Back in 2006, Lawrence Moore sat down to talk with cricketing legend Brendan Donaghey, and we reproduce the interview below.
This week we’re delighted to continue our series of profiles with one of the legends of the local game, and certainly one of the most precocious batting talents we have ever produced.
I have to confess that up to three years ago I’d only ever heard about him, my limited ability as a player was to ensure that our paths rarely crossed. Such is his aura though I never miss any chance to catch up with him nowadays.
I also got my wish a few short weeks ago and played on the same side as the great man in the Sean Bradley Memorial game and can assure you he is still every bit as eager about the game today as he’s ever been.
At a mere 13 years of age, when most young lads would have been scrapping over marbles, Brendan Donaghey (pictured below opening the batting with Aubrey Finlay in the 1955 final) was making his senior debut for Sion Mills.
Brendan puffs out his cheeks when I ask him about the quality of that side: “Awesome I suppose would be the best word to describe it. Everybody will probably remember Ossie Colhoun, John Flood, Willie Kidd the superb John Faulkner and maybe myself, but believe me, that team could bat the whole way down. We won a lot of trophies in that era, and I was lucky to be involved at such a young age with such a great side.”
So how had it all begun? “Familiar old story “ he laughed, “my father “Wee Hughie” was a great cricketer himself. He bowled off about three steps, but boy he was deceptively quick. I remember some time ago an English touring team coming over, and their number included Norman Yardley who some of you will remember was captain of the England Test side. They played twice on that tour and my father clean bowled Norman on both occasions. A marvellous cricketer, and a lovely wee man..” he smiled.
For Brendan himself it all began in 1954, and his first game for Sion was against Brigade. “I scored 18 against them at their place in my first match, and don’t ask me how, but the following week, they had to come up to us. I hit 54 in the second match, and it just took off from there.”
Many triumphs followed, before 1962 when the young Tyrone man was faced with a dilemma.
“Wesley Ferris arranged for me to go on trial to Essex, and around about the same time the offer of a better job and the chance to move to Strabane was also available. My then girlfriend, Serena (thankfully my wife now) and I discussed it, and Serena (both pictured below) thought I should bite the bullet and head across the water. I didn’t like the idea of me playing cricket maybe 5 days a week, and her living in a flat in England on her own, and we eventually decided on Strabane. It’s a decision I have never regretted for a minute.”
At Strabane, Brendan fitted in superbly to another cracking side, and again he was highly complimentary of the players around him.
“The Strabane side at that time consisted of the likes of Paddy Gillespie, Gentleman John Devine, Joe Deans, Harry Cooke and the superb Ronnie Faulkner, and I really enjoyed that era. In 1966 we won the league and cup double under the captaincy of my brother Daniel, and that remains one of the highlights of my life. Daniel was a superb captain, he just read the game so well.”
Normally at this stage of our interview I would have asked Brendan about the number of medals he won or centuries scored, but it wasn’t hard to work out that he didn’t keep count. Indeed a good friend of his recently told me that he had never even practiced during his career, but I found that hard to believe.
“Oh I definitely practiced all right” he argued, “I practiced before an Ulster Cup game against Waringstown and scored 100, and practiced again before the Senior cup final against Donemana when I got a pair! I vowed I’d never practice again after that and I didn’t, but I did practice twice!”
I can imagine players nowadays telling their skipper that they wouldn’t be attending any practice, but would be around on Saturday to bat at number three, but then during our conversation I also got the impression that young Donaghey had his own mind about things at certain times, and was quite strong-willed.
He laughed when I suggested as much, and related an incident in his early days at the top of the order as if to prove me right.
“We were playing Brigade one day, and I had just come to the wicket. The minute I came in, their skipper Billy McSparron immediately called Roy Torrens and Marshall Williamson into the attack. I politely enquired if there was some agenda behind that, and Billy advised me “I know your batting is good enough, but I just want to check what your nerve is like..” I can’t tell you my reply in a family newspaper”.
The talented Tyrone lad had now come to the attention of the North West and indeed the Ireland selectors, but as soon as I brought up this particular phase of his career, got the impression that there were one or two issues outstanding.
