The Leeside legends series: Tom Wilkinson shone for Demons and Neptune

The Leeside legends series: Tom Wilkinson shone for Demons and Neptune

Neptune’s Tom Wilkinson goes past Blue Demons’ Peter O’Sullivan, during their NBL match at the Parochial Hall, Gurranabraher, in 1990.

FOR the last 40 years, basketball critics have been fast to point out that the basis for the success of the game in this country was American players.

Yes, during the golden era of the sport in Ireland, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Americans were simply awesome, but Irish players played their part during that memorable time.

Tom Wilkinson is one of those special players. The former Neptune and Blue Demons star’s record and his breathtaking performances during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have put him right among the all-time greats of the sport.

Blue Demons 1979/80 team. Back: Peter Coughlan, Timmy McCarthy, Tom Wilkinson, Gerry Wheeler,		 Pat Colllins, Michael O’Sulllivan		Front: Sean Murphy, Denis Caffrey, Bill Ramsell, Andrew Houlihan, Dan Byrne, 		William (Mono) McCarthy, Joe Coughlan.
Blue Demons 1979/80 team. Back: Peter Coughlan, Timmy McCarthy, Tom Wilkinson, Gerry Wheeler, Pat Colllins, Michael O’Sulllivan Front: Sean Murphy, Denis Caffrey, Bill Ramsell, Andrew Houlihan, Dan Byrne, William (Mono) McCarthy, Joe Coughlan.

Wilkinson was born in 1955 and began playing basketball as a 12-year-old, when attending the North Mon school.

After showing progress, he soon joined Neptune.

In his juvenile days with Neptune, he won very little, as the Blarney Street Iona club dominated Cork and Irish basketball for many years at this level.

When Wilkinson finished school, at the North Mon, he moved to Dublin to begin training as a teacher and, while based in the capital, he played minor basketball with Killester.

With little or no success up to the age of 22, Wilkinson moved to Blue Demons and, in 1980, captained them to six trophies, including the National League title for the first time.

After the successful 1980 season,Wilkinson rejoined Neptune, which was a tough decision.

“It was a wrench to leave Demons, because they were a great bunch of lads and under their coach, Peter Coughlan, I improved as a player and I will always be grateful to him and Demons, the way they looked after me,” Wilkinson said.

The 1980s were sensational for Neptune and for Tom. They were the dominant club, winning seven National League titles and two National Cups.

Neptune were awesome, with their local players, Jim Nugent, Tom O’Sullivan, and Paul Fitzgerald, combining well with their American team-mates.

Tom looked back on that all-conquering team with many great memories.

“We had great team spirit and two outstanding Americans, in Ray Smith and Terry Strickland, and it was an honour to play with such a great bunch of guys,” Tom said.

Wilkinson could play at both ends of the court, which is not very common among present-day basketball players.

His defence was as good as his offence, although he will always be remembered as a shooter and scorer, first and foremost.

His international career was just as successful as he represented his country 46 times. If you included representative games, he would have amassed 100 caps.

Tom Wilkinson, Neptune, and Jerry Caffrey, St Vincent's, contest the ball.
Tom Wilkinson, Neptune, and Jerry Caffrey, St Vincent's, contest the ball.

The American players have taken most of the glory over the years, but in November 1982, Tom outshone everyone at the Roy Curtis International tournament in Dublin.

Neptune were shock qualifiers for the final, against a crack Murray International team, from Scotland, and in one the best games of basketball played in Ireland, the Cork side, with the help of 20 points from Wilkinson, defeated the red-hot favourites.

“It was never known for an Irish team to win the Roy Curtis, but we proved them all wrong on that memorable day.

“The one thing I can recall being so proud of is that Irish basketball had reached new heights,” Wilkinson said.

Tom bowed out of the game at the very top, when he coached Neptune to victory in the 1997 National League, but he will never forget how the ruling Irish Basketball Association treated the league with distain in the 1990s.

“The Irish Basketball Association got it wrong in reducing the number of Americans to just one and, looking at the standard today, it has never recovered, and it would be great if we could have those glory days back,” Tom said.

Tom also remembered the kind sponsorship that Jackie Solan gave to Neptune during the glorious 1980s, when they played under the Burgerland banner.

“I think people like Jackie were forgotten about much too easily, as without his kind sponsorship we could not have had quality Americans, like Ray Smith and Terry Strickland, and, basically, the show wouldn’t have happened,” Tom said.

Tom Wilkinson’s record shows the contribution he made to basketball, and now the Blackpool club would do well to produce a player of his quality again.

Marking the 20th anniversary of Neptune Stadium were Brendan O'Flaherty, Jim Nugent, Tim O'Brien, Jim O'Donoghue, Joe Healy, Lillian Goulding, Niall O'Riordan, Jim Long, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Fitzgerald, Paul Kelly, Tom O'Sullivan, John Houlihan, Official and Denis Ring. Picture: Larry Cummins
Marking the 20th anniversary of Neptune Stadium were Brendan O'Flaherty, Jim Nugent, Tim O'Brien, Jim O'Donoghue, Joe Healy, Lillian Goulding, Niall O'Riordan, Jim Long, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Fitzgerald, Paul Kelly, Tom O'Sullivan, John Houlihan, Official and Denis Ring. Picture: Larry Cummins

FACTFILE: 

Tom Wilkinson is the holder of eight National league and three National Cup medals in a career that spanned 24 years.

Wilkinson has 46 International caps but has played for Ireland more than a 100 times in representative games.

Tom captained Blue Demons in 1980 to a league and cup double and his team won six trophies in one season.

Wilkinson is an avid golf player and plays off a low handicap.

Tom was inducted into the 2020 Basketball Ireland Hall of Fame for his contribution to the sport.

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