A hockey coaching legend and College vice-principal

Sammy Jones pictured during his year as President of the Ulster Branch of the Irish Hockey Union in 1994-95.
Sammy Jones pictured during his year as President of the Ulster Branch of the Irish Hockey Union in 1994-95.

FEW have contributed more to the sporting and educational life of Portadown than Sammy Jones, legendary hockey coach and former vice-principal of Portadown College.

Mr Jones (82), who died last week after a long illness, leaves a sporting legacy that will never be forgotten when the town’s history is recalled. He coached Portadown Ladies Hockey Club to nine Ulster Senior League titles, six Ulster Shield triumphs, eight all-Ireland titles and eight sorties into Europe to represent Ireland in the continental finals, the equivalent of football’s European Champions League - all within a period of 18 years.

In 1973, he received the coveted national award, The Torch Trophy, for his services to sport, and it was presented at Buckingham Palace by the Duke of Edinburgh.

He was also a highly-respected science teacher at Portadown College for 38 years, was Head of the Physics Department and vice-principal in his latter years at PC. And he was a talented musician, playing keyboards in the upbeat Newry-based ‘Sammy Jones Dance Band’ throughout the 1950s.

He also wrote the ladies’ hockey notes for the Portadown Times for around 30 years - a weekly column that was written with expertise, a deep knowledge of the game, and with a dash of humour that summed up the man. And during his life, he was a highly-respected administrator in the game, both at Ulster level and at local level, especially in the development of Chambers Park and later Edenvilla Park.

For all his talents, perhaps his greatest gifts were his modesty, his total lack of pomposity, his ready sense of humour, which was never abrasive, but extremely funny and often turned on himself. Sammy Jones was unique, a one-off.

Born in Newry, he attended the Frontier Town’s Model Public Elementary School, and moved on to Newry Intermediate (later Grammar School) - he was Head Boy in his final year - and from there to Queen’s University (1947-51), where he gained a BSc Honours Degree in Physics and Chemistry.

His first teaching post was in the Science Department of Lurgan College, and he moved to Portadown after two years and stayed at the College for the rest of his career, retiring in 1991.

He had played hockey at school in Newry, as goalkeeper, had a few matches for Newry Olympic and then played for Queen’s. When he moved to PC, he started his coaching career, most notably by guiding the girls first eleven to the school’s first-ever Ulster Schools Cup win in 1963. They beat Strathearn 3-1, with Ruth McKinley notching a hat-trick. Lily Reavie was team captain.

Ruth recalled, “Sammy Jones was the best coach we could have wished for. He was a real expert, but his humour and easy manner were the things I remember most. We all adored him and he brought out the best in us.” Donald Woodman was the Headmaster then, and was ecstatic at the victory.

Meanwhile, Mr Jones continued with his distinguished teaching career, and was vice-principal, along with colleagues Garfield England and Mrs Daryll Jameson, who led the College to their latest Schools Cup win in 1996 - which delighted Mr Jones, then retired, just as much as the first triumph.

He ended his College career under the leadership of Headmaster Mr Harry Armstrong, who said, “He was an excellent teacher and an excellent person. He was the elder statesman then and something of a legend. The staff loved him, and his humour and vast experience were great attributes to the school. He will be sadly missed.”

That schools cup victory in 1963 was just the start of his path to hockey glory. Around that time, he pulled off a master stroke in the ladies’ scene when he persuaded two promising teams - Portadown Technical College Old Girls and the Portadown Club - to amalgamate. He used his considerable persuasive powers and it heralded a golden era that will live for ever.

Club captain Margaret Robinson - one of five sisters (nee Matchett) who played during that golden era - said, “There was nobody to compare with Sammy Jones. He could get the best out of players with his brilliance as a coach, his sense of humour and his easy manner. We were an Intermediate Qualifying team when he took over and we gained promotion two years running, up to senior level, and then things really buzzed.”

He also attracted star players from elsewhere, the most notable being Violet McBride from Kilkeel, who rose to become the vice-captain of the British Olympics team in Seoul 1988.

During his 18 years in charge from 1963-81, the team won a total of 23 titles at Ulster and all-Ireland level, and their European travels took them to places like Holland, France and Spain where they brought great credit to the town.

He did all this at a time many of the team got married and had families, and somehow managed to fit their sporting, professional and family lives into their busy schedule. “Of course, Sammy being Sammy, he used to jokingly complain about all these babies coming along and pregnancies interfering with sport - but that was just him,” said Margaret.

Sammy also used the Portadown Times during that spell to promote the game and make the town aware and proud of the non-stop achievements.

Said David Armstrong, the then-editor, “Sammy’s column was terrific, a real model of how a column should be presented. It was done with a deep knowledge of the game, with a fine journalistic style, with much humour, and with immaculate hand-writing. All I had to do was paragraph it - I rarely had to change a word.”

After he retired as a coach, Mr Jones put his heart and soul into administration, and made sure the hockey scene was well represented at Chambers Park, after which he immersed himself in the development of Edenvilla Park. “He was like an unpaid clerk of works as he watched it take shape,” said Mary Martin, President of Portadown Ladies Hockey Club for 15 years and also a driving force of Edenvilla. “He was so thrilled with the new arena and played such a major part within the committee. Sammy Jones was a brilliant ambassador for the sport.” He was also president of the Ulster Branch in the men’s hockey scene (1994-95) - his contribution to the game was immeasurable.

Mr Jones was able to combine all this activity with a happy family life. His wife Mary (Minnie) - who died in January 2009 - was brought up in Scarva and he is also survived by daughter Sharon Irwin and son-in-law Ian (Armagh) and son Barry (Jersey). Barry formerly worked in the hotel trade in the Channel Islands and his parents spent their annual holiday there for over 20 years. He is also survived by his brother Albert and sister Gladys Monk, having been predeceased by another brother Jim, who played drums in his 1950s dance band.

Sammy Jones was a member of Armagh Road Presbyterian Church which he attended faithfully until his illness made that impossible. He remained at his Enniscrone Park home until recently, after which he moved to Mahon Hall - the family wishes to thank the staff for their diligent care.

Thursday’s funeral service was at Armagh Road which was well-filled for the occasion. Burial was at Scarva Presbyterian where he was laid to rest beside his late wife Mary in the adjoining churchyard.