3 December 2020

by Clarence Hiles


a reflection on the contribution of former stalwarts who gave to Ulster cricket…...

Woodvale Cricket Club has a long chain of distinguished stalwarts that were enhanced in Ulster and Irish cricket.  RH ‘Bob’ Harrison sits high on that list after a career devoted to club and country spanning over 40 years.  Sadly, he died in the early 1980s aged 86.  His son Robbie succeeded him to continue his legacy.  

Bob lived on the Ballygomartin Road close to the Woodvale ground and his father persuaded him to join in the post-World War I era.  His father was a tailor with a flourishing shop on the Shankill Road, but Bob never followed in his footsteps and became a teacher.  His leadership rather than cricket flair brought him to fame, as he was responsible for guiding Woodvale to prominence.  After all, the club in the 1920s was better known within the junior ranks, but Bob was the central figure in changing Woodvale forever.

Bob took his job and his cricket seriously.  Some said, perhaps too serious, but his determination brought success at the highest level after he assumed the Captaincy from Joe Magee in 1927.  Bob was not regarded as a star batsman or bowler, but over several years his team accumulated some of the best players in the Belfast area.  Bob was not athletic either, but very focused and a shrewd tactician.  He was regarded as a solid man and a popular character within the club, who proved to be a worthy Captain.

The biggest year in Woodvale’s history came in 1933 when the team was included in the Senior Challenge Cup, and Bob was at the helm.  However, they faced a daunting task in the 1st round facing North Down, the undisputed NCU kingpins since 1887.

Admittedly, it was a home game and the team was guaranteed support from a packed crowd of partisans, but few pundits fancied their chances to win.  However, they beat North Down, and not only won their 1st round, but also reached the final after beating the formidable North of Ireland and Lisburn.  

The final was called the “Battle of the Juniors” as Lurgan also reached the final and to continue Bob’s fairytale they won the Senior Challenge Cup and added the Senior Qualifying League title as well.  Of course, the players performed admirably, not least when openers Bob Matier (118) and Dick Carroll (101) scored centuries, and rugby legend Sammy Walker (74) in the final.  But we could never underestimate Bob’s contribution.  It also marked the end of North Down’s domination of NCU success, as Woodvale rose from the ranks to become the kingpins in the 1930s until late 1940s.

The 1933 Senior League and Cup ‘double’ brought further success when Bob and his Committee finally earned senior status in 1934.

The big clubs had often thwarted some of the best Junior teams for three decades. The Senior and Junior Committees were separate entities within the Northern Cricket Union, but the Senior Committee was all-powerful and resisted the challenge to authority.  However, Woodvale made their mark in 1933 and Bob Harrison was the central figure at the time.

Ironically, the North Down Captain Willie Andrews, was also a key figure within the NCU hierarchy, and knew a lot about Woodvale after their 1st round defeat.  In a warm gesture he met Bob on the field to acknowledge defeat, much to the delight of the Woodvale supporters.  No doubt Willie was a strong advocate when Woodvale applied for senior status at the AGM.  As Chairman of the NCU, ‘Mr. Willie’ agreed they were worthy adversaries and a strong bond between the clubs was established, a bond that continues to this time.

Bob’s strong team included Ireland International players of the calibre of Charlie Billingsley, Billy McCleery, George Wilson, Harry Armstrong, and Charlie Posnett, and a plethora of representative players.  His personal prowess paled in comparison alongside some of the best players in Ulster cricket, but he was no slouch, and often made telling scores that brought victory from the jaws of defeat.  His best score was 124 against Downpatrick in the 1934 Senior League win after five of his best batsmen fell quickly.  The victory inspired the team and after a series of victories they finished close to the winners.

Bob captained the team for 16 years, excluding 1939 when he stood down to Bob Matier, feeling responsible for several defeats.  However, they still won the Senior Cup, and once again North Down were the victims.

There is an interesting story about the 1937 final when North Down looked destined to win, but George Wilson (58no) and Charlie Billingsley (1no) defied the odds with a one-wicket victory.  In the frenzy that followed Bob was speechless, and when the presentation took place, he confessed that he had already prepared for the loser’s speech!

In 1940 Bob was restored as captain, but retired in 1943 after another Senior Cup win in 1941 against Muckamore during the war era.  One of the Woodvale members paid him a handsome tribute when he said he was probably the “Best Captain in Ulster Cricket.”

Who could argue after he captained Woodvale to 4 Senior Cup wins and the Senior League 3 times, including the ‘double’ in 1933.  Woodvale were also runners-up several times in the 1930s.

Woodvale historian Dennis Godfrey wrote an article in the Woodvale Centenary Brochure in 1996…

“But perhaps the most telling comment on Bob Harrison’s Captaincy came from a press report of the time- Certain teams are renown for their fighting quality and the ability to rise to the occasion and Woodvale must be included in that category for they possess the ‘never-say-die’ spirit and their tenacity for purpose is admirable.”

You could be tempted to believe Bob lived for cricket, and I’m sure many others felt the same.  But he was an excellent teacher at Finiston Primary School and became Headmaster at 55.  He was also NCU Honorary Treasurer (1960-67) and won the ultimate accolade when he became President (1968-69).  Throughout he was a committed Woodvale member.

Woodvale owe a lot to Bob Harrison after rising from the Junior ranks to Senior status, a status that remains after 86 years.



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