Fifty not out for high-flyer Lancaster
A SPORTSMAN’S life is usually relatively short, but one Plymouth darts player who defies the rule is Ralph Lancaster who has just completed 50 years on the oche of Plymouth hostelries.
He started playing in 1967 at The Trafalgar in Ebrington Street and at the time, did not even have his own set of darts.
Lancaster first got serious in 1969 and moved to the Fishermans Arms, where the side was very successful in the Tivvy League, which was later to become the Men’s Whitbread League.
He remained there for three seasons picking up his first trophies when the team won the league title, Knockout Cup and Attwood Cup and Lancaster partnered Ron Penaluna to the pairs title in 1971-72.
Lancaster moved to the Longroom in September 1972, but his stay only lasted two seasons as the team, one of the best pub sides that ever played in Plymouth, were disbanded.
In the season of 1974-75 Lancaster began a successful flirtation with the Ind Coope League, later to be taken over by Halls, Oxford and West, which lasted right through to the end of the1985-86 season.
During this time, representing the Seymour Arms, the team won the league championship no fewer than seven times, emerging with the league and cup double on four occasions.
Personal success for Lancaster during these years saw him take the doubles title with Martin Smith in 1982-83, again in 1984-85 and he was the captain’s winner the season in between.
He was crowned individual champion in 1982-83 and emerged as supreme individual champion on two occasions in 1983-84 and 1985-86.
The following season Lancaster was back in the Courage League, albeit for only one season, turning out for the Lord Beresford.
The Devonport side took the league title and the Johnstone Trophy and Lancaster claimed yet another individual title.
COUNTY STALWART: Lancaster has played in the British Inter County Championships no fewer than 149 times.
Season 1987-88 saw Lancaster move to the Fellowship Inn and success followed when he won the Courage captain’s cup.
The following season Lancaster was on the move once again and displayed his talents in the Bass Open League for the Victory Inn.
As well as taking yet another singles title, Lancaster helped to win the doubles, trebles and fours and the team, not surprisingly were league champions.
Brewery leagues were now being phased out around this time and the Courage League (formerly Plymouth Breweries League and PB Courage) then had three new names in a relatively short space of time.
It went from the Courage League to the John Smiths League before being sponsored by Booker Cash & Carry and finally Trophydart.
Throughout these years the team that displayed their talents at The Trelawney and Victory Inn reigned supreme and Lancaster was the captain of this great side throughout the nineties.
Three of the main titles within these leagues were the championship crown, Knockout Cup and Johnstone Trophy and the team did the treble no fewer than six times.
As well as steering a successful side, Lancaster also remained a good individual player and claimed more success when taking the captain’s title in 1994-95 and 1998-99.
The last Plymouth men’s league to uphold the traditional fixed double start was the Devonport and District Social Clubs League.
Lancaster first came to prominence in this league in 1990-91 when the newly formed Kings Tamerton Social Club won the division three crown.
Promotion the following year saw them emerge as division two champions with their final accolade coming in 1993-94 when they took the division one championship – three divisional titles in as many years.
During those three seasons the side also won the Knockout Cup and Lancaster himself clinched another doubles and individual title.
After winning the division one title, Lancaster moved to the St Johnston Social Club and had been the recipient of one trophy or another in every other season up to 2004.
Up to that year, St Johnston had been division one champions on no fewer than eight occasions and had clinched the knockout cup five times.
Lancaster was crowned individual champion in 1997-98 and runner-up twice.
Ralph Lancaster was also a big player on the British Inter County Championship scene, making no fewer than 149 appearances.
He has turned out for Devon on 94 occasions and represented Cornwall 55 times, being part of the Duchy squad that won the British Inter County Championship title in 1991-92
He made his debut for Cornwall in 1989 and last wore the black and gold in 1988 against Somerset.
Ironically, one of his best performances came whilst playing for Cornwall against Devon in 1994 and was even featured on Westward Television.
Lancaster came from 2-1 down to edge out Devon’s John Syvrett 3-2, aided by legs in 15 and 16 and a checkout of 121, coming out of this encounter with a very respectable average of 28.98.
In the year of his Cornish debut, Lancaster partnered another Duchy stalwart John Goves in the John Bull Bitter pairs championship, but represented a Devon hostelry, namely The Lugger, a public house in Devonport.
They won the South West area play-offs and qualified for the national finals at Eltham, London, where the top prize carried a winner’s purse of £1,500.
The duo did not win, but did exceptionally well to reach the semi-finals. This being a national competition, it was no mean feat.
Lancaster had started to participate in national competitions as early as 1974 and it was in this year that he won through to the last eight of the British Open before bowing out to England international Alan Glazier, despite winning a leg in just 10 darts.
Lancaster has been an ever present in Plymouth’s most prestigious tournament, namely the Champion of Champions from its inauguration in 1985 and his persistence finally paid off when he was crowned Champion of Champions in 1996.
In the 31 years that this competition has been in operation, only three players have successfully defended their title. John Goves in 1986, Flynn Jones in 1995 and Adrian Lamerton in 2006, three different decades.
Ralph Lancaster came very close to having his name added to that illustrious trio when, in 1997, he won through to the grand final once again, only to be beaten in the odd leg of seven by Tony Turner.
The new millennium brought a different insight to local darts and the money leagues replaced what was traditionally the “grass roots” leagues.
Success remained with the Victory Inn though and they emerged champions of the Monday Premier League in 2001-02 and 2002-2003.
Arguably the highest standard of darts being portrayed was in the Plymouth City Super League and Lancaster was privileged to captain the Victory team for six seasons, winning the league title on every occasion.
Lancaster told me: “I have had the privilege to play alongside some of the great Plymouth players over the years.
“Two of them being the late, great, Cliff “Ticker” Inglis, who was the first player to win the Winmau World Masters in 1974 and Tim Green who, at the height of his successful career, was ranked number eight in Great Britain”.
Other notable players that Lancaster rolled off were Fred Pritchard, Joe and George Bishop, Kevin O’Connor, Tim McCoy and Des Stabb to name just a few and more recently, John Goves and Glyn Wells.
“I have had the honour to captain most of the teams that I have played for, but the best captain I played under was Geoff Gunning” he added.
Fifty years on from that Monday evening in September 1967, Ralph Lancaster is still strutting his stuff on the Plymouth darts scene and only in June of this year he was still good enough to make the final of the Secretaries’ Cup in the Plymouth Open League.
A valued member of his various teams, Lancaster still competes in the Monday Open League (Ker St Social Club), Porters Function Room 501 Top 20 League (Octagon Social Club), Plymouth and District Friday League (Kings Tamerton Community Centre) and Devon County Super League (Ker St Social Club).