It would be fair to say that Neil Gill hadn’t been this excited for a new cricket season to roll around in quite some time.
Getting ready for another Premier League campaign has been standard practice over the last few years with Gill leading Muckamore to one of their longest sustained periods in the top-flight in decades.
With his boyhood club being relegated in the final game of their season, Gill still had a burning desire to test himself and play against the very best that the NCU has to offer.
So, for only the second season in his career, Gill will be playing his cricket away from Moylena after signing with Carrickfergus – one of the most exciting teams in the league.
Speaking to Gill, you get the sense a fire has been relit inside of him with the move. The thought of fresh beginnings has restored his true love for cricket and he has been putting in the work during the winter to make sure he hits the ground running at Middle Road.
Cruelly, it looks like that new start is going to be taken away from him – well, for at least a few more months–due to the coronavirus pandemic.
When Muckamore’s final Premier League game, which was ironically against Carrickfergus, was washed out and their relegation fate sealed in the harshest of ways, Gill would have known there was a big decision to make.
It was a season of near misses for his side. Three-run and one wicket defeats to Waringstown and Lisburn respectively in the space of two weekends would set the tone for what was to come before the former would return to haunt them once again, winning off the very last ball in the third last game of the season.
Being at Moylena that afternoon, an eery silence fell over the ground when the reality of what had just happened sunk in. Muckamore had came within a bat length of surviving. They had come so close yet were so far away still and it felt like that blow would eventually see them down.
It proved to be the case and in the following weeks, Gill confirmed his departure.
He has provided a lifetime of service to Muckamore, but this time it had to be about looking after himself and fulfilling that desire to be the best cricketer he can be.
“Getting relegated with Muckamore and the way it happened with the close games against Waringstown and Lisburn was really hard to take, especially for someone who has been there since they were eight and been captain for nine years,” he reflects.
“We kept them in the Premier League for three years which is probably the longest since the team in the late-sixties and early-seventies. To go down the way we went down was hard to take.
“I did ask a few boys around the club and I do think the right thing to do is for Muckamore to rebuild, get the youth structure in place, do a bit of work on the ground and take the pain of Section One for a few years.
“Me being 33 now, I just want to play as long as I can at the top level and I wanted to go to a club at the top end of the Premier League.
“I moved to Derriaghy (in 2006) and we won six but went down, so I thought it would be great to play in a team challenging at the top end of things.
“Carrick are a team I believe can win something because they have all aspects covered. It definitely wasn’t an easy decision to leave.
“I had been there since I was eight and I did leave once, but that was because I was told I wouldn’t go to the U19 World Cup if I wasn’t playing Premier League so that encouraged me to go at that stage.
“I will miss Muckamore – there’s no doubt about that.
“Sometimes you have to look after yourself and I don’t want to look back where I played most of my days in Section One and not in the Premier League. That’s basically what drove it and there were a couple of other things as well.
“I had been captain for nine years and going on titles, was probably one of the most successful they had.
“I think about 75% of the club are happy to have a cricket team and don’t really share my aspiration to be up there. When I came into captain, driving the team forward was always my aim.
“I brought in a more professional approach with regards training. Some guys didn’t like it around the club.
“I lost my dad suddenly and then Lucy was born within the space of two days, and even the year that happened I was rolling the wicket and cutting the grass. I did come off committee because I was on it for seven years and took a backseat that way. It’s almost taken for granted.
“I have a busy job and am a family man and was giving hours of my time. There are people slagging you off in the background and I just thought I can’t be bothered with the negativity at this stage of life.
“Who knows what’s going to happen in the future but I want to give Carrick a real good go and win things. The Premier League is getting tougher and more competitive while Section One is going the other way.
“There’s a lot of boys that want to challenge at the top and there are a lot of guys who are happy playing social cricket, which is fair enough but I didn’t fancy that myself.
“I’m a traditionalist and have grown up playing cricket – it has been my life. I’m always 50-overs and old school in my thoughts!”
The transfer was settled quickly over a spot of lunch in Carrickfergus with it not taking much to persuade Gill that this was the right place for him.
Over the years he has got to know the players well and when it comes to the club itself, he has a deep admiration for the way they’ve been able to establish themselves as one of the best teams in the top-flight.
“I’ve always got on well with a lot of the Carrick boys like Parky, Eagy. Michael Gilmour and all of them.
“It has always been a club that I’ve got on really well with and the way they have built their club, I used them as a model at Muckamore because they have built it up and now have everything in place to challenge.
“I had a bit of craic with Eagy on the last day of our season and he said ‘Giller, will we just get this transfer form out?’ and I spoke to him after that and went to have a chat with them.
