In the first installment of the new ‘Wear It With Pride’ feature series here on JMSport, former Ireland international Ryan Haire discusses his life in cricket from boyhood club North Down right through to his time with the national side.
The idea behind ‘Wear It With Pride’ is to do a deep dive into a player’s career and the times that were most important and significant throughout their playing days, with certain episodes set to focus on the playing shirts that are most sentimental.
Haire has won nine league titles and seven Challenge Cup winners medals during his time with North Down to date and also picked up a Section One title with Muckamore.
Sit back, relax and enjoy this 4000 word feature with Haire, who talks about growing up at The Green, his move to Muckamore in 2015 and he speaks with honesty about his time with Ireland.
NORTH DOWN – 1ST SPELL
What was it like growing up at North Down?
“It was super. It was all about cricket and there were a bunch of us that grew up with our fathers still playing. Thinking back now, we were all between 7-9 and we were all running round at the club from no height, but in terms of formalised cricket we played for the Under-11’s, our dads were playing and we were always around the club after the men played and before with our short pitch set-up.
“It was our playground. They always seemed like better summers back then and that was all summer long and you just always seemed to have a bat or ball in your hand. To develop those early skills, there is nothing better than just spending time playing the game in whatever form it is.
“Everyone encouraged each other. There was a group of about 12 of us around the same age and we always just seemed to spend the summers together playing, competing with other teams. Playing school cricket started at 11 for me at Regent House which made it even bigger again.
“That was the very early days. I can remember in 1995 North Down played in the Irish Cup final against Bready and it was a super crowd and sun-drenched. A gang of 20 of us sat at the side of the pitch and memories like that of watching Charlie and Paul McCrum.
“We always trained with the firsts even from an early age and there seemed to be more men at practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and everyone wanted to play up the teams and practiced hard. You were bowling against the likes of Charlie and Paul who were Irish internationals long-term and just lived cricket themselves.
“That really brought us on alongside some really good coaches. We had some really inspirational cricketers that we wanted to emulate. You need to see guys live or on the screen doing things you want to do, and I suppose it makes you want to try and practice harder.”
Progressing through the youth system and into the first team, what do you remember about breaking in to the senior team?
“There were a number of us who were in around that 1st/2nd XI. I played my first 1st XI match from memory when I was 14 and it was alongside Charlie and Paul and my dad might have been captain of the team.
“We were short and I can remember only playing a handful of games around that period. I got a bowl and I don’t know if the scorebook has it in black and white, but I got 7/20-odd against Bangor in Section One which was the top league then. I was bowling leg-spin so I must have landed a few and bamboozled a couple of guys!
“Leg-spin isn’t something you see very much of in local cricket and that came from watching Shane Warne on TV.”
Were you nervous going into 1st XI cricket at that age?
“I suppose I didn’t really know any different. It was just a chucked in at the deep end sort of thing and from there I played half the matches in the next season and into the team full-time at either 16 or 17.
“They were the early memories playing alongside those days. Either sitting watching them or on the same field as them. They inspired you to try and emulate their feats.
“I was also playing a lot of youth cricket. Alongside that, we were playing schools cricket. Andrew White is the same age and we were right up through school winning cups at 12-14 age groups and then up to medallion and Schools Cup – we seemed to be unbeaten the whole way through with a great side.
“We won the Graham Cup at North Down for the first time in years in 1995. That was a big day out and we all met up for breakfast and had our school shirts and North Down ties on. Those sort of things are the real drivers for young lads and it keeps you for life.”
The team you were part of was so dominant in the NCU. Why do you think that was?
“Back when that started, we were relegated in 1997 from Section One. We were mainly a young team and there were quite a few of us around 16 or 17. A guy called Michael Quinn was captain and we were unlucky to be relegated that year.
“We came back the next year and won the league in 1998. From then on in that decade we won seven out of 10 leagues. A couple of guys said that relegation can do you well and you can bounce back. We all wanted to play and enjoyed playing together. I suppose it was like the Waringstown side five or so years ago where you had guys in early-20’s coming through who enjoyed each others company, practiced hard and did well.
“Back in the early-2000’s there were no overseas guys. There were no Kiwis or Australian guys with Irish passports. You had your professional and that was it. Everyone else was local and in a real local sense. We had guys like David Kennedy from Ballymena wanting to come and join North Down to win trophies. You were able to attract guys as well as having a core of dedicated guys and a top pro.
