It was an afternoon, late in February 1919, just three months after the signing of the Armistice, when Sammy Murray and Arthur McGuigan, two disabled veterans of the First World War sat talking in a small room overlooking the Main Street in Ballyclare. The room was part of a small shop, rented for ten shillings each week as their headquarters by the recently formed Ballyclare branch of the Comrades of the Great War Association.
“We should have a football team here in Ballyclare,” one of the two remarked casually…”Just in idea…”
It was of course, to be an inspired idea. The role of their Association, like so many around Britain at that time – was to support soldiers coming home after the war and help them adjust back into the lives they had left before leaving to serve their country.
A few hours later, Bob Grange had joined Murray and McGuigan. The Secretary of the branch, Bob liked the idea, and very quickly a full meeting of members was called to talk about it further.
The story of what happened next is recalled in this excellent BBC Radio programme that was produced in 2014 as part of the station's World War One at Home series.
Click HERE to listen.
A week later, Ballyclare’s veteran soldiers, most of them from “C” Company of the 12th Royal Irish Rifles, a battalion made up entirely of East Antrim men who fought at the Somme and many other battles during the Great War, played their first game of football at a ground on the Ballynure Road, just behind the site of the police station.
It was against a side selected from former players of Green Rangers, one of Ballyclare’s most popular teams until it went defunct during the war years. The team was Harry Symms in goal; Andy Hill and Sammy Murray; half backs, Willie Workman, Sammy Davidson and RJ Laird; forwards, John McKinstry, Jack Irvine, Bob (Rocky) McKeown, Jim (Spider) McCalmont, and Joe McClean.
They won easily by 2 or 3 goals to 1, but the result wasn’t the important thing that day…
Money was so scarce they wore the borrowed red shirts of Ollardale, another defunct local team, to play in. Boots and footballs often had to be borrowed also.
Below is a photograph taken in 1907 of Ollardale Football Club in those red shirts, taken in Ollar Garden (J Cunningham). Ollardale had formed in 1904 originally as Avondale but changed its name when RT Wilson Baird (first left, back row) the owner of the Ollardale Hotel in lower Main Street provided accommodation for meetings and a dressing room. Club Chairman Hugh McCrone (front row, far right) provided the team's pitch on his Doagh Road Farm. John Baird (third right, front row) was a nephew of the hotel's owner and son of Frank Baird. You can see the thatched shelter, a stone lion and a miniature house, part of the Ollardale garden's curios in the background of the picture.
The Comrades always travelled to and from away matches on the back of an old lorry loaned to them by Lieutenant Commander KC Kirkpatrick, owner of the Kirkpatrick Brothers’ Bleach Green where many of the players worked, and as they travelled they always sang the one song – ‘Coming from the Firing Line’.
By this time, Comrades had established themselves as an official club playing in competitive football. By August 1919, they had raised enough money to buy their own strip, a set of red and white striped jerseys, each costing 10d.
This is the first photograph of the team taken around 1922, sporting their striped kit.
STANDING (left to right): T McNeill (trainer), b Girvan (Chairman), A McGuigan, J McNeill (brother of T McNeill), D Hill (brother of A Hill), S Todd, J Symms (nephew of Harry Symms), W Workman, S Beattie, J Irvine, W McMeekin, J Crawford, W Hayes, T Finlay, T Fleming. SEATED (left to right): J Grange, B McKeown, H Forde, Lt-Commander KC Kirkpatrick, A Hill, B Magee, D Beattie, W Spence (secretary).
In the 1919-20 season they became affiliated to the IFA, joined the fourth division of the Belfast Minor League, and won promotion to the second division of the Irish Football Alliance in their first season.
The Club had also persuaded RJ Gamble, a local butcher and cattle dealer, to loan them some ground to play on, a field on the Hillhead Road, where Dennisons is now.
The ground was named by Bob Grange as Massines Park, after the First World War Battle of Massines. “That hill makes it look just like the scene of the battle,” he told his colleagues as they studied their new home for the first time.
Andy Heaney negotiated the building of a set of goalposts for £7 and a draughty loft about two hundred yards from the ground was cleared to use as a pavilion.
The 1920-21 Season saw the Comrades win the second division of the Alliance and promotion to the first, where they remained until the second division of the Intermediate League was formed in the mid-Twenties.
