Johnston desperate to land shield for Woodvale after a barren spell
WOODVALE return to the big time on Sunday when they meet Muckamore in the final of the Ulster Shield. It will be a first decider for the north Belfast club in 13 years after appearing in three successive Challenge Cup finals at the turn of the millennium.
Without a ground for almost three years, it is a club getting back on its feet and, despite the 'Troubles' and their location on the Ballygomartin Road, never missed a home match for anything other than weather.
Like most clubs, they have been supported by a loyal band of players and supporters, although Simon Johnston is one of only two survivors from Woodvale's last cup winning team in 1998.
Johnston, the son the former Ireland international Ian, another Woodvale veteran, explains how times have changed in the last few years.
"For 10-20 years we were happy if no-one in the local community knew we were there. How unusual is that? We were happy to be under the radar and avoid any trouble. But, in the past two years we have made a conscious effort to attract the local community. We have new gates at the front and hopefully we are a welcoming club," he said.
"The loss of the ground (to redevelopment – it was supposed to be for only 18 months) really hurt us. Our Under-15 and Under-13 youth teams disappeared. But we have now got around 30 Under-13s coming every week to the club and a hardcore of 17-21 year-olds. Plus those of us who have been around a bit longer!
"I started playing in the first team at 16 and Marty McKeown and I are the longest survivors. There's also Paul Robinson, Timmy Browne, this year's captain, went to Queen's and came back again and Ian Cleland is back again this year."
But the characters on the other side of the boundary are just as big at Woodvale and, as Johnston adds, makes the club almost unique.
"Jack Storey, Wally Shannon and Jackie Gaw are always around. One thing about Ballygomartin Road is that people love their cricket and always have. They are quick to slag you off, but the banter is much appreciated and possibly unique.
"You could get a hundred at Woodvale and walk off the pitch and Jackie Gaw would still call you 'useless'! But we all get on."
And it is that team-spirit which made Woodvale the cup specialists at the end of the 1990s. And Johnston believes it was because they DIDN'T have a club professional.
"The thing I remember most about the 1998 final was Marty McKeown's captaincy. He was only 19 and under a lot of pressure because there was so many experienced players in that team – players like Stephen Warke, Robert Wills, Alan Rutherford, all internationals. But he galvanised everyone and everyone played for him.
"And playing every week without a professional helped us in the cup because professionals were banned in those years from the competition and the clubs with professionals then had to adapt to playing without him in the cup. We knew our roles and what we did.
"We weren't favourites going into that final but we had so confidence that we could beat anyone because of our team spirit."
With a century from former Ireland captain Warke and a man of the match performance from Rutherford, the cup returned to Woodvale for the first time since the great team of the Fifties won it for the fifth time in seven years.
Warke's dismissal, to a ball that rolled along the ground, "changed the course of the 1999 final" which Woodvale lost by 15 runs and Johnston admits that although he missed the Millennium decider to injury "we shouldn't have been in the final but again our team-spirit got us through".
After such a long wait, the 2013 team are determined to make this Sunday a day to remember.
"We are meeting for breakfast, we have a bus organised, to take us to Muckamore, we are buzzing. If you win a final you are talked about 10-15 years later, so we are dying to bring the Shield home," says Johnston.
"Muckamore are massive favourites. They are on course to win all 18 league games and have already beaten us twice. The biggest compliment I can pay Muckamore is that they are the closest team we have ever played to being like us in terms of team spirit. Every person is going to fight for their wicket, fight for their club. They don't have a lot of 'blow-ins', they're all good clubmen. They are on a brilliant run and they will have the momentum going into the final."
Unfortunately, Woodvale will be without four first choice players for the final, with Andrew Kirkpatrick on holiday, plus wicket-keeper Will Frazer and and the Irwin brothers, Michael and Mark. But that will not deflate the club's confidence.
"I personally think that we are the best team in the league when we play to our potential," says Johnston. "Muckamore have been playing to their potential every week that's why they are on such a tremendous run, but on our day we can beat anyone.
"But there's no point saying it we have to go out and do it. And no better time than on Sunday."