JT – The great entertainer leaves the stage

Johnny Thompson brought down the curtain on an illustrious career this month, confirming he won’t be donning the whites again, 27 years after making his senior debut as a 13 year-old for Donemana in 1996.

Although he has just turned 40, a troublesome shoulder injury that requires surgery means he has opted to call it a day. “I’ve been thinking about retiring for about five years when I reached 40 to play golf, and the fact that my rotator cuff is so worn has helped make that decision easier. I had been taking cortisone injections for the pain, and it was getting worse.

“There’s been a bit of pressure for me to maybe play solely as a batsman, but I’m definitely calling it a day now. We will see in a year or two if I maybe take a coaching role, but I won’t be playing.”

Since that debut for a Roy McBrine led Donemana at Ardmore – where he faced the speed of Test cricketer Sanjeev Sharma making 20 – ‘JT’ has always been a competitor, and entertainer and a winner.

His roll of honours see 15 major honours – that includes 13 senior cup finals winning six with Donemana, Glendermott, Brigade and CIYMS in the NCU, as well as four league titles, two Ulster Cups and his most memorable game – an All-Ireland win over the team of the decade, Limavady.

“They were the best and you always wanted to do the best against them as our professional Azhar used to say. I remember bowling Decker in that game at Beechgrove and I also hit him for an important six as we won in the last over with myself and Jordan McGonigle in the middle.”

A senior cup win followed in 2001 against Limavady, but Gary Neely left for Glendermott in 2002, and that paved the way for the 19 year-old to join him the following year, but only after much debate as he wrestled with his emotions.

“The move didn’t go down too well in the village as you can imagine. There had been offers from other clubs, and Glendermott were very persuasive. I told them I was joining, then had a change of heart to stay at Donemana, before finally opting to bite the bullet and go to The Rectory.

“I really enjoyed my years there despite the initial controversy. The supporters were great and the club couldn’t do enough for me. We had some success too, reaching three finals and winning it for the first and only time in 2005 – beating Ballyspallen.”

That cup run in 2005 would prove memorable in more ways than one for JT, as following a century in a first round win over Creevedonnell, the meeting with Ardmore in the quarter-finals saw him meet his future wife for the first time.

“I got 94 and we won despite Paul Brolly getting close to a hundred in the chase. I met Stacey Brolly – Dessie’s daughter – at the game and we have been together since. We live in Donemana and our son Jay plays soccer for them. He is 16 and our daughter Ara has just turned 9.”

Was there any pressure to join Ardmore? “Not from Stacey,” he laughs. “We were at Paul Brolly’s 60th last week and Dessie joked that I should play as a batsman for one more year – with the champions!”

If the move from The Rectory to Donemana was tough, it was nothing compared to the controversy that came about when after seven seasons, he opted for a fresh challenge and a switch to bitter rivals Brigade. 

“I just felt I’d gone a bit stale and needed the fresh challenge.” It was a move that brought great success as he played some of the best cricket of his career at Beechgrove, inspiring them to major honours in ten seasons over two spells. He did confess to shirking one challenge though.

“We were playing at The Rectory and Mark Simpson asked me to field down by the pavilion bar. No way, Mark. I wasn’t going into the lion’s den, so Niall McDonnell had to run the gauntlet. We were laughing about that a few weeks ago.

“I loved my time at Brigade over the two spells. I know they have a bit of a reputation with some as being a bit haughty but I found them anything but. They were very good to me and the family. I suppose I was helped by having my great friend Gareth McKeegan there with me at that time which was fantastic for us both.”

His tenure at Brigade was broken by a short spell in the NCU with CIYMS, and yet again he loved pitting his wits against the best that Belfast had to offer.

“It was a great two years and we won the T20 Cups twice as well as the cup. I got to play with Justin Kemp and Rassie van der Dussen – both superb players. In the 2015 final Rassie scored a hundred when the game got abandoned on the Friday. I thought he must be gutted to have it wiped from the records, but he shrugged it off and said he would get one in the replay the next day, and he did – incredible mental strength to go with the talent he had.”

Thompson scored 68 as CIYMS won by 50 runs, but an incident during the match gave him one of the low points of his career.

“The wicket had dried out and I was bowling quite quick. Neil Russell – who I was friendly with – was batting without a helmet and I hit him with a bouncer. He collapsed onto the pitch and there was a lot of blood. His tongue was hanging out and he was motionless. I thought I’d killed him! 

“Luckily he was okay and able to bat again later on but I was certainly worried and glad I didn’t have to bowl to him again.”

A second spell at Brigade again brought more success before a final stop on the JT Express saw him hook up with Gareth McKeegan again at the region’s newest senior club – Newbuildings.

“They have such an interest up there. It really is the hub of the community with the cricket and football. The title win in 2022 was brilliant for them and it could well be the start of something special for them. I got a taste of just how much it all means when there were 60 watching our first training session!”

There aren’t too many regrets in the JT baggage but not gaining senior international recognition is one, and not playing for North Down is another.

“I would have loved to spend a few years at Comber. I always loved playing there with the pacy wicket which suited my type of cricket. But for whatever reasons, it just never turned out the right time for me.

“I’ve nobody but myself to blame for not winning Ireland caps. Adi Birrell gave me plenty of chance with camps in South Africa and Spain. I guess I was content with club and domestic cricket but looking back now I wish I’d had more commitment.”

His retirement will certainly make the world of local cricket all the poorer. Although a fierce competitor, a smile and a laugh were never too far away from the ultimate entertainer.