“I played quite a few times for the North West in what was a truly superb team, and was also capped three times for Ireland, but in truth the rest is probably a discussion for another day. My Irish debut was against the touring Pakistan Test team, and I can’t quite remember his name now, but their opening bowler was by yards the quickest I’d met. He clean bowled me first ball with one that I never even seen. In the second innings, I went out with a different attitude, and did okay, scoring 22.
"The Test spinner Naseem Ul Ghani came on to bowl and my lasting memory of that game was hitting him for one of the biggest sixes I’ve ever managed, over the trees and out into the Dublin streets. In my next International I played at Lords against the MCC and top scored in both innings. Mike Brearley kept wicket for our hosts that day and was a really nice lad. There was only a handful of spectators at the game, but most of them were from Sion, and every touch either Ossie or myself got was loudly cheered, and Brearley asked me if I had brought my own fan club.
"My last Irish cap was against Worcestershire in 1966, and although I did okay and we drew the game, I didn’t feature after that.”
Brendan readily admits that the cricket was quite time-consuming, and he was lucky in that Serena gave him plenty of support, but that didn’t stop him falling out of the game for a considerable time.
“When I left Strabane I just didn’t fancy playing much, it was as simple as that. I stayed away from the game for close on six years, maybe having become disillusioned a bit. That was in the early seventies, and on hindsight, should have been my best years, but I was lucky that those were to be still ahead of me.
"After my spell out of the game I went back to Sion, and without having had a bat in my hand all that time, went straight into a game against Limavady and scored121 not out. The adrenaline was pumping again, but I was soon to be on my travels. There was some sort of inconsistency at that time about who held my registration, and whilst that was being sorted out, North Fermanagh came calling.
"I can honestly sit here now and tell you that whilst the Sion and Strabane days were filled with senior cups and leagues and great players, my time at Kesh was the happiest of my career. That club was superbly run by the likes of Bob Kerr and Bob Stewart and they were fantastic to my family and me. I spent six really happy years there, and whilst it was Division 2, it was a highly productive time for me in terms of runs.
"I also played alongside two real greats in Everton Mathis and Craig Stirk, and I am very grateful to everyone at North Fermanagh for those wonderful times”.
We turned then to players in the game who had impressed him, and I began by asking him which bowlers he had found most difficult to play against. “It may surprise a few” he smiled “but I found Raymie Millar of Fox Lodge to be very difficult. He could swing the ball both ways and was a real handful. Obviously John Flood was another top man, as was Joe McLaughlin of Eglinton. Another good lad and a very underrated bowler.”
As for the best player he’s seen, there was no hesitation at all.
“Decker Curry” he replied in a heartbeat (pictured above presenting Hall of Fame award to Brendan). Tommy Harpur was a superb player, and Packie Gallagher was the best skipper I’ve ever seen, but Decker is the complete package.”
I finished with the now usual question of the standard of cricket, and what he would like to see changed. “The standard has gone down, we all know that” he reasoned, “there are just so many more distractions nowadays, and it’s harder to get young lads interested, and keep them interested. The professionals have helped raise the profile a bit, but only Bobby Rao has made a real mark. He’s been brilliant for Irish cricket has Bobby. If I were to change one thing it would be to bring back the old Guinness Cup, the Inter-Pro series. I was part of the North West team which won the inaugural competition in 1966. We need that, the young players need something to aim at.”
Unlike many of his generation, Brendan still likes to get to games as much as possible, and admits to spending a lot of time at Strabane Park and Eglinton, and some points in between. “Luckily Serena is wee informed on her cricket and comes to games with me. If truth be told she probably knows more than me” he laughs.
As we ended our chat I was like a schoolboy who had just got to meet one of his heroes, and was already thinking about how to get it all down. He’s a legend in North West cricket, and a fantastic bloke as well. The greatest compliment I can pay him is that a colleague who hands out tributes as if they were tenners recently told me that Brendan Donaghy was “a lovely player”, and believe me that is some compliment.
I thanked Brendan for his time, but as I walked away he reached for me by the arm and said, “any friend you make in cricket will be a friend for the rest of your days…” I can’t get a better finish than that.