Out in the fields

HE might be a Newcastle man through and through, but as Mike Balmer tells Sentinel reporter Olga Bradshaw, he is dedicated to rugby in the north west, and is proud of the way young sportsmen here have stepped up to the mark, making them a force to be reckoned with on the pitch.

With that accent I'm guessing you are not a local lad?

Newcastle. Geordie. Proud of it. Been here 44 years and...

What's a proud Newcastle man doing living over here?

Ask the toil and strife. I've been here 44 years and enjoyed every minute of it. Beautiful scenery.

What brought you over here?

Soccer.

Really?

Derry City FC. I was Willie Ross's last ever professional signing, and quite a few people say I put him in his grave. (Laughs).

Were you always a big soccer player as a young man?

Yeah.

What was it about the game that attracted you?

Well in the North East that's...we didn't have any swimming pools. We used to have to swim in the River Tyne - you just played football, and I was fairly successful at it.

Can I be rude and ask you what you got signed for?

Leicester City signed me, but I won't even mention monetary values, but I will say it just shows you how times have changed. I came home once when I had been away for about six weeks or seven weeks and I got my wages sent up to me and because I had played on the Saturday and played mid-week and we had won, the wage packet I remember me mother saying this, "There must be summit wrong here", because in them olden days, y'know, you got it all down in black and white in registered envelopes.

So you had played on the Saturday and mid-week...

And won.

And won, and?

I'd gone home for a couple of days because I'd played mid-week.

Go on, tell us how much you got in the wage packet...

About 19-and-a-half quid. This was in 1962. Me father was a foreman in ICI...

And how much was he getting?

Me mother just said to me "He never earned that in his life", and he had a good job. Here was me just out of school...

Wow! How did you make the transition from that to Northern Ireland? Were you signed over here?

I was signed by Derry City?

Were you head hunted?

(Laughs) Aye you could say I was head hunted...it's a wonder it is still on me shoulders! I arrived and I initially I was just supposed to be here for just a few months and 44 years later...still here.

And you married a girl from the City?

I married Miss Jennifer Wray. Her father used to be chairman and used to have the Post Office up on Academy Road. The most robbed Post Office in Ireland. I had two kids and a grandson.

How did you meet your wife? Was it at the Post Office sending letters home with money in them?

You must be joking! She head hunted me!

Were you a bit of a catch then, were you?

Mega-catch man, mega-catch! Aye, you've gotta be joking! I didn't have two pennies to rub together. We just...sorta...

Were you aware of 'the Troubles'?

They hadn't started. There are those who would say I contributed to them! That is not true...because I have never had a bad word said to me in all the years I've lived here.

What did you think of it as it unfolded in front of you, because you were not from here...

Crazy, crazy, crazy. Where I came from in the North East I came from a small village and to be brutally honest with you I didn't know there was a difference between a Catholic and a Protestant. It still doesn't matter to me. When I came I was the only Prod on the Derry City team, y'know? That didn't stop the rest of the boys passing the ball to me, y'know.

There's a bit of a difference between soccer and rugby...

Aye.

Why the transition?

I'll tell you what. This City owes the Rugby Club a great deal because in the height of the Troubles we were a mixed team. There was no sectarian bias whatsoever. When I was coach we picked the teams on merit, we didn't say 'You're a Catholic you're not playing or you're a Prod you're not playing'. Over the years the kids are coming into it and we have developed, we have always been completely cross-community, it didn't matter who you are, how good you are, if you are a troublemaker you're out. We are a happy band of players.

You haven't just played rugby though, have you? I hear you were the course Ranger and coach...

I was coach for the first 15 years.

Was that hard work?

Trying to get some of them boys home on a Sunday with another game entirely. (Laughs) We had a great bunch of lads and in them days there was none of this monetary values in it...y'know. You went to play. I mean to say, Mark McFeely, who is now the Club President, he was in goal for Derry GAA. They told him he had to make his choice. He did. Rugby. He ended up playing for Ulster. Ian Crowe played for Ulster in my time. Davy Wallace, y'know...playing for Ulster...and the craic was absolute 90.

Anything you can tell me?

No, not really...if I had time I could think of one or two but at the present time I am not inclined to divulge any secrets! You have got to keep things in-house...(said with a broad grin)

Do you prefer playing away games or at home?

To me it never made any difference because it was a football pitch, but as a rugby coach with City of Derry it was immaterial because a good social touring party, whether we were at home or whether we were away, we knew how to enjoy werselves win, lose or draw. There were no major hang-ups.

What do you think about the recent cup win?

The 1st XV this year winning the All-Ireland Junior Cup? Just brilliant. Bevan Lynch has done a wonderful job. He has kept a few players at this club, and a few of them are very, very talented, and if Bevan wasn't at the Club they wouldn't be here. Simple as that. He has got an excellent team spirit, and excellent squad of players, and I would be very surprised if we don't run away with Division Three next year because we have an excellent team.

The boys are up to it?

Definitely, and if they are not up to it they shouldn't be on the squad. It's as simple of that. You have to perform. You have to maintain the standard. If you don't maintain the standards...Goodnight Irene..tough luck. Go back and get your form together again. You have got to be realistic. There is no give and take in sport.

What's your favourite, soccer or rugby?

Now at the present moment it's not even up for debate, it would be rugby, because I mean to say, the primadonnas in soccer?...God of almighty!