In Clontarf we were seeing a worrying trend, as captains took to emigrating as soon as they completed their stint in charge. Michael Rea had taken off to London as soon as he did his turn in 1994 and now Johnny Fitzpatrick had headed to Miami after his successful campaign in 1995.

Brian MacNiece took over as the man in charge for the 1996 season, he must have wondered what lay in store for him.  He had more immediate problems to face though.

Clontarf’s captain in 1996, Brian MacNeice

Losing Fitzer was a problem but added to that Angus Hancock and Seamus Boylan had gone travelling, Ronan O’Reilly was playing the first half of the season with Trinity and Peter Prendergast had a long term injury that would stop his participation for a couple of years.  

It was no surprise that we had an iffy start to the season, losing our first three games.  It meant that I was the old man of the side now and an old man who had a shocker of a season, it should be added. I really began to feel my age (I was actually only 31) when I looked up from my spot in the changing room to find Keith Spelman sitting directly opposite me.  

When I began playing first team cricket, I would always make sure that I was early to the ground, particularly home games when I was not reliant on lifts.  Oftentimes it meant that the under 13s were finishing up their game as I arrived. Every time, a little lad would approach me and tell me how he had done before wishing me the best of luck.  

This was Keith Spelman, aged 7 perhaps.   Already marked out as a talent, he was constantly in the nets with his brother Karl.  The Spelmans lived in the house right beside the nets and to ease the passage into the ground, they had built a door in their back wall to help the lads get to the ground even quicker.  Back then Keith or Spellers, as he was universally known, was a left arm swing bowler and a very good one too.  

However one year, the committee tasked then club coach John Lyon with developing a spin bowler since there seemed to be a dearth of them in Castle Avenue.  Keen to earn his bonus, John simply took his best swing bowler and turned him into a spin bowler.  It paid immediate dividends. While he may well have become an outstanding swing bowler in time, it was great work from John to help Keith make the change quickly and painlessly.  

And here he was at 16 or 17 taking his chance on the firsts.  When I look back over my Clontarf career and think of players that I loved playing with, Keith is one of the first to come to mind.  Players such as Alan McClean, Peter Prendergast, Brennie Bergin will always come out top but Spellers is very close to them.  I loved the way he played the game, his love of a battle, his never say die attitude, as much as his cricketing excellence.  

These qualities were apparent from his debut season.  In a home game against Pembroke we were chasing 184 but with 10 overs left we were 120 for 7 and struggling. However with Johnny Daly initially and then Johnny Barry and Dessie McCann it came down to the final over. Dessie and Keith, the final pair, were at the wicket, seven to win which became four to win but lose his wicket and we lost, Spellers on strike. A single was all he could manage despite a decent connection to the deep square leg boundary.  

He was distraught despite his team mates assuring him that a draw in such circumstances was a very positive return.  Still he could not be consoled.  “That’s what you dream of” he told me only just holding back the tears “These are the games you play in your head and hit the last ball for 4 and win”  

It said everything about him and he never changed.  Later he would go to Sri Lanka with Ireland Under 19s at a World Cup and was outstanding.  He played for the Irish Development XI a number of times but the senior call never came.  

When he finished school he went to college in Waterford. So Friday evening he would get the bus back to Dublin before getting a train to Belfast where training was based back then.  And the reverse trip on a Sunday. He was highly rated by Mike Hendrick but the toll on him and his enthusiasm was too much. In time he moved to Australia and is still a welcome visitor to Castle Avenue when visiting his mother Lillian. But 1996 saw him start on his senior journey and with some success. 

Keith Spelman (right front) with 4th team in 1994 and beside Dickie Spence who died in 1996.

Clontarf despite player issues, got our act together in the early league, no longer called the Wiggins Teape, who had withdrawn their sponsorship, but the 50 Overs League, and finished mid table.  The Senior League was retitled the River House League and was played in the second half of the season.   The Hills and Leinster qualified for the final or the 50 Overs after beating Old Belvedere and YMCA respectively.  The final took place in Milverton, the home of The Hills and they had first use of the wicket.  

A trio of talented youngsters and one slightly more mature citizen set the target of 203.  Thirties from Paul Mooney (opening the batting rather than the bowling in this case), Paddy Byrne, Declan Moore and John Andrews who had moved across to the Hills for a period were the solid basis of the total.  