“We landed Taimur Khan who came in 1999 and stayed right through that period winning those leagues and Senior Cup’s. Unfortunately there is no Irish Cup to show for those years which is the real shame looking back now. You had the likes of Trent Johnston, Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha who had joined North County and they were winning Irish Cup’s.
“There were strong teams in Leinster and they had a scattering of Irish passport holders to come up against. We were unlucky and we didn’t even make a final.
“Those local years of success was built on four or five guys coming through and I can’t underestimate the impact of Taimur. He was a Pakistan A international and was picked to captain that team one year in the early-2000s when he was with us. He bowled at good pace moving the ball both ways and scored runs at a canter. He was the best pro by a mile and was back year after year, whereas other clubs were bringing guys in and out.”
Having the time to sit back and think about it, how special was that period playing with family members and winning trophies?
“My brother was at North Down and my dad was in that team in the 2000’s still playing and it was great. It was good to be around guys you grew up with.
“Sometimes it can be awkward playing with family members I have to say! I remember for example in the early-2000’s that my dad was at Downpatrick playing for a year and he came back mid-season with Billy Adams. They came back and I was off the team all of a sudden and we got to the semi-final of the cup. It just shows you that it isn’t always sweetness and light!
“They are special memories and it was very enjoyable. It was always for me a hobby and it makes me laugh a bit when guys talk about ‘careers’ in local cricket. It was always a hobby, always fun and I think that element has always stayed with me and allowed me to keep playing.
“I’m 38 now and the fun is still there for me now which is great. It hasn’t gone away and I’m always looking forward to the new season so long may that continue.”
Did you fancy a new challenge when you moved to Muckamore?
“I had been involved in the youth set-up with North Down from the age of 18 as a coach. Back in 2001 I got my coaching qualification. North Down were struggling for youth teams so I restructured and got Under-13 and Under-15 teams back.
“We actually won the All-Ireland in the mid-2000’s at Under-13 then the same bunch with the likes of Peter Eakin and Alistair Shields won the U-15 title. That group were similar to the one we had back at our age group.
“I always enjoyed the coaching side of it. North Down made a decision over the winter that they weren’t going to remunerate. It was a big thing for me in the summer and I coached around other clubs as well.
“Muckamore said they wanted me to come and do some coaching with them and I started doing that and they said it would be great to have me there long-term so if I was interested in playing there too. I got chatting to them and fancied the challenge.
“They were in Section One and looking to get up. They are an ambitious club and they are very passionate. They are similar to North Down in the sense they are a non-Belfast club out of the city who are passionate about the game and looking to promote it in their city and around schools.
“I helped with their restructuring of the youth and development. We brought in some grant funding and I played and coached there for three really enjoyable seasons. We got back up and managed to stay up which had been Muckamore’s problem.
“For me, it was mission accomplished and I was only there for the three seasons. Even from the start, I told them that I wanted to go back and play at North Down before I stopped playing. It was a matter of time and I wanted to go back to play on the 1sts. I didn’t want to be totally past it. I wanted to contribute and win something.
“It was a no brainer to come back with living five minutes from the ground and having a young family. Thankfully, the guys have been very welcoming of me back to my home club and there’s been no animosity. It’s went very well and I’ve settled back in to helping with coaching and playing.”
Would you look back at that period with Muckamore as a success?
“I definitely would. I was coaching twice a week going straight from work and working with guys for a couple of guys before senior practice. Sam Gordon, Aditya Adey and Jamie Magowan – guys who had real talent but were maybe thinking about where they could go with the game.
“I said to them that they’ve got a chance to make a go at cricket that I didn’t have. It’s now professional and you can make something playing for the Knights now. Bringing those guys through and them playing a part of getting back to the Premier League, where you need to be to develop as a cricketer, was great for them and the club.
“We progressed off the field too with some local grant funding and getting into local schools. There were a few programmes that got their youth up and running and now their youth from what I hear is very strong. They’ve taken that to a new level now.
“I suppose that was the whole package of what the guys contacted me about and it’s great to hear that it’s bearing fruit now.
“They were very unfortunate to go down this year. With a better professional they would have stayed up. You need to get the best guy you can afford and he will keep you up. The rest you can sort out and their choice in the last few years probably hasn’t been as clever.
“Hopefully they can get back up to the Premier League because they are a great club and are very passionate.”
From a playing perspective, was it difficult going from winning trophies and Premier League cricket to Section One?
