13 May 2022

by Clarence Hiles

Cliftonville batsman Leslie McClay was appointed NCU Hon. Secretary from 1946 to 1958 in the challenging post-war era. He founded his Charter Accountant business in Belfast during the war and became heavily involved in both club and Union. His accountancy blossomed, but unfortunately he retired as Hon. Secretary due to pressure of business. However, he continued to be an integral committeeman at Cliftonville Cricket and Hockey.

William Leslie McClay, always known as Leslie, was born 28 October 1914 at Oldpark Road, Belfast. His father Andrew was a Drapery Commercial Traveller, much akin to the legendary JC 'Jimmy' Picken, who became a close friend at both club and Union. Leslie had two elder brothers, and all were educated at Methodist College.

Leslie joined Cliftonville as a boy in the late 1920s when the club fielded three teams and a boys XI. The club was originally founded as Enfield in 1870, and over the years all four teams were successful in NCU competitions. Several of the players won representative honours, and the club produced two outstanding NCU administrators in AB Mitchell and JC 'Jimmy' Picken, both of whom were Presidents at club and Union. Leslie joined a successful Boys XI as they won the Graham Cup in 1928 and 1929, coached by the legendary Nat Cank, a native of Shropshire, who gave sterling service to the club as groudsman, coach and gave good advice to many of the members. He had been badly wounded during the war, and couldn't play thereafter. 

While at Methody, Leslie was capped for the Ulster Schools cricket team in 1931 and 1932, and made his club debut on the 1st XI. It was an era when North Down and Woodvale ruled supreme, although Cliftonville had their moments when they reached the 1935 NCU Senior Cup final and won the Senior League in 1938. Unfortunately for them, the brilliant all-rounder James Macdonald was outstanding in the final with a record-breaking 159no and nine wickets. Leslie batted three, but fell to their fast bowler Jackie Shields. He scored only a few runs.

Clubs were decimated at the outbreak of war in 1939, as players were active in service, and sadly, many never returned. Cliftonville struggled during the war, and were deeply indebted to the energy and enthusiasm of several of their members. One of whom was Leslie McClay, who took on the captaincy from 1942 to 1945. Teams were often short, but Cliftonville survived. However, like many other clubs, the post-war era was tough when players retired or never returned. Cliftonville's pre-war success dwindled and they dropped to Senior Qualifying League.

Leslie also made significant changes in his life. He retired from 1st XI captain, and, was appointed Secretary of the NCU in 1946 at a salary of 100 pounds. No doubt, he was encouraged to apply, as his Cliftonville colleague Jimmy Picken had been Hon. Secretary from 1940 and continued until 1961. However, his accountancy firm also developed in tandem and with family commitments, and health issues, he was at a crossroads. It was inevitable that something had to give, and it was the Union. After 12 years service, he resigned. 

Leslie McClay will be included in my book later this summer. I have added to the article but I still need more details of Leslie's later life.
Has anyone any contacts with the McClay family?

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