The iconic image from Strabane’s 1993 win over favourites Brigade was the sight of their West Indian professional Tony Johnson playing the guitar, singing Bob Marley as he flayed an increasingly demoralised Beechgrove attack to all parts of the Eglinton ground.
The game had been intriguingly poised as Strabane made a stuttering start as they replied to a turgid total of 126, which had taken Brigade 60 overs to amass. Brothers Michael and John Gillespie, as well as Keith Finlay had all gone cheaply. Johnson and Mark Gillespie were the key wickets but for all Brigade’s efforts, the pair produced a match-winning partnership of 132.
Johnson launched a blitzkrieg assault as he hit 10 fours and 5 sixes in his 92 from just 51 balls, and produced just the sort of innings skipper Michael Gillespie had been hoping for in the build-up.
“Everyone knew how talented and fearsome Tony was with the ball but within our club, we knew he could be equally explosive with the bat so in the week leading up to the final, we were literally pleading with Tony to occupy the crease for at for a half an hour during the game. He batted for approximately 32 minutes and the rest is now history.
“Tony Johnson was probably the most talented cricketer I ever played with. At that time we had a great team, we had great times making great memories. I remember those times very fondly..... even the crazy stuff that went on.”
The final wasn’t without controversy for Johnson though, who was warned twice by umpires Dermot Condon and Harry Henderson for intimidatory bowling.
“As captain in the final, I was tasked with calming Tony down, after the umpires had told him that he couldn’t bowl any more short stuff. Tony was fuming and the next ball, he pitched up and Alan Rutherford hit him on to the Eglinton clubhouse roof. As you can guess, Tony went ballistic with rage.
“That same season, we came within a whisker of getting a play-off for the League, when we were controversially denied a victory against Donemana at The Holm. Tony had another genius innings in that game but it wasn’t to be.”
For former Irish international wicket-keeper Allan Rutherford, the match hasn’t such happy memories.
“For me that final was a very one-sided game dominated by the ever reliable Terence Patton and Strabane’s talented professional Tony Johnson.
“Tony really enjoyed the large crowd and the more they shouted it felt that he hit the ball further. Any chance we had of winning was taken away by Tony and Mark Gillespie, who proved the perfect foil for Tony.”
Johnson himself remembers the match vividly, despite it being 27 years ago.
“I remember that day well....the umpire was ahead of his time with regards to the short ball rule. To say steam was coming out of my ears when Allan hit that six was an understatement. I just wanted to knock the batsmen out after that because he was chirping away at me, whilst backing away.”
As Brigade tried to get a rise out of Johnson, his singing and big hitting soon dampened their enthusiasm for a contest.
“‘Three Little Birds’ by Bob Marley is the song I was singing in the photo... “Don’t worry about a thing. Cause every little thing is gonna be alright” “I sang it all the way through the innings. They were not happy with me at all. They were sledging and I was singing especially to Smythy who had dropped me early on out on the boundary!”
Brigade’s ploy of sledging was one used by many teams, and indeed by Strabane themselves to motivate their star performer as Michael Gillespie remembers well.
“Right throughout that 93 season, some of the lads used to feed Tony (who was new to NW cricket) false stories about what players in the opposition teams were supposed to have said. It used to wind Tony up to serious heights of anger and he became even more ruthless when he got annoyed.
“One famous story was the day we scraped to just over 100 against Brigade at Beechgrove and one of the lads (who shall remain nameless) told Tony that he overheard a few of the Brigade lads (Tooty and Smitty) saying that they wished we had scored more runs because they wanted some batting practise.
“Tony was fuming with rage, so much so that he wouldn’t go in for tea at the break. He sat rocking in a chair at the front of the changing rooms staring menacingly at the wicket -we bowled Brigade out for 70 with Tony doing serious damage!”
While Johnson grabbed the headlines, former Ireland Chairman and President Joe Doherty was also quick to praise the efforts of Terence Patton senior and Mark Gillespie.
“When one looks at the scorecard for the match (at bottom of article), you can see that the deserved man of the match was our veteran seamer Terence Patton who took an astonishing 14 wickets in the match.
“It is remembered by most people as ‘Tony’s final’, but that would be to overlook the man of the match performance of Terence Patton,” said Doherty.
