At the forefront of cross-country, road running and track and field in Northern Ireland.
At the close of the 1973 track and field season a small group of people gathered together in the home of Neil Morton to discuss the setting up of a new athletics club. The prime movers of this group, who were disenchanted with what was currently available, were Morton and Tony McKnight. Recognising my increasing interest in coaching, they had asked me to join them. Neil Morton, now headmaster of Portora Royal in Enniskillen, was, at the time a teacher at Annandale Grammar School (now combined with Carolan Grammar to form Wellington College). His youngsters were to provide the nucleus for the club, thus the Annandale. As an ex-Grosvenor boy I did not want the club to be totally associated with the old enemy so I came up with the suffix. Thus Annandale Striders was born.
At the helm there were some very special people. Tony McKnight was Mr Annadale Striders. A former good class club distance runner with North Belfast he once finished fourth in the Northern Ireland Marathon Champioships. He was a ‘wee man’ who did not suffer fools gladly and called a spade a spade which did not ingratiate him to everyone but there were few who did not respect his ability to produce athletes. Sadly he died suddenly at a much too early age but his memory lives on in the ‘Tony McKnight’ Trophy for the NI Senior 1500 metres champion. Neill Morton was the chalk to Tony’s cheese. A thinker and philosopher he had an eye for talent and was deeply committed to the development of the individual. Under his guidance Annandale Grammar school became a force to be reckoned with and an invaluable nursery for Striders. These two guiding lights were supported by Chairman Charlie Johnston, cruelly murdered during the ‘troubles’, and Jack Connolly, one of natures gentlemen, who got involved through his son and gave many years of dedication to the club before he too died prematurely.
Success was instant with the Under 16 teams finishing first, second and eighth in the Duncairn Harriers Road Relay in September. A week later teams finished first and second in the novice race at Larne with the ‘A’ team setting a new course record. Success continued in Lisburn with under 18 teams in first, third and eighteenth places and Paul Lawther setting a course record. The senior team in their debut finished sixth. Mike Best led the Youths to victory in the opening cross country race of the season. And so it continued. In November Stephen McArthur, Ian Stewart and Michael Dobbin were first, second and third in the Under 16 race at the Malcolm Cup which in later years was to become Striders major promotion.
In January 1974 Striders won their first championship, the Youth’s Cross Country with Best in runner up position and, at the end of the month, the Boy’s emulated that performance taking the first four places with Stephen Reid becoming the club’s first individual Northern Ireland Champion. By the end of the winter season Striders had won nearly every age group event on the calendar as well as Junior team titles in the Ballyclare 10 mile and Novice team in the Whitehead Road Race. Striders had well and truly arrived and, unlike many other instant successful new clubs that have come and gone over the last two decades, they remain, for the time being, the strongest senior male club in the country.
Success in that first season of 1974 was also evident on the track. Michael Lawther, younger brother of Paul (800/1500), Man Sharma (400), James Semple (Shot /Discus) and Roy Ferguson (TJ) won NI Boys titles. Jimmy Christie (100/200); Stephen McArthur (1000SC/3000); Colin Fisher (LJ); Michael Picken (HJ/JT); Dawson Cotton (DT) and Leonard Browne (SHOT) made an almost complete sweep of the Youths titles and Paul Lawther (800/1500); Michael Best (2000SC/5000); Robin (Josh) Reynolds (father of Tom, Ben, Luke and Sophie) (110H) and John Browne (DT) were victorious at Junior level. These winners were supported by twenty five silver and bronze medallists including a third place in the youths shot for Mike Atkinson, who was to become a future NI Record Holder in the event.
During that season Striders made their first foray into the British Isles Knock Out Cup, known then as the Pye Gold Cup. The Northern Ireland heat was won by Achilles with Shorts second and Striders a close third, a performance we were very pleased with. The average age of the Striders team was 18 with Lenny Browne at 15 the youngest and Ernie Cunningham and myself at 27 the oldest.
The Northern Ireland Senior Championships were held on the cinder track at Shaw’s Bridge in those days and I shared with Ernie Cunningham who took the 5000 metres and Josh Reynolds the 110 metres hurdles champion the honour of being Striders first Senior Champion when I won the 800 metres in a new Northern Record of 1:51.1. Second in that race was Paul Lawther who was without doubt the most talented runner ever to wear a Striders vest.
In 1972 Boys and Youths Cross Country titles both fell to the young Annadale Grammar School pupil and he followed up his Age Group success with Northern Ireland Junior titles in 1976 and 1977 and Senior titles in 1978 and 1980. By the time he wore the Annadale vest he had already represented Great Britain at the European Junior Championships following a unique double in the 1973 Ulster Schools winning the 800 metres in 1:52.8 on the Stranmillis track and the 2000 metres steeplechase in 6:12.8. on the other side of the hill at Malone (now Mary Peter’s Track.)
