It was the year 1971 and Portadown was on the crest of a wave in the retail business world. And nobody knew better than Billy Austin, advertising manager of the Portadown Times.
For as well as being a super salesman, he is a talented artist. And a new business was opening that year – Craigavon Sports at the newly-created Magowan Buildings. Cutting the ribbon was none other than Geoff Hurst (now Sir Geoff), the only man ever to score a hat-trick in a World Cup Final.
England beat West Germany 4-2 (aet) in 1966 and one of Hurst’s goals was the controversial third that hit the crossbar, then the goal line, and was awarded by the Russian linesman in the pre-technology days. It was later proven to be ‘no goal’ by the new ‘Hawk Eye’ system.
Anyway, the two ‘Davids’ - Jeffers and Cloughley - who owned Craigavon Sports - employed Billy to sketch a giant drawing of Hurst, who was so impressed that he had the five-foot high masterpiece shipped across to his home in England, where it still has pride of place.
Victor McAdam was manager – later a director – of Craigavon Sports, and recalled that between 3,000 and 5,000 turned up that day, that 3,000 (50 at a time) passed through the store, and that hundreds had a pictured signed by the great man.
Billy and Victor recalled that Hurst was a true gentleman. “He couldn’t have done more for the occasion,” said Victor. “We reckoned it was the biggest crowd ever attracted to the centre of Portadown, on the business front.”
Billy’s sketches were a real boost to the town and to the Portadown Times. The bustling town had a plethora of businesses, most run by locals - the likes of Tommy Rainey, Billy Burnett, Bob Perrott, Tommy Marley, Ivan Jameson et alia. Billy did sketches of them all. “They were personal friends, and it really boosted the advertising figures! There was a great atmosphere of togetherness in the town in those days,” he said.
The Times carried a number of series of Billy’s work, and later – when the paper could print colour – we included watercolours of local scenes, like the iconic town centre at St Mark’s Church, Knock Bridge and Moneypenny’s at Newry Canal.
And now that he is retired and is a member of the Portadown Visual Arts Society, Billy has really expanded his great artistic talents. He and his wife Averil celebrated 50 years of marriage a fortnight ago, and we carried their golden days in the Times.
They have travelled extensively all over Ireland and the continent in their campervan, and many are the scenes which he has painted on their travels – in countries like France, Italy, Spain and Germany. He can record the scene with amazing swiftness, and with comprehensive coverage on Facebook, he has supplied Facebook friends with sketches in many parts of the world.
“Achill Island in Mayo is a particular favourite,” he said. “Americans go for Old Ireland scenes like nobody’s business – they still see us as a thatched cottage and donkey-and-cart island.”
And his latest group of paintings – simply called ‘Poverty’ – show his development over the years. They depict different parts of the world where real poverty is endemic.
The illustrations on this page – including Billy and Geoff Hurst – say more than words ever can in describing his talents.