“It wasn’t too difficult. Everyone says there is a massive gulf in standard but almost every team had an overseas player from what I can remember.
“We played in the Irish Cup for a couple of years and did rightly. I remember beating Coleraine who had won the North West league the year before and us winning a couple of T20’s and winning the league to get back up.
“The pitches were the main difference. Going from decent batting wickets to completely bowler friendly wickets certainly didn’t help any of us, but we had a decent bowling side and personally I enjoyed bowling a lot more than I had in the previous five or six years before that.
“Getting some runs and wickets was still really enjoyable at that standard and I always said to the guys that it’s a battle every week because you aren’t just battling with your opposition but with conditions in that league. You’re not turning up to a road and probably need to be better prepared than you are at The Lawn or North Down where you know there’ll be runs scored.
“I enjoyed that side of it and it balanced out the difference in playing standard and filled that void. It’s all about how you approach it. You have to want to be there and have to want to play.
“You could have very easily threw your head up and blamed this and that, but it was just about winning at the end of the day and we got back up eventually. We lost our professional Avdoot six games into the season in the first year and we would have got back up with his runs then.”
NORTH DOWN – 2ND SPELL (2018-PRESENT)
It sounds like going back to North Down was always the plan. Why then (in 2018) and what were the reasons behind it?
“I was around the club over that winter and I told Muckamore I would be there for the three seasons and that I always wanted to go back and play on the 1s at North Down while I could.
“I didn’t want to go back as a 2nds player or to hobble around the pitch. I wanted to try and contribute and I chatted to Alistair Shields who was taking on the captaincy and he thought I could contribute, so that was enough for me.
“Personally, I live so close to the ground and I was still keen to train and stay fit during the week so getting to training was a lot easier. With the kids now, it made sense just to be closer to home I suppose.
“I intend to play as much as I can next season and hopefully we can do something because I this side now with a good professional in Ruhan who has had a good few seasons is probably at their peak.
“I can’t see the guys improving much so it’s all about application and next season is our year to make the most of it. It’s a lot harder now and all the other clubs recruit and bring players in. It’s a lot more competitive but that makes it even more enjoyable when you roll over a so called ‘bigger’ side.
“That competitive element is still there which helps week on week to get you to training and keep you playing.”
IRELAND (capped seven times)
Was going on to play for Ireland always an aim for you?
“It was. I always wanted to even back as a teenager growing up when cricket wasn’t a career. I knew of very few guys coming out of the Ireland U19 side that I played in that wanted to or did go across the water to get trials.
“The guys that did played well and got County contracts and were off into the sunset. The likes of William Porterfield but I suppose I was the generation just before that. Some of the guys were lucky enough and got contracts but I suppose the structure and format wasn’t there.
“That’s not making excuses personally for myself, but guys with exceptional talent were signposted and others that could maybe improve there wasn’t a structure in place to help them improve.
“For me personally, it was about going to university and working. I had two or three part-time jobs to fund university and have a roof over my head, so that’s what it was all about.
“I stayed on and trained with the squads ahead of the first World Cup in 2003 so I was in and around the side after making my debut following the U19 World Cup playing for Ireland. I was around for a few years and in training squads but even training back then was sporadic.
“It didn’t have the structure and format of the winter programme now. I found myself driving to Dublin to throw tennis balls for three or four months in the middle of winter on Sundays and I have to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it. Other guys could enjoy it and stick it out but I couldn’t. I needed to work on Sunday’s.
“There was no pay so it wasn’t as if you were there getting a salary. Very quickly I exited the scene after playing a few games. I only came back and played a couple of games when I was employed by Cricket Ireland in 2008 when half the team was missing and they needed someone to go to Scotland.
“That’s the snapshot of my international career if you want to call it that. I do regret not sticking with it a bit more.
“I was a scholar at the university and myself and Andrew White did training sessions and fitness training. It just didn’t work out. I knew Jeremy Bray, Andre Botha and Trent Johnston would be in the XI for the 2003 World Cup and you feel like a bit-part of the training sessions.
“I was in my early-twenties so could have stuck with it but it was a fine line for me and I needed to earn money and get a job. That very quickly swayed my opinion unfortunately.
“You never know what could have happened or what could have been, but that’s for another day.”
What do you remember about making your debut and how special was that moment?
“I remember I played up at Eglinton against the MCC. It was a damp day and they were a touring side full of ex-County players and Ireland always played them.