“I don’t want people thinking I’m going there for money because I have turned down money four times. I’m not getting a penny and have gone here for purely cricketing reasons. It’s purely because I want to play at the top for as long as possible.
“I spoke to Eagy, Parky and Jim Nelson in the second week of September over a bite to eat at Carrick and within a couple of days I had signed. I wanted to get it pushed through and get it all done and dusted.”
Gill has been in the role of captain for the last nine years – the sort of timeframe that isn’t too common to hear of when it comes to the leader of a first team.
Generally a player will give it their all for a few seasons before handing the reins over to someone else, but Gill has been trusted to lead the club through thick and thin, through relegation and promotion.
With the obvious love he has for the club, he wasn’t about to leave the captaincy to someone he didn’t feel was capable or ready. He wasn’t about to hand the keys over to someone he couldn’t trust to do a good job.
That is no longer the case though. Sam Gordon, the new captain, has been a protégé of sorts for Gill over the past couple of seasons, grooming his team-mate for captaincy and getting him ready for the day when all the responsibility would be given to him.
The day is now here, and Gill is confident that the 22-year-old will do a stellar job, even if it will be initially tough with so many winter departures.
“Part of the reason I did captaincy over the last few years because there was no one else to do it.
“I didn’t want to come into the Premier League and make some young guy do it because it’s tough. Captaincy is hard enough, but when you’re in the Premier League trying to set fields to top players and professionals is very tough.
“I thought I would do it for another couple of years and blood Sam a bit. I got Sam a job in our place and I have a lot of time for him. He was the obvious choice to do it looking at the team.
“It’s going to be very tough for him with the number of players who have left.
“I will always love Muckamore. Some of the best days of my life have been down there. There are a lot of people in the club I love to bits.
“I will be down there having a pint during the summer and will always be looking for their result. If we aren’t playing and they are, I will be watching them.
“Who knows what will happen in the future, but as I say, this isn’t a one or two year thing at Carrick – I want to give it a really good go.”
Gill had been training with his new team-mates in the nets over the winter period, getting to know their strengths and weaknesses while also improving himself as a bowler.
When you look at Carrick’s team, it isn’t hard to see why many fancy them to make a big breakthrough soon in terms of winning a trophy, and Gill has been particularly impressed with one individual.
“We started in the third week of January up at Jordanstown.
“It’s great for me running in against the likes of CJ (van der Walt) because you can bowl a ball that’s hitting the top of off and he can walk down and hit it over extra cover.
“The better batsmen you bowl against, the better you become. He looks unbelievable and I was looking forward to playing with him.
“There are so many strengths in that Carrick team.
“I have to work hard because there are guys in the seconds who could take my place. I’m not going here thinking I’m a shoo in.
“I love pressure and I know I’ll have to work hard, bowl well in matches and if I don’t then there will be others taking my place. It’s great to have that competition in the club.
“The seconds are very strong and won Junior One last season, and I know they lost a couple of guys, but they still have a really good team.
“If you look at the seamers you have myself, (Ashwin) Shetty, Alex Haggan, Matty McCord, Anthony Martin and then big Michael Armstrong who looks a top bowler. Batting wise, who is to say I won’t be batting 11. They really have all bases covered.
“I’ve gone up for five sessions and went for a drink with the boys at Christmas and it feels like I’ve been there for years. I won’t need a settling in period or anything because I know I fit in with the boys.”
With the season now delayed until at least May 28 (and most likely way beyond), it’s just a waiting game for every player in the NCU to see if any cricket will be played in 2020.
As if chosen by fate, Gill would have been taking on former club Muckamore in the Gallagher Challenge Cup first round, but it remains to be seen if that competition will even go ahead.
If we do get some cricket in, Gill will be hoping his experience can help push Carrick from contenders to champions and fulfil their potential.
Carrick have a knack of turning up in the big games, as shown by their success against Waringstown and ending CIYMS’ winning run of 20 Premier League games last season.
It can sometimes be the teams lower down the league where they slip up and Gill believes if they can eradicate that from their game then sky is the limit.
“I said this to a few of the guys at Cariick; if you look at their results, they lost to Muckamore twice, but beat CIYMS and seem to always beat Waringstown. It’s a complacency thing.
“If they are going into every game and aren’t complacent, but it’s also adapting to slower wickets because at Muckamore 220 wins you a match and 180 you’re in the game.
“It’s about the local players putting their hand up and not relying on the pro too heavily. He will naturally win you games on his own.
“They are so close and that’s another reason why I joined Carrick. They are one of the best teams in the league.
“It’s so competitive but there’s no reason if they perform against the big teams and stop the complacency and knuckle down against the teams lower down in the league, it’s all they are missing.”