Euro 2016

Sporting Belfast had part to play in story of Darren Randolph

Darren Randolph's father Ed played for basketball team Sporting Belfast in 1982
Andy Watters

DARREN RANDOLPH, the goalkeeper Ireland will depend on to keep out Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Kevin De Bruyne, Lorenzo Insigne and the rest in Euro 2016, might never have worn the green jersey, or even played soccer, if it hadn’t been for Fergie Woods.

Back in 1982, Woods was the coach of basketball outfit Sporting Belfast, later to become Team Smithwicks, when he signed Randolph’s father Ed from Rhode Island College, USA. Originally from Tallahassee, Florida, Randolph accepted Sporting Belfast’s terms and arrived in a city caught in the grip of the Troubles. He was billeted with Pearse Tohill and his family in Hillhead on west Belfast’s Stewartstown Road.

“We knew Rhode Island College because we had been there with an Irish Schools’ team in 1976 and we had contacts there,” Tohill said.

“So if we were to go looking for somebody, we went to a place we knew.”

Randolph was identified as someone who had the potential to make a mark in Irish basketball. He was keen to make the move and Tohill has fond memories of the towering 6’7” student forward’s short stay in Belfast.

“Ed was a lovely guy, he was well liked here,” Tohill, a former player with the famous Belfast Celtics club, recalled.

“He was a good player. We still refer to him as ‘uncle Ed’ because he referred to my wife as ‘auntie Maura’ when he lived here.”

Back in the 1980s, basketball attracted large crowds in Belfast. Sporting Belfast were sponsored by Guinness, who bought the naming rights to the club and renamed it Team Smithwicks: “We won the second division and we were playing near the top of the first division,” said Tohill, a former PE teacher at CBS on the Glen Road.

“We had 1,500 people crammed into the Andytown [Andersonstown Leisure Centre] and Maysfield at games. The atmosphere was electric. In those days, we played in Maysfield and then we moved up to the Kerry Inn, which is where the Devenish is now.

“We were smack bang in the middle of the Troubles, but that didn’t stop Ed. I used to tell him places to go to and not to go to, but the Americans that came managed to keep themselves outside of it all. I don’t know, maybe the city they were from was worse? They were lovely guys and it was a great time.”

Unfortunately, Randolph’s time in the city was cut short by the signing of the prodigiously talented ‘Soup’ Campbell, whose arrival in the Tohill household meant Ed had to pack his bags: “We were under serious pressure to afford to bring players over and to keep them and he had to move on,” said Tohill.

“He stayed with us for six or eight weeks, but when Soup arrived, we realised ‘we can’t keep all these people’. Ed didn’t want to go back home, he never had any thoughts of going back to live in Florida and he was intent on getting a sports career in Europe.

“So when we let him go, he didn’t hold any grudges, he just understood the system. He went and played in England for a year or two and came back to Ireland and I got him a team with friends of mine over with Ennistymon in county Clare.

“He met a girl there and stayed and married her and he’s been in Ireland ever since. They moved to Dublin and he did very well there, he coached numerous basketball teams and made a good living out of it and we have got a good goalkeeper.”

Goalkeeper Darren was born in 1987. He was brought up in Bray and played his football with Ardmore Rovers in his early days. He joined London club Charlton Athletic in the summer of 2003 and had loan spells at Welling United, Accrington Stanley, Gillingham, Bury, Hereford United and permanent moves to Motherwell and Birmingham City before returning to the English capital to sign for current club West Ham United.

He made his international debut in 2012, but played second fiddle to Shay Given and David Forde until he replaced the injured Given against Germany last year and is now established as Ireland’s number one: “Darren and his brother played soccer and basketball and Gaelic at a high level, they were very skilful and Darren was the one who made it,” said Tohill, who met his old tenant at a mutual friend’s funeral in 2015.

“I saw him last year at Frankie O’Loan’s funeral. All the guys who had come over all knew him and they came up from Dublin and Cork. He’ll be a proud man watching Darren at the Euros.”

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Euro 2016