North Down 1996 – 2021

North Down Hockey Club was founded in August 1896 by local cricketers and for all of it’s existence has been based at The Green in Comber.  The Club was a founder member of the Ulster Hockey Union whose various anniversary dates match those of North Down.

North Down finished their Centenary Year in 1996 on a high.  Celebration games against representative teams and a replay of the first ever game between Ulster club sides, Cliftonville the opposition, had been a success.  In addition, the first eleven having won the Intermediate league and cup double were back in Senior hockey. Brian Davis was in the middle of a long spell as Head Coach and was supported by Paul Johnston as Captain returning to the fold after a spell at Holywood 87.  Playing home games at Glenford Park in Newtownards, the double act took three years before, in April 1999, an undefeated league campaign saw North Down promoted back to the top league after having been placed out of it in 1959.

This success, together with the second eleven winning the Junior Shield in the two previous years and winning promotion to Junior One in 1999 for the first time in twenty five years, saw numbers flourish and for the first time North Down could field seven league teams.  Not to be outdone, in a three year period the thirds, fourths, fifths and sixths also achieved promotions from their respective leagues.

At long last in September 1999 the pitch at Comber Leisure Centre was converted to a synthetic surface, subsequently being re-laid in 2010, and the first eleven could return to Comber for home games.  Relegation back to Senior Two two years later brought an end to Brian Davis’ first spell as Head Coach and the Club in a daring move appointed an ex Linfield footballer to take over the reins in 2001.  Artie Hunter had only a cursory knowledge of the rules of the game but in his three years in charge achieved promotion in his first year, in the second which also saw the introduction of the Premier League he stabilised the league position with a four months unbeaten run and finished third in Senior One in his final year.

There was a notable date in the Club’s history in 2001.  On 3 February the fourth eleven drew 1-1 with Instonians fifths on the grass pitch at The Green, this being the last league fixture played on the ground after 105 glorious years.  At the time of writing it is still there.  Following over a century of pitch markings, the layout of the pitch can be clearly seen during periods of dry weather.  It could be used tomorrow!

In the following 2004/05 season under Cooper Duncan with Darren Rice as Captain, the first eleven had a strong eight win start to the season but this was abruptly halted by a 5-1 December home defeat at the hands of nearest rivals Kilkeel.  With only one further defeat and three draws including with Kilkeel, the league finished with North Down and Kilkeel tied on points.  In a closely fought play-off at Stormont, North Down secured promotion to the Premier League for the first time with a narrow 5-4 victory, the skipper scoring a hat-trick including the decisive winning goal.  Much celebration followed!

However, the stark reality back at the top level was that the team were not ready as evidenced by only two wins and a draw in the following league season as they made a quick return to Senior One for 2006/07.  The 2006/07 season however was the season that the second eleven, narrowly defeated in the McClements Cup final, were promoted back to Junior One and also the first on record that all North Down home games were played on astro surfaces.

2007/08 saw the return for a four year stretch of the Brian Davis and Paul Johnston partnership, this time as joint coaches with, also for four years, Richard Willis as Club Captain.  They did make a quick impact but five league losses, four home and away to Antrim and Civil Service, put paid to a return to the top flight.  Down the teams though, the fifth eleven, comprised mainly of North Down cricket members, were promoted from Junior Seven and won the Strabane Cup defeating their South Antrim counterparts 1-0 at Deramore Park.

2008/09 was a more eventful year with the fourth eleven winning promotion and the fifth eleven again achieving cup success, this time winning the Minor Cup by beating Instonians fourths 3-2 again at Deramore Park. Highlights of the year though belonged to the first eleven who defeated Antrim by the odd goal in an eleven goal thriller at UCD to win the recently presented Irish Trophy.  Andy Forrest scored a hat-trick in the game and eventually rounded off the season with a still standing Club record tally of 63 goals.  His efforts contributed substantially to a second return to the Premier League.

Off the pitch, 2009 saw the winding up of the Men’s’ and Ladies’ Branches to form the amalgamated Ulster Hockey Union.  Cliftonville and North Down, being the initial proposers of the then Ulster Hockey Union in 1896, were the two parties who proposed and seconded the resolution to wind up the Men’s Branch.

2009/10 saw the opening of the astro pitch at Nendrum College and the first eleven manage to retain their Premier League status for the first time although it was a close run thing.  They stayed up for a season after that as well before being again relegated to Senior One in April 2012.  The second, third and fourth elevens backed up the relative success of the senior team in 2010 by all achieving promotions and in February 2010 the last home shale game was played on the pitch at Park Way between the fifth eleven and Bangor fifths.  In fact the fourth eleven managed their third successive promotion in April 2011 having moved from Junior Leagues Six to Three seamlessly.

In May 2010 Jennifer Patterson became the first Lady President of the new Ulster Hockey Union and served with distinction travelling widely to carry out her duties.

One of the features holding together North Down is its status as a single men’s and ladies’ club, one of the season’s highlights being the Annual Dinner Dance and Awards Night held regularly at the La Mon Hotel and Country Club.  Some fifteen months before the event, it was noticed that a likely date for the occasion was 14 April 2012.  This coincided with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic whose Chief Designer Thomas Andrews had been a North Down member.  The date was quickly booked before anyone else realized and Titanic themed plans were put into operation.

On the night, there were different dress, catering and seating options for ‘first, second or steerage’ passengers.  Everyone was provided with a boarding pass styled on the original and allocated an actual passenger’s name.  On arrival, passengers were supplied with a welcoming cocktail with Titanic and iceberg ice cubes.  At precisely 11.40 pm, the time of the collision, the house lights were dimmed and the dance floor spread with a large quantity of ice by Purser Peter Bond in a sou’wester much to the displeasure of the proprietors.  An onscreen display was then turned on and passengers were able to find out if their alter ego had survived or not.

