The Boys’ Brigade, one of the world’s largest Christian uniformed organisations, has played a central core in my life spiritually, professionally and physically.
Spiritually, as a ‘born again’ Christian, the BB’s motto of Sure and Stedfast, along with the so-called BB hymn - Will Your Anchor Hold In The Storms of Life - has helped sustain me through many of life’s challenges, particularly caring for my youngest son’s severe autism and the death within months of each other of my Godly parents.
Professionally, the BB launched my journalistic career in the late Seventies. My first job as a trainee reporter at the Ballymena Guardian in north Antrim under the editorship of the late Maurice O’Neill was writing the weekly BB notes in a column called ‘Bugle Call’.
Physically, my experience in the BB as a teenage Presbyterian minister’s son earned me a severe kicking in a church hall which even as I approach 61 years of age, has left me on long-term medication. It was my time in the BB which brought me to the attention of the thug who assaulted me.
But overall, in spite of the physical pain I suffer from time to time, I have great memories of my BB experience, especially the terrific summer camps which the Brigade organised so efficiently.
It will certainly be interesting to see how the BB will cope with social distancing for annual camps in the post lockdown ‘new normal’.
The BB has often been branded as the so-called ‘Christian paramilitary’, principally because each BB company must be attached to a place of worship; we are organised along military lines with a uniform, companies and battalions, and drill - dubbed square bashing - is a central activity.
Whilst no longer the case in 2020, at one time in Ireland, some BB companies drilled using wooden rifles.
My late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was minister of Clough Presbyterian Church in the north Antrim hills near Ballymena, and I recall his tales of BB camp during my primary school days and looking forward to September 1970 when I could formally join the ranks of the First Clough BB Company Section.
Indeed, the annual BB Inspection and Display was one of the highlights of the church calendar of events. Friday evenings were exciting times for me. The school week was over; my beloved Gunners would be in action on Saturday, and BB kicked off at 8 pm in the church hall.
There were five main activities in the weekly schedule - the Bible class, Physical Education, drill, badge work - and football; plenty of indoor football, which was much to the annoyance at times to the church care taker as the football hammered against the doors of the church hall.
Resplendent in our BB uniforms with buckle belts, white haversacks, blue hats, badge armbands and stripes of ranks, we would parade around the church hall to shouts of ‘right wheel’, ‘about turn’, ‘quick march’, ‘slow march’ and, of course, ‘squad halt!’
Football was the best activity. The winter sessions in the church hall would be great training for the summer league and cup campaigns. With the good summer weather, it would be off to our home ‘ground’, Fenton’s Corner - on the outskirts of Clough village - for formal training and the big matches!
I use the term ‘ground’ exceptionally loosely as Fenton’s Corner was a field which we shared with either a herd of cows or a flock of sheep. There were no changing facilities or toilets, just a few convenient hedges.
Even before we marked out the pitch, we had to move the cows or sheep to another area. On occasions, there were more cows or sheep watching the match than supporters!
The goalposts were solid metal, cemented into the ground; no nets. A training match usually took place two evenings prior to the main home game and lasted for up to three hours non-stop so that everyone got a turn playing.
The first team strip resembled an old Manchester City outfit of a mainly white shirt with a red and blue sash, and blue shorts. To make sure anyone could wear the strip, all the shirts and shorts were ‘large’, which looked really amusing on the smaller players!
Unfortunately, we could not make time to clear the cow pats, which was particularly unfortunate for the away teams, especially if they were wearing light colours. Many’s a player performed a sliding tackle only to emerge with ‘brown cow clap’ all over them!
Indeed, on one occasion, I found myself with a virtually open goal with the opposition goalkeeper off his line, only for my kick to land the ball slap in the middle of a cow pat a few inches from the goal line. The ball stuck firm; no goal!
In Seventies BB soccer, anything goes! What would be classified as an immediate red card and a hefty suspension by today’s rules was taken as normal tactics then. Bumps and bruises were the order of the day. BB officers acted as match officials.
On many occasions, the Bible was left off the pitch as matches descended into bad-tempered hacking events. Ironically, every match ended with a prayer after the final whistle.
However, I recall one away game in Ballymena against a town company which had been a particularly hot-tempered affair. After the final whistle, a BB officer told us all to bow our heads and close our eyes for a prayer. We duly observed this spiritual code, only for the prayer to be interrupted with a loud shout of: “Referee, why don’t you just fuck off home!”
BB football at summer camps could be equally as rough in the Seventies. My only claim to fame in BB soccer was committing a heinous foul on a talented young footballer who later went on to play for Ballymena United and Coleraine.
It was a summer camp at Ayr in Scotland. The young lad was an excellent dribbler of the ball; another George Best in the making. With only minutes to go in the match, he dribbled his way around our defenders and the goalkeeper as if they were statues.
All he had to do was tap it into the net for the match winner. As we stared defeat in the face, I deployed my cross country sprinting skills and raced towards this talented striker.
I caught him full on from behind. The loud yelp from the striker was proof I’d nailed him as the ball drifted wide. I was given a severe telling off by the BB officers and ordered to apologise to the young striker. I refused!
Many years later, that young striker had now become an equally talented preacher of the Gospel. One evening, (remember, I’m by then in my late 50s) our church men’s fellowship attended an event in his church. I noticed a man continually staring at me.
Eventually, he approached me and issued the immortal words: “Are you the buddy who fouled our pastor at that match in Scotland?” I sang dumb!