Price.
The main action of the early months however was the Cross Country and life did not end with the Northern Ireland Championships. Next on the fixture list was the All Ireland Championships and following that the elite went on to represent their country in the International Cross Country Championships, with one very important provisio!
The venue for the 1962 All Ireland was Dundonald and victory went South of the border in the forme of Donore’s Mick Neville. Neville thus became the first man in the modern era (since 1938) to win both the national Junior and Senior titles in the same season. First local man home was Derek Graham in sixth place. A few weeks later Graham produced a great performance to finish runner up in the English National Junior Cross Country.
With the International Cross Country looming Northern Ireland was once again embroiled in a “will we or won’t we” scenario. The ICCU at that time comprised just 12 countries having grown from what was the original ‘Home Countries’ plus France. The Congress consisted of representatives from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Eire, France, Holland, Belguim, Portugal, Tunisia, Morocco and Spain and it was the latter who were annoying the Northern Ireland AAA on this occasion.
The 1963 event was due to be held in San Sebastian on March 17th and Northern Ireland were not happy. The problem was not that it was St. Patrick’s Day but that it was a Sunday and Northern Ireland did not run on a Sunday either at home or abroad. A similar situation in 1961 in Nantes had seen a withdrawal. Needless to say the Spaniards were not prepared to budge as Sunday competition was the norm on the continent and a switch to the previous day could mean a massive loss in revenue.
In fact there was nothing on the local statute books which supported the ‘Never on Sunday’ dictate. However since no team was ever picked to compete and at home no events were organised the status quo prevailed. Opinions however were changing and when Tom Williamson of DUncairn Harriers put forward a motion to the NIAAA AGM:
“That any athlete belonging to NIAAA shall not participate in any competition inside or outside Northern Ireland on a Sunday”
the motion was defeated and the Province began a very slow process of becoming ‘Europeanised’ with personal conscience acting as the arbiter. The decision however was not universally accepted and led to several resignations and not too friendly ‘discussions’ taking place in the local press. It would also be a long time before a NIAAA event was organised on Sunday on home soil.
It was not only the Sunday Observance school of thought which had many outsiders scratching their heads. An unwary spectator at the Queen’s University Championships in 1962 might have thought that he had fallen asleep and woken up on a different continent. The Champions were dominated by African students and in particular Ghanaians. The 100 yards was won by Joe Riverson, 120 yards hurdles, High Jump and Hop Step and Jump (Triple Jump) by Gordon Ziddah, the Pole Vault by J.M.K.Ekue and the Shot Putt byG.K.Deh. Strengthened by these athletes Queen’s contested a triangular match against St. Andrews and Glasgow Universities with the visitors taking victory in the 440 yards through one M. Campbell who subsequently became Sir Menzies Campbell, British Olympian and leader of the Liberal Democrats in Westminster.
Queen’s also were victorious in the Londonderry Trophy and looked forward to success in the Irish Universities Championships. Sadly they were to be disappointed falling foul of the ‘curse of Irish Athletics’! Queen’s were banned from the Championships on the grounds that some of their athletes were members of the NACAI despite the fact that the event was a ‘Closed Championships.’ The British Board declined to sanction their entry and the NIAAA played ‘Pontius Pilate’. While the local athletes were disappointed and angry the African contingent were in their own words ‘mystified’. Fifty years on the ‘mysteries’ of athletics organisation on the Island of Ireland continues to baffle many!
If opinions were strongly held so too was the principle of club loyalty and this was admirably illustrated by Billy McCue. While the Universities’ competed at Cherryvale the Northern Ireland Six Mile Track Championship was fought out over 24 laps of Aircraft Park a few miles away. Billy McCue took the title in 31:19.3 and promptly jumped in his car for a drive to Ballymena to represent his club in a match against visitors Crusaders from Dublin. A win over 1 mile was followed by second over twice that distance. As if that was not enough the RUC Constable then donned his uniform and went on duty for the rest of the night!
Fellow Ballymena athletes Maeve Kyle and Mary Peters were also in the news. Maeve set a Northern Ireland All Comers Record of 56.9 then the fastest in the UK at the time and went to London for the WAAA Championships where in the heat she added the UK All Comers Record to her palmares with a superb 54.9. Mary meanwhile achieved her first International success winning a Pentathlon against Holland and Belguim with 4420 points to go second on the British All Time list. Ten years later she would take the Olympic title in this event in Munich.
International athletics came to Belfast with the Scotland ves Ireland match at what was then Celtic Park, now the Park Shopping Centre. Dave Davidson, the father of a future Ulster Rugby hero Jeremy Davidson, set an Irish National Record in the Shot Putt and Des Price set new NI All Comers figures in the 120 yards hurdles running 14.6 secs on grass. Hero of the Scots was again Ming Campbell winning both the Furlong and the Quarter Mile.
In October another short road racing season began as usual with the Larne Road Relays for the Ferris Trophy with victory going to 9th Old Boys ahead of Duncairn Harriers and Willowfield. The latter had better success in the opening Cross Country race, the McConnell Shield at Ballyclare taking both team and individual honours withColin Shillington. The race was held in a bitter cold wind with runners having to contend with a ‘mud bath’.
Several thousand miles away conditions were totally different as the Empire games got underway in Perth, Australia. Five athletes had been named in a small team which travelled ‘down under’ but there was to be no medals for Thelma Hopkins, Mary Peters, Joan Atkinson, Dick Miller or Dave Davidson a situation which resulted in the usual recriminations back at home. Interestingly another member of the Northern Ireland team was Buster McShane, a weight-lifter, and it was he and Mary Peters who would create a Coach/Athlete partnership which would lead to Olympic Glory ten years later.