You just have to take a look at the number of Northern Knights players that have made an impact on the international stage in the past 16 months to realise what a great job head coach Simon Johnston has been doing.
Anyone you speak to about him provides glowing reports on the effort he puts in, the time he gives to all of his players and perhaps most importantly, the impact he has had on their careers as a whole.
Going back to February 2019, Shane Getkate was rewarded with his first international cap in a Twenty20 against Oman before a few weeks later James Cameron-Dow and James McCollum joined him in earning their debuts.
In the following months came the emergence of Mark Adair, the recall of Greg Thompson to the Ireland ranks after a run of blistering performances and the breakthrough of both Harry Tector and David Delany who have spent time with the Knights.
Jacob Mulder would have also been back in the green of Ireland if it wasn’t for injury and it’s when you go through the extensive list that you truly get a sense of what the Knights are building.
A lot of it comes down to how much a player wants it and ultimately their destiny is in their own hands, but there is no doubting that having someone like Johnston around to motivate and help you become the best player you can be is a massive part of achieving success.
Usually outdoors slinging cricket balls at this time of year, Johnston is having to deal with the uncertainty of when he will be able to join back up with his players and continue the work that they so brilliantly put in during 2019.
“I was furloughed really early so that has obviously been a massive challenge,” he said.
“With me being a physical coach and being out coaching all the time we knew it was going to happen, so what we were able to do a week before was get the Google Classroom up and running before I was put on furlough.
“Charlotte Lyons was phenomenal with all of that setting it up for everybody.
“Basically, I was able to say here is all the information and links you can use and you work away leading it. It gave the coaches ownership because I wasn’t there to lead it.
“I’ve been there as a friend if they need me but legally I’m not allowed to do anything so I haven’t.
“Callum (Atkinson) has been running it brilliantly. If you know enough about me you know I’m very hands on so that has been a real challenge not being involved, but the guys are doing great work.”
Simon Johnston. ©CricketEurope
Coronavirus has resulted in coaches utilising other methods to get their message across and the NCU have been putting on Zoom calls and webinars for club coaches and players at different age groups.
With the innovations that have come about due to this enforced break and technology that is available, Johnston believes it could have a lasting change on coaching.
“That has probably changed the face of coaching forever,” he added.
“Over the winter months there will be a lot more Zoom calls and it’s cost saving.
“I know Northern Ireland isn’t a big place but there can be a lot of travelling involved. Going forward, we will probably implement Zoom a lot more.
“With my coaching style, I’m a social person and very big on building relationships and trust with my players, so I would class a lot of the players as friends.
“I would be chatting to them every day or every couple of days anyway. I speak to Wilo (Gary Wilson) as captain a lot and most of the boys I would be chatting to at least twice a week.
“The majority of time it isn’t about cricket but just staying in touch and making sure they are alright. The stronger you can build your relationships the better.”
A major part of being a successful coach is knowing your players extremely well and having the knowledge of what each individual requires.
Lockdown has heightened that even more with usually active cricketers now not able to do any sort of meaningful training and personal interaction limited.
“You treat them all individually,” said Johnston.
“I know enough about the guys to know some would struggle on their own.
“Some weeks I’ve been ringing them to pick me up because there can be some dark weeks.
“You know the guys that can get on with it and you know the guys who need the social contact. That’s just about me knowing who needs more attention.
“The contracted boys are very well taken care of with their S&C programmes and their calls with Fordy (Graham Ford, Ireland head coach), so for me, I can let them go.
“It’s the tier below of what I would call the semi-pro guys. We have provided them with S&C too.
“While the Classroom is great for young guys because you can give them drills and stuff to do, the majority of senior boys are shadow batting and doing their S&C work – there isn’t a lot of technical stuff they can do.
“Someone like a Marc Ellison will be shadow batting in his apartment and James McCollum will have his sister throwing tennis balls out the back to him.
“It’s very hard for a lot of people. It has to be tailored for different people. I know at youth level the guys have been posting drills to do but at senior level you just have to trust them.”
Northern Knights. ©CricketEurope
The main message that Johnston has been getting across to his squad is one of opportunity.
“The one thing I did say to them when this all kicked off was that this is an opportunity,” he added.
“It’s an opportunity for guys who have been injured to rest, for guys who have been on the international circuit like Wilo for 10 years to take a bit of a break for a few months because it’s probably the only chance you’ve had in that time.
“For other guys like Elly, it’s about reading up and going deeper into your game. Shane Getkate is very similar to that.
“The one thing I told them we can control and that there is no excuse for is our fitness.
“If people come out of this and they rock up with a wee belly on them, you know they haven’t been doing anything. Even I’m out running twice a day just to get out of the house!
“If anyone comes out of this not fit that would ring alarm bells for a coach. It’s just how you take it.
“It’s going to be interesting when I get back in to see what the Knights guys have been doing but I think they are going to be grand.
“From a youth level, I think we will learn a lot about our players in underage squads and see the guys who have been putting in the hard yards and those that haven’t.”
As captain and with his experience, Gary Wilson plays a big role in the Knights set-up both on and off the pitch.
It was clear the impact he made during his first full season back in Northern Ireland last year and Johnston’s relationship with the Ireland international has been vital to their progress.
“I remember doing an interview with you just over a year ago saying my biggest challenge was getting to know him and making our relationship strong,” said Johnston.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the bloke. He is a real people person but is determined and knows what he wants.
“He will bring people with him to what he wants and it was like a breath of fresh air him coming in with the stuff he said and did for the guys.
“He is very motivated about his own game and wants to get back firing being that number one in all formats in the Irish team.
“People talk about an extra 5% someone can give you but I reckon he gives us an extra 20%. The impact he makes as a captain is phenomenal.
“People are always judging runs and this and that, but it’s as good captaincy as I’ve seen. Last year was definitely some of the best I’ve been around and that can’t be underestimated.”
If the 2020 season does get underway, one of the most exciting things for local cricket fans will be seeing Paul Stirling in action.
The hard-hitting batsman will be playing for the Knights after returning from his time with Middlesex and his addition will further enhance their chances of winning more silverware.
Just like Wilson, Johnston says Stirling has bought into what they are trying to achieve.
“Every fan in the country would have been excited to see him play this year – I know I certainly was,” he added.
“A bit like Wilo coming in, he has been a breath of fresh air at training.
“They are two completely different characters but it’s fascinating to see the way he goes about it. It will probably take me another year to work out his dos and don’ts.
“Just to have him in your changing room is a massive thing. I know he is one of the guys that people look to in the Irish changing room, so the value he is going to add on and off the pitch is phenomenal.”
This break has meant many people have developed a deeper appreciation for the sport and felt a new drive to improve when it returns.
Johnston is no different and says he can’t wait to be back on the training pitch once again and is confident the feeling is similar within his group.
“The boys all wind me up saying at least my shoulder is getting a rest because it’s usually killing me!
“The positives for me personally has been getting myself fit and recharging the batteries but I can’t wait to get back.
“It has give me a wee buzz again about how much I love coaching and I can’t wait to get out there.
“Hopefully it is the same for the guys and hopefully all injuries are cleared up so the guys are ready to go with a real passion.”