While in the Alliance, they won the Gardiner Memorial Cup the two years it was competed for. This was a trophy presented for competition among teams in the Alliance as a memorial to a left-winger named Gardiner, who played for Larne. In the Comrades’ first season in the Alliance, he had died after clashing heads with Ballyclare wing-half Nat Montgomery when going for the ball during a game at Massines Park. The winger’s family had presented the trophy as a memorial to him.
The Comrades also won the Hanna Cup – a trophy presented by George B Hanna, (then MP for East Antrim and later a judge) for competition among the Comrades of the Great War Association’s teams in East Antrim – several times; and they were not without success in the Kirk Cup and McElory Cup, either.
In 1922, when the Comrades of the Great War Association amalgamated with other organisations to form the British Legion, the football team isolated itself from its connection with war; only the name “Comrades” remained.
A deputation form the Club visited local publican Bob Girvan and convinced him he should join and become chairman. They also persuaded Sam Douther, a man formerly connected with Larne’s Newington Rangers and Ballyclare’s Ollardale, to join.
Slowly, as football cleared its “hangover” from the war, the Comrades had less need for the veteran soldiers who had founded the club; Sammy Murray became less active and finally left, and Arthur McGuigan emigrated to Toronto, Canada, leaving his position as secretary to William Spence, a former secretary of Ollardale.
As the team climbed the footballing success ladder, it also slowly lost its quota of ex-Servicemen in the team. One by one they left to be replaced by others, not associated with the forces.
In 1922, hundreds of people jostled behind a lorry as it carried a small wooden hut down the Green Road and around the bottom of the town to the Hillhead Road. Lieutenant-Commander Kirkpatrick had loaned the hut to Sam Douther to be used as a pavilion for Massines Park. A few months earlier the Club had been thrown out of the Junior Shield because they didn’t have proper changing accommodation when they played and beat Ligoniel, but lost on appeal by the Belfast team as the changing facilities weren’t the stipulated 200 yards from the playing pitch.
The hut stayed at Massines Park until 1924 when, after another incident called the ‘Hole in the Hedge Dispute’ they were forced to move yet again.
The local council had carried out work on the Hillhead Road and left the surface slightly higher in one place, enough for someone to be able to stand and look over the hedge to watch the game. When the Comrades played a team from Ballymena called Summerfield, their officials noticed that a small crowd was watching the game from outside the ground, which was against IFA rules. The Comrades were again thrown out of another competition. Unfortunately RJ Gamble who had loaned them the ground free of charge wouldn’t let them build on it, so to comply with the IFA, they had to find an alternative.
They chose the former Green Rangers’ ground at Millvale Park, about 200 yards along from the site of their first ever game on the Ballynure Road, and the hut was transported through the town to its new home.
Following the move to Millvale Park, the Comrades had to build an enclosure around the site to comply with the IFA rules that had forced their move from the Hillhead Road. Being short of money they canvassed the town collecting subscriptions and organising bazaars, sales of work, and numerous fund-raising functions. A few months later, the job was done, but it wasn’t long before the Club’s loyal supporters would be wanting a ground nearer the centre of the town.
Early in the 1930s, deputations continually met with Committeemen to talk about the potential of a move, made more serious with the threat of imminent building on Millvale Park.
Sam Douther reported to the Committee that he was in a position to negotiate on their behalf for a site in the square.
When he had clinched the two small fields, part of what was then the Simpson estate, a massive building and development programme was launched, entirely with voluntary labour. Once again the wooden pavilion, now equipped with proper baths installed by Lieutenant-Commander Kirkpatrick, was moved to the new ground, and again work began on building an enclosure to comply with IFA standards around the two fields. Today’s Dixon Park was being built.
In 1936, Broadway United from Belfast would be first team to play at the formally opened Dixon Park in an Intermediate League game.
The ground was named after Major Daniel Dixon, a man who had fought in France with many of the veteran soldiers who had founded the Club and who had played a major part in having the new ground built.
The Comrades lost the game 3-1, Billy Cowan, who would be a future Comrades Manager, scoring the first goal at Dixon Park and then a second to help the visitors from Belfast to victory.
It was in 1941-42 season that the Comrades defeated Bangor in a marathon final of the McElroy Cup, 3-1, after two goalless draws.