Away from the social festivities there were two cup successes in the 2011/12 season.  Having lost home and away in the league, the third eleven defeated Civil Service thirds 2-0 on their home pitch in the Junior Shield final whilst the fifths defeated Down 2nds 3-1 in the final of a hastily arranged League Cup competition.

Peter Whyte and Andy Coates as goalkeeping coach were in the middle of a three year spell which saw the first eleven just fall short in successive seasons to get out of Senior One.  Too many draws were not converted to wins and in 2013/14 they disappointedly lost 1-0 in a Premier League play off with Civil Service.

Growing numbers in the Club saw a re-formed sixth eleven in Junior Six and they finished their first season back with a 3-1 League Cup win in April 2013 over South Antrim fourths at Stormont.

July 2013 saw North Down formally take over the running of the Ards Borough Council Hockey Summer Scheme as the Council sought to divest themselves of this responsibility.  In the years since, this two weeks event has proven to be very popular and has provided many new players not only to the North Down youth section but to other clubs in the local area.

Aaron Mills was appointed Head Coach for the 2014/15 season with Philip Wilson as Captain and in their first season in charge despite five league defeats, but with only one draw, they were back in the Premier League for the third time.  The disparity in standards of league hockey had started to become apparent in the two previous seasons but this was the first time North Down had exceeded double figures four times in a campaign with one club shipping 31 goals in three league and cup games.

The second eleven meanwhile had been up and down to Junior One several times in preceding seasons and although 2014/15 was a ‘down’ year they did manage to beat Instonians thirds 2-1 to win the McClements Cup at Stormont.

October 2014 saw the opening of the excellent astro pitch at Regent High School and all of a sudden, after having to struggle to find enough astro slots, North Down were now spoiled for choice.  The pitch at Glenford Park which had been a lifesaver for the Club gradually fell into disuse before in 2020 being demolished.

A reconstruction of the Premier League in Aaron Mills’ second season in charge saw the formation of the Irish Hockey League and a dilution of the standards in the top Ulster league.  This meant that for Mills’ second season, an horrendous series of results in the first half of the season did not result in a loss of status as the ship was steadied late on.  In fact, a strong performance in the Anderson Cup at the end of the campaign saw North Down lose on penalties to Kilkeel in the semi-final, the significance of this being that the Anderson Cup remains the only domestic senior trophy never won by the Club.  The seconds meanwhile made it back yet again into Junior One!

In other respects, 2015 was a sad year for North Down.  Within a few months we lost both Brian Davis and Terry Ritchie after long illnesses.  Although Brian’s formal coaching role ended in 2011 he retained a close connection to North Down and was always available if an opinion or view was required.  Terry had taken on youth coaching responsibilities early in his coaching career and for two years was also ladies Head Coach. He coached the second eleven in 2012/13 and 2013/14 until he had to call it a day through illness.  They were, and still are, both sadly missed.

Gareth McKeown, redesignated as Director of Hockey, took over the reins in August 2016 with Ross Linter as skipper for a four year stretch.  Although their league performance was at best average, they had a strong performance in the Irish Trophy scraping through on penalties in the semi-final in Limerick.  Near neighbours South Antrim were the opposition in the final at UCD and for the second time North Down got their name on the cup with a narrow 3-2 win.

The 2017/18 season started with North Down heading the table for the first time and leading into mid November before three defeats put them back into mid table.  A strong finish to the season saw them finish in their best Premier League position

The third eleven had a St. Patrick’s Day League Cup final 4-0 win over Newry seconds but North Down’s highlight of the season, and probably the entire 25 year period of this review, was the performance of the second eleven.  Captained by Stephen Magee they started the season hoping to consolidate their position in what has always been one of the toughest and most competitive leagues in Ulster Hockey.  By Christmas, with six wins and 18 points they were hopeful that the ever present threat of relegation was over.  In the new year, a run in the Irish Junior Cup finished at home in a 4-4 drawn semi-final with Glennane seconds, losing on penalties.  However, in the league the wins, and one draw, just kept coming.  It wasn’t until April that Lisnagarvey thirds and then Instonians seconds in May recorded their only defeats and so it was that, come the middle of May, North Down seconds finished as Junior One champions!  A fantastic achievement!

In May 2017 the Club made a subtle but significant change to its Constitution.  Ladies teams had been formed in 1961 and they had simply been assimilated into the Club without the creation of a ladies’ section.  A number were co-opted onto the General Committee and in the early 1970s the Constitution was further changed to mandate for equal representation on the sixteen strong body.  In a move showing, we believe, the growing strength and maturity of the Club this clause was further amended to remove any reference to gender.

On the pitch, league promotions for the third, fourth and fifth elevens meant that when the 2019/20 season started, all four junior teams were playing in the first four Ulster Junior Leagues and the Club remains numerically strong bucking the trend in Ulster.  In the Premier League, although the season was ended early due to the Covid pandemic, the growing disparity in standards even in this league was still apparent as North Down, having inflicted several substantial defeats on other teams, still incurred two heavy double figure defeats themselves.

With most teams having played a maximum of three matches in 2020/21, just one in our first eleven’s case, the season was effectively written off in October 2020.  On the resumption of playing activities in May 2021, North Down opted not to take part in any of the Ulster Hockey organised fixtures instead choosing to run a five team in-house summer ‘Super League’.  The competitive nature of this ‘fun’ event showed, if there was any doubt, that North Down are ready for the new season and their 125th anniversary celebrations!

Jim Patterson

September 2021