After winning first trophy in six years, Northern Knights looking to kick on

8. That’s the number of Northern Knights cricketers that have turned out for Ireland throughout 2019.

It would have been increased by one only for Jacob Mulder’s unfortunate back injury that ruled him out of Ireland’s upcoming World Cup Twenty20 qualifying campaign, while the likes of Marc Ellison, Josh Manley, Neil Rock and Matty Foster all played for either an Irish Academy or youth side.

Taking into account that talent pool and the depth that has been created at the Knights level, it isn’t hard to figure out why they broke a six-year wait to win some silverware when they were crowned Inter-Provincial T20 champions in August.

2019 has perhaps been the best year ever for the Knights in terms of development and success, and it will be a campaign that head coach Simon Johnston looks back on fondly.

“It rained a lot!” he said when reflecting on the season.

“I know a lot of people said we made big strides this year but I don’t think that was it – it was all the ground work we had put in for years before that.

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James McCollum batting for Ireland. ©CricketEurope

“The guys had put in an awful lot of hard work and we were building towards something, and I’m so happy the guys went out and showed what they can do.

“We had talked about it for two years and they were able to execute, so I’m delighted.”

Johnston has never been one to worry about how empty or full the trophy cabinet is – he is more focused on performances on the field and seeing his men progress from regional players to international stars.

There has been no shortage of them this year with James McCollum opening for Ireland with distinction, Mark Adair bursting onto the scene in quite glorious fashion and now the even younger members like Harry Tector and David Delany taking their chances and running with it.

Typically, it wasn’t winning a competition that was most pleasing for Johnston, rather the Knights ability to beat all-conquering Leinster Lightning on more than one occasion and over two formats.

Despite that, his squad won’t be resting on their laurels as the hard work starts once again ahead of another busy campaign in 2020.

“The big thing about that was we went on to beat Leinster twice after that, which we hadn’t been able to do.,” he added.

“That was a big event for us because we’ve done it once and now we know we can do it again. As I said to the guys at the end of the year, it’s done and dusted now and they are going to come back even harder so it’s important we kick on again.

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Mark Adair has been one of Ireland’s best performers in 2019 ©CricketEurope

“If we do what we did this year it isn’t going to be enough – we need to kick up another gear again next year.”

The biggest change this season was the full-time arrival of Gary Wilson as captain after his decade-long stay in the English County Championship with Surrey and Derbyshire.

While maybe not performing at his best following an eye injury that threatened to end his career, it is clear how important Wilson is to the Knights set-up.

“I know he’s getting a bit of flack in the press these days apparently, but Wilo coming back with that experience really has been phenomenal,” said Johnston.

“He added real value. I know he didn’t score the amount of runs he wanted to but as I said at the start of the season I was excited to see what his leadership would bring, and we saw it in spades.

“He just makes everyone around him 5-10% better.

“We met at the start of the year in the winter work and I explained where I was looking to take this and asked what he thought. He was very understanding and had his own views as well.

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Northern Knights captain Gary Wilson. ©CricketEurope

“I had a really good relationship with Shanno (James Shannon) and spoke about how that would take time to build with Gary, but I was surprised at how quickly we were on the same page.

“It probably only took a quarter of the season and then we were firing on all cylinders. Hopefully that will continue. That’s a very fluid thing and we have to make sure we keep evolving and driving the Knights on.”

It isn’t just about the top level for Johnston, who has a very keen eye and interest in continuing to develop players from the grassroots right up to the current Knights crop.

The weather ruined what was an exceptional Emerging Knights programme but Johnston has big aims and expectations with the whole pathway over the coming seasons.

“I was gutted this year with what happened with the rain because we had put such a good programme together, and the weather just totally scuppered us,” he added.

“With the Andrew White Academy tour at the start of the year, I think we will look to do that again this year and maybe bring out a younger age group, and hopefully if we get the funding a Women’s Academy as well. We are always looking to build on that.

“It starts at the grassroots and then we look to filter that up. We brought the Emerging Knights programme in a few years ago and it’s still the most important thing.

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Northern Knights leave the field. ©CricketEurope

“We have to give our better cricketers the chance to play at that level.”

The Inter-Provincial system came in for criticism this season after local club games were cancelled to allow for two T20 Festival’s – one in Pembroke and the other in Bready, which was eventually called off without a ball being bowled.

With Ireland’s Full Member status and the likelihood of more Inter-Provincial matches being needed in the future to keep our national team competitive, Johnston agrees with the overwhelming majority who have called for club cricket to continue irrespective of what is happening with the Inter-Pro’s.

“In my opinion, we are now at a point with professionalism and semi-professionalism that club cricket has got to go ahead when Inter-Provincial cricket is going on,” he said.

“I think something that caught us out this year is that we now have Irish cricketers. For 10 years, Leinster had an understanding with their clubs that their Irish players wouldn’t play but it isn’t something we have had before, so we haven’t had to deal with the problem.

“To be fair to all the clubs, they’ve all came round to understand that and they would rather play without them as long as they know in advance when they won’t have them.

“I’m not the guy who makes those decisions but I can only see that going on and in time Inter-Provincial cricket going on at the same time as club cricket and things like that.

“It seems to be going in the same way as Ulster Rugby, and I think if we treat that in the right way and clubs are well informed, I can only see it as a positive thing going forward.”

Producing Ireland internationals will remain the aim for Johnston, who is currently training for a Level 4 coaching qualification.

With his track record you wouldn’t put it past him providing more in the coming years, but even if it isn’t for the international arena, he wants to keep churning out cricketers that will help improve the club game at a minimum.

“Even with the likes of David Delany, just playing a small part in giving him an opportunity to play up here – it certainly wasn’t our amazing coaching or anything like that!” he said.

“It’s just giving those guys the opportunity to showcase their skills.

“We’ve just done a review of our Junior Knights pathway and the benchmark I always set is how many guys are we getting into the junior Irish squads.

“You’re hoping that most of the guys will want to kick on and play for Ireland, but even if they don’t you’re looking to create good Knights cricketers who will give back to the clubs and make them stronger.”

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