At the All Ireland Schools he not only shattered the Senior schools 800 metres record but also set new Northern Ireland Native figures of 1:51.8 seconds. Sadly that season did not finish on a happy note for Paul. Having achieved the qualifying time for the European Junior championships in both 800 and 1500 metres he was selected to go to Duisburg in the longer distance. The 800 places went to Steve Ovett the winner and Tony Dyke who finished 7th. Paul however was not so successful through no fault of his own. In his heat things cut up rough and Paul was badly spiked. Despite his injuries requiring stitches in three wounds he managed to finish in fifth place and qualify for the final. He was not however fit to take his place and had the frustration of watching the race won by Gheorghe Ghipu in a time slower than Paul’s best. The late lamented Cliff Temple reporting on the event was in no doubt that the incident robbed Paul of a certain medal.
Later in the year, now wearing a Strider’s vest, he represented Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games. His run in the 1500 metres heat did not gain him a final place but his performance was magnificent gaining him a United Kingdom Junior record of 3:43.1 which in either of the other two heats would have made the final.
In 1974, Paul ran 8:39.1 for a new Northern Ireland Steeplechase Record. He was in magnificent form at this time and in mid- May ran a solo 1500 metres record of 3:40.5 in the GRE Cup at Mary Peters as Striders easily beat Duncairn Harriers and Lisnagarvey. Four days later Lawther’s form was reinforced when he was narrowly beaten by Filbert Bayi and Steve Ovett in an International 3000 metres at Crystal Palace. HIs time was a scintillating 7:54.3. His purple period continued with a 2 mile record of 8:30.6 on May 28th and in June he set new Northern Ireland figures for 1500 metres with a 3:38.8 second place to Steve Ovett in the UK Championships in Cwmbran.
Over the years Striders has produced some great athletes although it has to said that many left the sport all too early before achieving their full potential. Some went on to star in other areas. David Irwin, Kenny Hooks and Roy Palmer pulled on rugby shirts for Ulster with the former now on the pitch as often as the current stars in his position as team doctor. Nigel Annett had a ‘starring’ role in Chariots of Fire – he was one of the group of ‘Olympic’ athletes training on the beach in the opening credits. Michael Nesbitt, a former Ulster Schools Champion, graces our television screens every evening passing on the days news.
Today the club uses the facilities at the Mary Peters Track for training and meetings and has now been at the forefront of cross-country, road running and track and field for some thirty years and has produced some of the provinces most successful athletes in all three areas. No less than ninety-one senior athletes have achieved international status, some progressing to major competition i.e. Commonwealth, European, and Olympic games. Names such as Martin Girvan, Colin Boreham, John Doherty, John McLaughlin, Laurie Spence, Paul Lawther, Ernie Cunningham, Gary Lough, Richard Bleakley and Steve Martin have all represented Great Britain and Philip Snoddy represented Ireland in the European Championships. Great Britain juniors include Paul Lawther, Steve McArthur, Mike Atkinson, Carson Porteous, John Reynolds, David Wilson, and Brian Treacy and eighty-three Annadale juniors have also represented Northern Ireland.
Over the years the yellow and black colours have won numerous club titles at all levels and in all events, a summary of the distance results are at the end of section. They were led by athletes like John McLaughlin, Ray Curran, Ernie Cunningham, Rod Stone, Eddie Oxlade, Sam Doherty, Paul Younger, Davy Smith, Paul McCaffrey, Michael Best, Laurie and Cameron Spence, Michael and Paul Lawther, Philip Tweedie, David Wilson, Dermott Donnelly, Jim and Andrew Campbell, and John Cunningham. The club also won the All Ireland Track and Field League and has turned out sprint champions like Alan Fawcett, Jimmy Christie, Aiden Gough, Clarke Millar, Philip Snoddy, Sam Bailey, Rickey and Colin Smyth, Gerry Carson and David Marr.
Rugby players Roy Palmer, Mark Reynolds, Kenny Hooks, David Irwin and Willie Anderson also ran for the club as well as being long jumpers and pole vaulters. The best known thrower Martin Girvan won a silver medal at two Commonwealth games and also won the UK, AAA, and Northern Ireland Championships.
Northern Ireland Cross Country Championships. Winners in 1981,1982,1983,1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, all years 1990 to 2000, 2003, 2004 Northern Ireland Junior Cross Country Championships. Winners in 1991,1992,1996, 2003. The Joe Seeley Road Race (The premier road race in N. Ireland) Winners in all years 1982 to 2004 (except 2000) Larne Relays Winners 1982 to 2004 (course record set in 1992, 37mins 09secs) Lisburn Relays Winners 1982 to 2004 (except 1999 and 2000), 2006. Set course record in 1992, 55mins 33secs.