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Umpire Gary hoping to write cricket history in Friday's Challenge Cup final

By Ian Callender

Gary Blair expects to make history on Friday when he umpires the Gallagher Challenge Cup final between Waringstown and Civil Service North.

Blair will become the only man to play and umpire in both the Senior and Junior Cup finals in the NCU — and he is suitably proud.

“Alan Neill played for Downpatrick against my beloved Lisburn in the 1977 final and has gone on to umpire in the Challenge Cup final but I don’t believe anyone has also umpired a Junior Cup final, which I did in 2015, having also played in the final (in 1986 and 1992). So it would be nice to think I was creating a part of history at Comber on Friday,” said Blair.

The former Lisburn player is in only his sixth season as an umpire, having answered a call from the Umpires Appointments Secretary, along with Michael Foster, who will be his partner in the middle for the highlight of his short career.

“Fozzy and I answered Ian Houston’s call for help in 2013. Their numbers were badly depleted so they asked every club to supply two umpires and my genuine intention was to help out and do a couple of games a year,” said Blair.

“But in that first year, I did a lot of Lurgan and Derriaghy matches — you didn’t get Premier League matches in your first season — and the people that grabbed my attention were (overseas professionals) Niranjan Godbole and Kaushik Aphale.

“Nothing will ever beat playing cricket — ever — but when physically not capable then to watch Godbole, from the bowler’s end, batting with his array of strokes or Aphale and see what the bowlers do with the ball, I thought, ‘I’m bitten here’ and wanted more and more of it. It’s a cliché but it’s the best seat in the house.”

Blair’s first memory of the Cup final comes from 1976.

“I remember going on the supporters’ bus to the final between Lisburn and Waringstown at Downpatrick. It was a superb summer, much like this year, and we were beaten by a very, very good Waringstown side. I was nine then so I didn’t appreciate the Harrisons and Bushes, those legendary names,” he said.

“Lisburn were back in the final the following year against Downpatrick and as a 10-year-old, having beaten Waringstown in the semi-final, I thought we were bound to win this one. But no, Noel Ferguson scored 98 in the second innings and beat us.

“And I remember 1985, (former hockey international) Jimmy Kirkwood’s final. He was head and shoulders above everyone else in that match, he scored 81 and no one else got 50.

“I also remember Davy Dennison scoring a cracking 100 (in 1983) for Waringstown so the Cup final is the biggest game in our season, always has been, always will be. When growing up you never thought you would be involved in it as a player and now to get the chance to umpire it as well, I feel blessed.”

The final Blair did play in did not bring fond memories but it was a season to remember.

“We shared the league title with Cliftonville and reached the semi-finals of the Irish Cup, but in the first innings of the Cup final we got blown away, bowled out for 90,” he recalled.

“We did well to take it deep into the fourth innings, and if we could have got Ross (McCollum, the current Cricket Ireland chairman) early, we would have had a chance, but he got 50 not out and they were always winning it.

“But that was as good a Lisburn side as the modern era had ever seen. Not because of Gary Blair but the Doaks (Neil, the future Ulster rugby coach) and (Uel) Grahams.”

At 50 years of age, Blair does not expect to reach the heights that Neill has achieved, involved in Ireland’s first Test match this year, but “for a wee boy from Lisburn to umpire in the Cup final I first saw in 1976, it’s special”.

“I hope come Friday no one is talking about me and Michael.”

If he goes unnoticed, he will have had a good game — the exact opposite of life as a player.

Belfast Telegraph

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