The veteran opening bowler belied his 46 years to bowl unchanged in both innings, as he returned the remarkable combined analysis of 60 overs, 20 maidens, 14 wickets for 125 runs, following up his 8 for 63 in the first innings, with 6 for 62 in the second.
1993 was a great year for Patton with the ball, as he topped the NW averages with 85 wickets at 10.50 winning the BBC Radio Foyle Player of the Year award – presented to him by another veteran opening bowler, Dennis Lillee, the guest speaker. (see photo below).
Johnson also claimed 85 wickets as the two produced a formidable double attack that few could master. It is an incredible haul for both bowlers and will never be matched in modern times.
“My other abiding memory of the match was the innings of Mark Gillespie who steadied things by taking all Brigade could throw at him,” added Doherty. He took us away from the prospect of being in a low scoring dogfight and that stand with Tony set up the win.
“I still regard his innings as his best ever knock for the club. He curbed his natural free flowing instincts until big Tony joined him at the crease and the momentum of the game swung decisively in our favour. Mark was only 23 at the time and was widely regarded as a spin bowler who could bat, but that day he came of age.”
Going into the final Brigade were many people’s favourites to win the Cup that year, especially on the batting front where their in-form top five included Stephen Smyth who scored over 1000 runs that season, as well as Allan Rutherford, Marshall Kilgore, Ian Anthony and Colin Jeffrey. William Wilson, Dougie Huey, Mark Simpson, Ivan Nicholl, Wilson Torrens and Paul Wallace completed the line-up.
However, Strabane’s ploy of having a team get together two days before the decider proved a masterstroke which relaxed the team and settled any pre-match nerves as Doherty describes.
“Our boys were not one bit fazed by the prospect and in the final team meeting held in our house in Derry on the Wednesday night, they just couldn’t wait for Friday to come. The serious business of analysis, tactical planning and motivation gave way to banter and a fair degree of merriment as the tea, scones and other assorted refreshments came and went.
“At the end of the night, I can still see Aubrey Finlay, our secretary at the time, and big Tony discussing the relative merits of forward and backward defensive techniques - one armed with a brass shovel and the other with a pair of tongs from our front room. All this while the car engines were running in our driveway at 1 am! “
That of course, was only a prelude to the real celebrations on the Saturday night when we brought the cup home and Tony regaled the assembled throng with a wide selection from the Garth Brooks songbook. Great memories!”
After the first innings, Strabane led by 110 runs and the contest was effectively over after Brigade again struggled, making only 162. That left the Tyrone side with only 53 to get, and John Gillespie (35*) and Michael (15*) ensured an emphatic 10 wicket victory.
That cup final win was to prove the last Strabane success in the competition but was the catalyst for three senior league titles, the Faughan Valley Cup, Ulster Cup, Ulster Shield and the Royal Liver Irish Senior Cup in 1998.
The final did have one consequence though as the NW introduced bowling restrictions, limiting each to 15 overs maximum, before reducing it further to 10 a few years later. Gillespie accepts his guilt for that change, and paid tribute to the unused bowlers who accepted lower billing in the final.
“I bowled Tony and Terence straight through and didn’t make a bowling change until near the end of their second innings, at which point I brought on Mark and Cheeky Moorehead. Imagine two bowlers of their calibre not getting bowling in the first innings of a final! I have played with lots of players down through the years, who, despite our victory, would have been huffing for not getting bowling, but not those two and that was the measure of that particular unit, where the team came first.
“The North West changed the rules the very next season and brought in 15 overs per bowler! I was responsible for that rule change – sorry guys…”
The celebrations went on into the wee small hours in Strabane, with Johnson, who was a fantastic dancer, out on the dance-floor with the cup and then getting up on to the stage and singing.
After the dust had settled, Gillespie kept the cup close by his side, taking it on a pilgrimage to one long-time supporter.
“The day after the cup final, I took it to show it to Danny Browne. Danny was an umpire for a long time and was a footballer and cricketer of repute but he had never actually held or got a proper look at the NW Senior Cup, which is a wonderfully historic trophy.
“I vividly remember Danny trawling through all the winner’s names and recalling many of the names of the players who had played in the winning teams and telling me his memories of some of the games.
“I got as much out of those few hours as I did from the celebrations”
In the next episode of our series, we look back at the 1991 decider when Mark Simpson proved the hero with the bat as Brigade beat Eglinton in a last-over thriller.