Then in Christmas 1943, the Comrades were to lift the Steel and Sons Cup for the first time, defeating Glentoran II 5-2 in the final, in spite of going down to 9 men, goalkeeper Gordon Agnew and then left-half Wullie 'Darkie' Hill having been given their marching orders. On that Christmas Day Darkie's brother Frank, also a Ballyclare man, played on the Glen's team and to mark the occasion, their father Frank Snr was given the honour of performing a ceremonial kick-off to start the match.
Back Row (left to right): J Reddicks, J Swan, S Agnew, J Gilmore, R McAuley, W Hill. Front row (left to right): A Girvan, J Houston, A Black (captain), J Drain, T Blair.
The team ended up back in the town hall that night to a heroes’ welcome, converting the Council’s traditional Christmas dance into a celebration one. It would be some time before the players received any medals as the IFA had stopped presenting them during the war to support the war effort. The club however, sent a Committeeman to Dublin to order them, having to accept a mixture of medals, some not even football medals, because they were so scarce.
The club went on to win the Intermediate Cup in 1950, 1951 and 1954. They had remained in the Intermediate League after the ‘rebel’ clubs, led by Banbridge Town, had left to form the Irish League B Division. They also made the final of the George Wilson Cup in 1958, losing to Ards II.
That was also the season that the Club appointed its first-ever manager, former Belfast Celtic and Irish International player Joe Douglas, ably assisted by Committeeman Billy Caruth and trainer Billy Cowan.
Dickie Horner, a former manager of Bangor Reserves took over in the 1959-60 season after Douglas retired and in 1960 the team finished runners-up in the League and won the Intermediate Cup Final 1-0 against Portadown Reserves.
Six Comrades players and trainer Cowan also represented the B Division against the Scottish Central League in Glasgow that Season.
The Mighty Men of Ballyclare
Then in 1960-61 the Comrades or “The Mighty Men from Ballyclare’ as the Northern Whig described them at the time, enjoyed their most successful ever Season beating Dundela 4-3 to lift the Steel and Sons Cup at the Oval; Larne’s Newington Rangers 2-0 to win the Intermediate Cup the following month; and Portadown Reserves 3-2 to lift the George Wilson Cup. They also reached the semi-finals of both the Irish Cup and the County Antrim Shield; and were crowned Irish League B Division Champions. They went through that season beaten only by three B Division teams (Brantwood and Glentoran II at Dixon Park and Larne away) and 2 senior clubs (Linfield and Glentoran). They won every trophy at their level, scoring 213 goals…and they won the league for the first time in the Club’s history, with a record 65 points.
Back row: R Horner (Team Manager), D McCartney, S Molyneaux, R Kirk, C Calow, A Nixon, D Hunter, A Johnson, T Calvert, E Todd, W Cowan (Trainer) Front row (left to right): S Spence, W McCrory, J Aston, W McCormack (Captain), M Beattie, S McCullough, G Todd
The Club would go on to enjoy further successes including 6 Steel & Sons Cup and 8 Intermediate Cup victories and 6 Irish League B Division titles as well as achieving senior Irish League status in 1990 before losing it following the restructuring of the league after the 2002/2003 season.
Ulster Cup Winners:1997/98
Irish League 'B' Division Winners: 1960/61, 1962/63, 1973/74, 1977/78, 1979/80, 1988/89
IFA Intermediate Cup Winners: 1925/26, 1949/50, 1950/51, 1953/54, 1959/60, 1960/61, 1962/63, 1989/90
Steel & Sons Cup Winners: 1943/44, 1960/61, 1974/75, 1981/82, 1984/85, 1986/87
George Wilson Cup Winners: 1956/57, 1961/62, 1963/64, 1993/94
'B' Division Knockout Cup Winners: 1983/84, 1988/89
On Saturday 20 December 2014 the club, recognising its historic origins in the aftermath of the First World War hosted a special football match at Dixon Park to commemorate the centenary of the famous Christmas truce in the trenches. A Comrades select team played a match against a team from Dorsten – a town on the edge of the Rhineland region with links to the town.
Presbyterian minister the Rev Robert Bell had the original idea, which was developed to include an on-pitch performance by the Ballyclare Male Choir, and a solo performance from local parish priest Eugene O’Hagan of The Priests.
You can find out more about Ballyclare Comrades Football Club by visiting their website.
References: Comrades in War, In Sport: A History of Ballyclare Comrades FC by Cyril Thackway, East Antrim Times Sports Writer. May 1967.
'Where the Six Mile Water Flows' Jack McKinney.