The Leinster reply was dominated by the Byrne brothers Joe and Peter (Johnnie was playing too) but their 37 and 46 were not enough and they fell 18 short.  John Andrews was presented with the Man of the match award for his belligerent knock (weren't they always so) but when you look at the bowling figures it is hard not to wonder if Matt Dwyer didn't deserve half of that award.  Matt’s 13 overs cost just 18 runs and he took 2 wickets as well.  

In doing so he tied up the middle overs which created just enough pressure for Leinster to fold.  And who was surprised?, the previous day his 12 overs against no less than YMCA cost just 4 runs.  It's hard to express at a distance of nearly 30 years, just how good Matt was.  

He had started life as a decent seamer but his ability to turn the ball and his intelligence made him a fantastic spin bowler.  I remember a North Leinster game when captain Mike Halliday spotted the size of Matt’s hands. Matt was selected as a swing/seam bowler for the game “You must be able to spin the ball with mitts like that” he challenged Matt “Certainly can” responded Matt before Mike told him that that was what he would be bowling on this particular occasion and subsequent North Leinster outings.  

I don't know if this was the start of his spinning journey but he never bowled the quicker stuff for North Leinster again.  What is incredible was that Matt was still 2 years away from an international cap despite being the best bowler in the Leinster region pretty much every year, pros or not.  Thank God that the deserved cap finally arrived, he must have wondered if it would come. So one trophy in the cabinet out Skerries way, it wouldn't be the only one this year.

Clontarf headed up North for their Irish Senior Cup first round tie.  The old Bready ground was our destination and we got another North West thumping.  Our total of 164 was never enough.  Yours truly was sent packing by Roly Black, indeed looking through the scorecard, some great names jump out as well as Roly. Trevor Hamilton who has done such great work on the new Bready ground was playing,  Allan Rutherford, Mark Olphert too.  

Great NW names like Lecky and Curry are in there but the main damage was done by South African pro Alex Cilliers whose 74 stands out along with Rutherford’s unbeaten 51.  And even on the Clontarf listings is a name to savour, Karl McDermott was playing for us that day.  Bready had a good run to the Quarters that year but it was another North West side Brigade who won the trophy beating Leinster in the final and again a glance at the scorecard sends the memory into overdrive. Colin Jeffrey and Marshall Kilgore were the batting heroes but also on the team was Paul Wallace, Willie Wilson, Ian Anthony and a host of familiar names.

The local Leinster Cup was still left for us, well until Rush beat us in the first round by 9 wickets, that is.  Rush would make their way to the semi final where they came up against local rivals The Hill.  Defending only 154, they nearly did it but John Andrews and Matt Dwyer were the men at the wicket in the end and although the winning run only came off the last ball, who would have doubted either man.  So The Hills had a chance of a double when they took on Pembroke in the final with the game fixed once again for their home ground at Milverton.  

Skipper Matt Dwyer won the toss and batted.  He might have planned for a total in excess of the 200 his team scored. Barry Archer and Declan Moore had started well but it took the captain and Joe Clinton at the tail end of the innings to reach their final total.   A generous 31 wides was not in Pembroke’s game plan, in contrast The Hills gave their opponents nothing.  Matt, once again, was outstanding, his 12 overs costing just 11 runs and taking the wickets of Trevor Dagg, Stephen Mouton and Stuart McCready.  Victory was by 60 runs and a second trophy rested in the Milverton club house. This time Man of the Match was not in doubt.

All that was left was the River House League. This league allowed for the draw, it wasn't always a popular format, in some clubs.  One game stands out.  Carlisle struggled to 159 in the 60 overs that they were entitled to bat when inserted by Leinster.  Leinster had 50 overs to chase down that score but Trent Johnston had them 18 for 7.  J.P O’Dwyer and Mark Topping dug in.  With just 2 balls to go Topping was out but Leinster held on for the draw.  Honours even?   

Finally, Clontarf found their mojo and started winning games.  Ronan O’Reilly returned from Trinity and did well as did Andre Botha. The youngsters such as Spleman who by necessity had been introduced were beginning to feel comfortable and captaincy was suiting Brian MacNeice’s all round game.  We would go through the league season unbeaten and win the league by a commanding distance, in doing so retaining the title.  

The Hills season had some great highs but at the end of their league season it was Rush who made the leap into the A Section for 1997.

Clontarf's league winning side 1996
Back L-R Johnny Barry, Dessie McCann, Andre Botha, Paul Ryan, Michael Ryan, Brian Nolan, Andy Cullen, Ronan O’Reilly, Deryck Vincent.
Front L-R Dave McGeehan, Johnny Daly, Brian MacNeice, Tom Prior (Pres)