Lowerhouse repeaing rewards

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IN cricket, particularly the Lancashire League, it’s imperative to expect the unexpected.

Who’d have guessed that a side without silverware in a 141-year history would go on to mark its 150th anniversary by retaining the championship crown, record the league and cup double for the first time ever, and register a fifth trophy in nine years.

It’s been an arduous, often unrewarding, existence for Lowerhouse CC in times gone by. A club that boasted two runners up spots in the league hierarchy in 1910, where they were tied with Burnley and Rishton, and 1982, plus a Martini Trophy runner-up medal in 1980 was tarnished with the perennial tag of being a ‘Cinderella’ club.

But with the Millennium came new hope, foresight, innovation and a structural evolution. With the commitment and dedication of Stan Heaton, among others, with the addition of financial aid, the Liverpool Road youth ‘academy’ was born.

From there young protégés were nurtured and developed into first team stars. Success wasn’t sudden but finally, in 2004, the trophy cabinet was decorated as ‘House, armed with youngster Ben Heap, a product of the youth development system, beat Haslingden in the Worsley Cup final.

And since that day there’s been an infiltration of ambitious and hungry youth players, namely Matt Walker, Joe Hawke, Patrick Martin, brother Joe Martin, Fergus Bailey and Jonny Whitehead who were all involved in the club’s historic double after climbing through the ranks.

“It was all change around the Millennium when Stan Heaton implemented the youth development system at the club,” said coach Paul Stansfield. “I think we owe a lot to Stan because we’ve stuck by that system and now we’re getting the rewards. We’ve put all grants towards the new structure and it’s helped.

“We had to bring players in to keep us competitive while these young lads came through. A lot of them played second team cricket from 2009 and the speed of their progression forced us to blood them in to the first team.

“It was then that we realised we were competitive with that side. We then brought Francois Haasbroek in as professional and he really complemented all the young players that we brought through.”

And the message from the club is “expect more” after the second team culminated their season in second place in the division. “The second team finished runners-up as well so it just shows that there is that continuation at the club. There’s a few to watch out for and the likes of Jack Edgar, Ben Gorton, Josh Lavin and Declan Bailey are among that list.”

Though the development of youth has been integral in the club’s growth, the added ingredient of experience has been a key component. The stand out players of 2004’s final, Chris Bleazard and Charlie Cottam, now skipper, plus Jon Finch have continued to drive the West Enders forward. It’s thanks to them that Lowerhouse’s existence was finally rewarded.

“It was brilliant, a great day,” said Stansfield. “The whole occasion said a lot for the Lancashire League. With Ramsbottom pushing as hard as they did and Burnley giving Accrington a good go it made it an exciting day. It was hectic but it was a super Sunday.”

The club’s most successful coach added: “It’s hard to explain how I’m feeling. We’ve never been there before as a club. Some people affiliated with the club have followed for 60 or 70 years and have never experienced anything like it. I don’t know when what we’ve achieved will sink in. It’s a remarkable achievement.

“Some people are suggesting that we need to go for the treble now and add the Twenty20 trophy. We are still enjoying the moment because we haven’t had enough time to reflect on what we’ve done. It’s all happened so quickly.”

The campaign has been cyclonic for most involved, a journey that will always live in the memory, and for one of Lowerhouse’s leading lights Jonny Whitehead it’s been a privilege.

The 18-year-old has grown in stature, showing a maturity on the field beyond his years, and it’s those characteristics that have seen him end the season as the fourth highest run-scoring amateur in the league with 624. When he hit 49 against Ramsbottom on Sunday he passed the 1,000 run mark in Lancashire League games.

“I never feel under pressure, but I was nervous,” said the talented teenager. “I knew I had a job to do and I did it. I set the foundation for the team and it was built upon. It’s been a great season, we always had faith in ourselves and it’s a special way to mark the club’s 150th anniversary.”

Ever since Whitehead stepped up to the mark of first team cricket, making his senior debut against Accrington on June 19th 2010, Lowerhouse has enjoyed unrivalled triumph.

The club won a league record 18 consecutive home league matches between August 28th 2010 and June 4th 2012 before the sequence ended on June 10th when their match against Haslingden was declared a no result. They’ve won successive Lancashire League titles and secured the Worsley Cup but Whitehead remains modest about his impact.

“Success hasn’t been down to any individual, it’s been down to everyone involved,” he said. “It’s all been hard work but the hard work has paid off. It’s been a great year playing for Lowerhouse.

“It’s definitely the best season I’ve been involved in. We couldn’t have painted a better picture of the club. To win one cup is great but to win two is fantastic. We are the side that stands out in the Lancashire League.

“I’ve been working hard with my dad. I’ve been going down to the nets about five times a week after college and stuff. All the lads put the effort in and we’ve got a great mixture of youth and experience here now. There’s plenty of iconic players in the squad who know what it takes to be successful and have helped us progress. There’s an awful lot more to come from us.”

Meanwhile Whitehead, who represents Lancashire Under 19s, was presented with the Edwin Kay Trophy for the outstanding player on Wednesday at Old Trafford.

He hit 343 runs in five innings at an average of 85, including one century and three 50s.

“That’s been great fun and has helped me develop as a young player,” Whitehead said. “I’m playing against people of a similar standard who have a similar level of experience. To be involved has been an honour. My year with Lancashire and Lowerhouse has been a privilege and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.”