“I can remember John Wright, who was a great guy and was Irish Cricket Union president and managed the team back before Roy Torrens I think. John gave me a call that I was playing and I think it was a Sunday game and said they’d love me to play for Ireland.
“It was brilliant. I was made up to do it. I felt like a little boy walking into the changing room and you have guys like Angus Dunlop, Kyle (McCallan) was in the team already, a young guy himself and a lot of other guys who had senior caps and experience.
“The only downside for me was that I got 30* and then the rain came when I was going rightly and eyeing up a fifty! That’s the way the game goes and you can’t have everything. Making the debut was enough.
“It was just a great experience to get that cap. I had grown up with Ulster Schools, Ireland Schools, Ireland Under-15 to Under-19 and all these age groups in preparation for it. I went to the U19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000 which was a real experience for us.
“It was just fantastic to make my debut and it was the culmination of all those youth squads and those Sunday training sessions. It was a great experience and day.”
When you came back into the squad in 2008 you got a half-century against Scotland. Did that ever make you think about having another crack at it?
“We played a tri-series with Scotland and New Zealand at Aberdeen. From memory William Porterfield and Kevin O’Brien were missing, and there were three or four guys who were regulars not involved.
“I got a call while I was working in the cricket office at Stormont, we had just moved there working as a development manager for the NICA (Northern Ireland Cricket Association) and then Cricket Ireland came into existence. They said they were short and if I would be interested in going the following week with the team.
“It took me by surprise and I asked who they had asked to play and they gave me a list of guys and I said OK. I went over to do a training session a day or two before it and I really enjoyed the buzz and atmosphere.
“It was enjoyable. I got a few runs against Scotland. I remember batting with Andrew White and Andrew Poynter and the guys were saying I was going well. I just played it as if it was a club game and not allow it to go to my head. I didn’t try to over-complicate things,
“I really enjoyed that knock against Scotland but New Zealand’s bowling was on a different level. I remember facing Jacob Oram and the ball coming up past my gloves and off the seam a few times and thinking I was going to really struggle.
“It was a brilliant experience and the team were going to Holland for an Inter-Continental Cup match the following week or week after that and I didn’t get any leave off work to go with Ireland.
“I was 27 at the time and knew I wasn’t going to be a regular in any team. I had decided before getting the call that I had no ambitions for Ireland. I wasn’t training with the squad over the winter. Inter-Provincial cricket obviously wasn’t there so you were straight out of a club match and onto the pitch for Ireland. I just knew it wasn’t a goer.
“That was that basically. I couldn’t get away for the next game and the rest is history. I didn’t get a call or invite to any squad again. There was a coach change around the end of that season as well and that was the end of that.”
When doing some research for this, I see a couple of things that suggested you preferred club cricket over international cricket and you’d give that precedence. Is that true?
“No I wouldn’t say that’s true. Any time I was asked to play or invited to join a squad I did. I had gone right through those youth squads and into the senior side, so i think that line or opinion comes from me saying I know I’m not going to make this team so I need to get a job and get a roof over my head.
“I remember staying on guys sofas when I was a student and it wasn’t fun. There wasn’t the support at that age and someone to say just go and train and do your best. It was an easy choice to opt out of those early Sunday mornings when you know you’re not getting into any team and you want to go and work.
“That’s probably where that comes from. Club cricket is on a Saturday and you’re always going to play that.
“Back then, there was no remuneration for your time and it was a lot easier to say I can’t go because I’m working.
“Now would be a different story from what I know now and seeing how cricket is. Players can make it now if they try, have the dedication and talent to stick with it. I always encourage young guys to stick with it. It was just a different era.
Very few people get to play for Ireland so I suppose you just look back at that period with immense pride to get that far?
“Very much so. I was very proud to do it and proud of myself also in 2008 to say yes. It’s like when a second or thirds player steps up to pull a team out of a hole – it felt like that funnily when they guys said they needed me to play.
“I could have easily said I don’t fancy going to Aberdeen and to try someone else, but I thought I may as well go and see what it’s like. I was really proud to score runs against Scotland that day.
“It felt good being out in the middle. It was a lovely pitch and place to play. It was great to be around the Irish guys and see the change those few years later from when I made my debut when we hardly did a warm-up never mind train two days before.
“It was great to see how Irish cricket had come on from the World Cup. I have no regrets in terms of that and I’m proud to have got on the pitch with an Irish jersey.”