Everybody here, seems to like to laugh, look at Johnny King jivin’ across the floor.
He can play the fool and make a few mistakes, but all the same he’ll never be a bore,
I’m glad to be so young talking with my tongue, glad to be so careless in my ways.
Glad to take a chance and play against the odds,
Glad to be so crazy in my day.
Lyrics from Steve Forbert’s, Goin’ Down to Laurel, and a fitting depiction of Hicksville, is one that fits our semi dilapidated stadium, our eccentric, sometimes boisterous fanbase and an eclectic team.
Way back in the 1990’s the Ulster Rugby lorded the provincial bragging rights over neighbouring provinces.
Right on the cusp of a new and a professional era for rugby the Ulster team signed off the amateur ethos with one last flourish. It defied the suave and the svelte of France in 1999 to reach the final of the European Cup beating the top two European outfits along the way.
Powered by nothing grander than team ethic, basic rugby nous and a metronomic kicker, Ulster were winners of the European Cup. From there the descent into also rans followed quickly the next season as the hierarchy at Ulster failed to capitalise on the cup success.
Minor successes followed in fits and starts. Winning the league one season and a Celtic cup in another but mostly it was a stuttering team with the one really professional coaching set-up dismissed in the interest of saving money.
There followed more coaches than a whole Translink Gold Liner service as the team imploded and supporters watched on in a mixture of contempt and pity depending how attached they were to the team’s fortunes.
The former success over provincial rivals receded to a distant dream as the players and supporters watched on in envy at the success of Leinster and Munster teams reaching the top end of the European tree and acting as cornerstones of the international team.
Something had to give and the head man of Ulster Rugby, a name synonymous with the 1999 success but essentially from the background of amateur ethos, was dismissed.
He was replaced with a brains trust comprising of a CEO from a professional business background and a director of rugby who was an outstanding player during the professional rugby era and understood the player’s priorities.
The eclectic quality of the team restored a measure of continuity with marquee players of outstanding rugby pedigree signed and integrated into the Ulster way.
There was and is little sympathy extended to those found wanting or surplus to requirements. The marquee signings to date whilst from the desirable end of the rugby spectrum, are not just here for the money, but have their moral and spiritual compass tuned in antipathy with the country, its folk and supporters.
Allied to the global player imprint is the academy revitalised to nurture future home grown stars. A slow burn build up towards the zenith of European glory and a rewriting of the 1999 script this time with the added ingredient of professional structures in place to match the European elite is ongoing as I type.
The European dream has not quite happened yet but once again the team has blazed a trail through the round robin stages of the Heineken and sit atop of the league as the year comes to a close.
Can momentum be maintained? We must hope the brains trust continue to call the right moves.
For the Spence family or what remains of them and for many families, this Christmas will be, I am certain, a sobering time.
There will be empty spaces round the table.
Where, last Christmas would have been filled with the chat and laughter of a father and two sons and possibly a sister, for Mrs Spence and two brothers and a father for the Spence sisters, there is now an emptiness.
In a country where people have been inured to atrocity and the depths of depravity over the years of Troubles, there was still a pause for reflection on the Spence farm accident.
That Nevin Spence, a rising star in Ulster rugby circles was involved in the grim statistic of death was of course important to Ulster rugby fans and especially the players who would have known him in close proximity.
Ulster fans and players though were able to grasp the full magnitude of this tragedy and how a close knit family were ripped apart forever and feel the wider sadness at the passing of so many in such terrible circumstances.
The tragedy lives on in the NS initials on the players shirts and it has been one of a number of catalysts, one suspects, for Ulster’s success thus far this season.
The success of the team is built on sterner foundations than emotions and the structures being gradually eased into place are surely the most fundamental yet to the continued success of the Ulster team.
It is disappointing to note the muted reaction of the certain sections of the media to Ulster’s defeat of Leinster. It started with the Indepenent .ie’s headline, ‘Sexton’s withdrawal strips the magic from Ravenhill derby shoot-out’
Did it really? Did the absence of Muller, so vital to Ulster’s lineout not take away some of the gloss from this fixture? As it was, the Leinster forwards who looked so strong on paper, where the ones to take a hammering.
Disappointing to note Peter O’Reilly’s comments in the Sunday Times saying the Ulster team realise they haven’t replaced Leinster team at the top of the provincial tree. Did anyone seriously think Ulster had?
O’Reilly went on to quote extensively from former Ulster player Paul Shields. He in turn quoted Ulster fans who informed him they would double the Franklin Gardens score at Ravenhill when the two sides met a week later.
For O’Reilly this was evidence of Ulster supporters getting ahead of themselves.
For me it’s just the advent of blow in supporters with little real rugby knowledge who were carried away on a cocktail of euphoria in victory.
Friday night was much more like the old times when I was back where I belonged on the Terrace and amongst the faithful who knew what they were watching which was a team barely having to get out of third gear to win.
Whilst I have nothing against the newcomers lining up to go to Ravenhill, I just hope that they continue to support when the team hits a rough patch.
Standing where I was on Friday night on the Terrace I noticed a split in the second barrier crew. One barrier crew, the Grumpy faction, where to my left whilst to my right the Kimble faction resided in ignorance of their former comrades.
Like a particularly boisterous peace wall, Holywood Mike resided somewhere between the two, neither acknowledging or disavowing either side in this fractious dispute.
It has been a good season so far for Ulster and its supporters on the pitch and a great game has been played off it by some fans.
Just time for me to wish you all a happy and peaceful Christmas.