Despite hazy recall Mark Simpson is still vital to brigade's north west hopes
Ask Mark Simpson how many North West Senior Cup finals he has played in and it's difficult to get an accurate answer.
"To be perfectly honestly, I can remember the ones we won but can't remember the ones we lost. Maybe 7 or 8?" he suggests.
It's actually only five, Mark, but then, when you have played for Brigade for 26 years and the club has been involved in so many cup finales and league championship play-offs, one final just blends into another.
When Brigade and Donemana turn up at Eglinton for the 2013 decider on Friday, it will be the Beechgrove club's eighth appearance in the two-day showpiece since Simpson's Senior Cup final debut in 1991 but he missed two of the finals because he was holiday – but he hasn't missed out on a winners medal.
"They've lost all the finals I've missed," is Simpson's immodest but factual response. "I was away for the Limavady game in 2008 and I inadvertently missed last year (also against Donemana).
"I had arranged my family holiday to be back for the cup final but they changed the date and I got a text on the first day of my holiday to say the final had been rearranged."
When Simpson has been present, though, he has invariably made the difference. In 1991, as a 'young 21-year-old, I don't remember much about the match but I remember the finish. I was on strike with three balls to go, needing seven to win, and hit big Hendy Wallace for two fours to win with a ball to spare.'
"The '98 final was memorable because Ardmore were bowled out for 17 in the second innings when myself and Gregory Wilson each took five wickets, so that was special and I won the man of the match," adds Mark.
More recently, in 2010, he also took the last Strabane wicket as Simpson claimed his third winners' medal so if Brigade are to win this weekend, it seems more than likely he will be involved in the finish.
What Simpson cannot control anymore is the North West's performance at inter-provincial level but his opinion is highly respected and he accepts the Warriors side is on a steep learning curve.
"There seems to a lot more strength in depth in Dublin and that's telling in the inter-provincial series. They certainly seem to be streets ahead and while we are on a par with the NCU it has been disappointing from a results basis (they have yet to win a match).
"When you are playing against a southern team (in the Irish Cup) they generally have two or three outstanding players, but when you are playing the Leinster Lightning they have 11 excellent players and it's telling."
The argument raging on the forums is the Warriors' team selection but, in this respect, Simpson is backing the selectors.
"I don't think they are picking the best team but they know that and you can't really argue with the way they are going. They have to look to the future. There's no point picking someone like me or the McBrine twins (at Donemana, still, arguably, in a best XI in their 50th year). There's certainly, no reason to go down that route, but hopefully things will improve over the next couple of seasons when these young guys improve at this level," adds Simpson, who admits his provincial side is on a hiding to nothing, especially in the multi-day format.
"Most of them have no experience of three-day cricket and even in the Twenty20s, when I saw the Warriors team for (last) Sunday, they weren't going to feature. It also exposes a lack of depth in North West cricket today. When I was playing 25 years ago we had a lot stronger tail to teams.
"I can't really see them doing anything this season. They are not even getting close, not really competing that well, but it is a learning curve and hopefully they will improve if not next season then definitely the season after that. It will be interesting to see."
The one match which Simpson admits he still prefers playing in to watching is the cup final and, now 43 years young, is looking forward to it as much as ever.
"If we get half the weather we have been getting for the last fortnight it will be a good two days out, with a big crowd, great atmosphere and Eglinton is a nice place to play, he says, recalling the good times.
"I've won a few finals and league play offs at Eglinton and enjoy playing there, I've done quite well there, the wicket seems to suit me with a bit of movement, pace and bounce."
Whether it will be his last final or he has time to make it seven or eight, is another question Simpson doesn't know the answer to.
"I have been playing for so long, it's hard to imagine not playing. I'm just taking it one season at a time, I'll see how this one finishes, how the winter goes and take it from there."