You can easily imagine the atmosphere in Carrickfergus Cricket Club last Saturday night as the second eleven returned from their Intermediate Cup final triumph.
The pavilion is packed at the best of times on a Saturday night and the beer was flowing as club members toasted the success over Donaghcloney Mill just a few hours earlier at Downpatrick.
Equally, it isn’t difficult to imagine how the atmosphere changed in an instant when the telephone call from the Northern Cricket Union (NCU) came through.
A whistle-blower had told cricket’s governing body that Carrick’s 16-year-old player Luca Johnston had been ineligible to take part in the final. NCU enquiries confirmed that Luca not been registered with Carrick until after the May deadline for cup competitions after moving from Academy, The evidence was indisputable - the teenager was fine to play in league matches, but not in cups.
The fall-out has been well documented. Carrick immediately accepted responsibility, they were effectively stripped of the trophy, and Donaghcloney Mill were declared Intermediate Cup winners despite having lost fair and square on the pitch.
Firstly, we shouldn’t blame either the NCU or Donaghcloney Mill.
At the root of this was an uncharacteristic administrative error from Carrick and a statement issued to that effect last Sunday night was a credit to all at Middle Road.
But after that it all gets a bit murky. What about the person who blew the whistle on the episode and particularly their decision to do so within minutes of the game ending.
If the whistle-blower had known of Luca’s selection before the final started - and we have no way of knowing whether he did or not - surely the logical thing would have been to notify someone in authority, to have prevented the sad farce that ensued?
But we will give the whistle-blower the benefit of the doubt on that, perhaps he only discovered that Luca was playing after the final was under way.
But where the benefit of the doubt should be withdrawn is why he rang the NCU on Saturday night, knowing full well that he was about to intrude on Carrick’s celebrations.
Why not, for instance, wait until the dust settled, let Carrickfergus enjoy their time in the sun, let those players who had spent perhaps many years grafting at a lower level celebrate for a few hours, still oblivious of the disappointment to come?
Some of those Carrick players may never have played in a cup final before, or will do again. I was fortunate enough to win both the Minor Cup and Junior Cup as captain and it’s the best day you can have as a junior cricketer. You turn up resplendent in your suit and tie, the eyes of your whole club is on you instead of the first eleven, and hoisting that trophy aloft is something you won’t ever forget. Last Saturday would have been even more special for both teams because the final was at Downpatrick, for so long the home of the Challenge Cup final.
The whistle-blower could have waited until Monday morning, until the elation of victory had passed. The best part of winning a cup is the immediate aftermath, the night that follows, and often the celebrations spill into the next day. But by Monday normality has returned, people are back at work and few would have argued with a call coming then.
The whistle-blower didn’t have to intervene at all though. The NCU’s process for checking the registration of players is rigorous. Result forms, including team-sheets, are sent to the competition secretary, and he would likely have uncovered the innocent error. Carrick’s mistake was going to be uncovered, it was just a matter of when, but the timing of the telephone call could not have been worse.
And what of Donaghcloney Mill? Some on social media are adamant, including the respected cricket author Clarence Hiles, that they should not accept the trophy.
A replay has been mooted too but NCU rules would appear to preclude these options and Donaghcloney Mill’s players, after a meeting on Monday, accepted the cup as they are fully entitled to.
But winning any game on a technicality isn’t the same, never mind a cup final. I remember losing a high-scoring Junior Cup tie with Waringstown to Bangor at The Lawn in 2001. Within days we were reinstated because Bangor had fielded an ineligible player and we soon found ourselves in the semi-finals after a subsequent victory over Dunmurry.
A semi-final against Instonians followed, and with the match in its dying moments, we were big favourites. However, Chris Johnson, an explosive late-order batsmen, turned the match on its head and we were knocked out in the last over. But mixed with the acute disappointment of losing a cup semi-final, was a measure of relief. I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that to have reached the final we would have been intruding, like the uninvited guest at a birthday party.
Donaghcloney Mill should not be lambasted for accepting the trophy but this will never feel like a proper cup final triumph.