Our Sporting Lives with Duncan Lowry: 'Quality of life in New Zealand is so special, I promised dad I wouldn't leave'
Duncan Lowry on escaping Troubles for sake of his family, joy of captaining hometown club Glenavon to overdue trophy success and continuing football love affair down under
Duncan Lowry couldn't help but smile as he read up on the latest north-south football eligibility row, making headlines on the other side of the world.
Things are much more harmonious where the former Glenavon and Glentoran favourite of the late '80s and early '90s now lives in New Zealand. The Troubles were one reason why he packed his kitbag and left for the promise of a new life for his then young family that he, happily, says has been more than fulfilled.
It seems like no time since he was starring at Mourneview and The Oval, yet, now aged 54, he remarkably relates that he has lived longer in New Zealand than he did in his original hometown of Lurgan.
He hasn't lost the accent, though, or his pride in the Northern Ireland shirt he dons to watch Michael O'Neill's team play on television at ungodly hours.
The football rules were less complicated when he came into the world in 1964. You played for the land of your birth, plain and simple, and that is what made him smile amid the fire and fury of the great debate, raging all the way to New Zealand.
For his parents were then living in Scotland where his late dad Tommy, also a player of note, was making his name with Falkirk. Yet Duncan's birth certificate clearly states: Place of birth, Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast.
It is part of family folklore, as he explains: "My dad was determined that if I grew up to be a footballer that I would play for Northern Ireland and he was taking no chances. With my mum eight and a half months pregnant, he packed her onto the Stranraer boat so I could be born on Northern Ireland soil."
Tommy had hoped Duncan would go one better than the B international honours he gained in a rewarding career with Falkirk, Glenavon and Ballymena United with whom he won an Irish Cup medal against the Linfield team of Jackie Milburn's era in 1958.
Football is in the Lowry DNA, Tommy's brothers being Hugh and Sammy, of Glentoran fame.
Duncan never did make the big step into full-time and international football, but he still made Tommy proud as an intelligent, football-playing centre-half for the Glens and Glenavon who he captained to their first trophy after a 23-year famine in a famous 6-1 Budweiser Cup final replay victory over Linfield in 1989.
"My proudest moment in football," he says. "Until then, Glenavon hadn't won a trophy since 1966. That Budweiser Cup was the start of a revival, under Terry Nicholson, that saw us challenging for more trophies and playing in Europe regularly again.
"It couldn't have been better for me, a lifelong Glenavon supporter, growing up down the road from the ground and my dad having played for and briefly managed the club, too.
"We were nearly all local lads... the Dennison brothers, Robbie and Davy, John Willis, Fintan McConville, Dessie McCann, Stevie McBride, Alex Denver and Jimmy Gardiner. We also had a smashing player and character in Tony Scappaticci. I had the shock of my life last year when I heard he passed away.
"The final piece in the jigsaw that changed us from contenders into winners was the signing of Gary Blackledge from Glentoran. His doubters said his best days were behind him but he proved them wrong, from the start with a hat-trick in his first match. If he hadn't been injured on a title run-in, we might have won that as well."
Outside the football bubble, Lurgan, at that time, was a cheerless place, forming a corner of the notorious Mid-Ulster murder triangle.
Irish League players were leaving in their droves to work and play in a more tranquil climate in every way, a New Zealand connection having been formed through the former Glentoran player of the '70s John Hill who had emigrated down under and went on to play for the Kiwis at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Lowry decided to try his luck after speaking to his dad who gave the move his blessing. It was a wrench, too, for his wife Maureen, leaving her mum, Violet Thompson, a well known face around the Irish League grounds as one of the Glenavon Ladies group of true blue supporters. Violet, sadly, too, is a much missed presence at the club having passed away in November 2015.
"Our son Dai was leaving primary school and daughter Stacey was finishing college, so it was good timing for them to start anew," says Duncan. "It was a big step for me, though, never having been further than Spain. We went initially for three years, believing we would return and resume our lives in Northern Ireland at some point. But when we did go back, we had the feeling in reverse that our future lay in New Zealand.
"The Troubles didn't help. It annoyed me that a Glenavon team-mate of a different persuasion could come and live with us for six months in New Zealand yet when we returned home, we couldn't socialise together. That wasn't right.
"The quality of life we had experienced in New Zealand was just so different... the peace, the people, the weather and the beaches, oh my, the beaches. We live just a 12-minute drive from the most beautiful beach in the southern hemisphere at Mount Maunganui. I wouldn't change this place for anywhere in the world."
Lowry became part of an Irish League colony around the aptly named Bay Of Plenty, including the Glentoran hero Ron Manley, Ray McCoy, who was to return to Lowry's Glenavon to become a club legend, the goalkeeper Trevor McDowell who remained to become a Minister of the Church, Tony Ferris, brother of Newcastle's Paul, now back in the news with a best-selling autobiography, and the Larne boys Mervyn Montgomery and Noel Barclay who went on to play for New Zealand.
"We settled quickly," Duncan relates. "I was playing for Napier City in the stunning Hawkes Bay area. They were very good to us, organising residency and a job.
"The football was a similar standard to the Irish League."
His contract up, Lowry returned to Northern Ireland knowing his heart remained down under. And he immediately became embroiled in controversy when instead of rejoining Glenavon, as expected, he opted for rivals Glentoran.
"A lot of Glenavon people were annoyed," he reflects. "I did have an agreement with Terry Nicholson to re-sign for Glenavon if ever I returned. But the club had sacked Terry so I considered that agreement to have gone with him.
"Plus, it broke my heart to leave in the first place and, knowing I would go back to New Zealand, I didn't want to go through that all over again.
"Glentoran's manager Tommy Jackson was very persuasive. When he heard I might be coming back, he was on the phone every day, selling Glentoran to me.
"It wasn't a hard sell. They had a super side with great players like Alan Paterson, George Neill, Terry Moore, John Devine, Barney Bowers, Billy Caskey, Gary Macartney, Raymond Campbell and Seamus Heath.
"They won the league but I hadn't played enough games to qualify for a medal."
He found Glentoran a hospitable club but the lure of the Land of the Long White Cloud proved too strong and in 1993, the family returned for good.
For a while the Lowrys ran a motel. He became involved in football again, as manager of Taurango City, winning them back-to-back promotions before a parting of the ways. "A new committee came in and expected myself and my coaches to re-apply for our jobs. We weren't prepared to do that and left," he explains.
Now, after a short spell out of the game, he is back managing a side called Papamoa and loving the involvement, citing his old boss Terry Nicholson as his example. "I've taken a bit of everything I learned from all the managers I played under but Nicky taught me to be a players' manager and that has always stood to me," he says.
Away from football, he runs his own distribution business, delivering fresh orange juice to the bars and restaurants along that beautiful beach. "The climate is so temperate that I can go to work wearing shorts, almost all year round," he reports.
"It really is idyllic. We have magnificent scenery all around us and going to work every day along the beach is just incredible.
"This is my home now. I still speak to my mum, Eileen, back in Lurgan, on the phone all the time and I keep in touch with the goings-on in the news and sport in Northern Ireland through the internet. But we are full-fledged Kiwis now, naturalised citizens and passport holders.
"I remember well the last time my dad came here to visit. We sat by the beach and he looked all around and said, 'Son, promise me one thing, that you will never leave this place'.
"And I never will."