From togging with Best to Ravenhill glory days

Jim Stokes has been synonymous with Ulster rugby for over three decades.

From togging with Best to Ravenhill glory days

Jim Stokes has been synonymous with Ulster rugby for over three decades.

Long-time rugby correspondent for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, he spent another decade with the BBC before closing the laptop on his career in journalism as a freelancer with his native province’s Guinness PRO14 defeat of the Isuzu Southern Kings at Kingspan Stadium last Saturday.

But let’s draw outside such narrow lines here. Stokes faced the likes of Willie John McBride, Syd Millar and Mike Gibson as a rugby player with Malone but he played underage football for Northern Ireland and Glentoran too.

A keen cricketer, he played as a wicket-keeper for Cregagh CC, and he shot hoops for the now defunct Belfast Dragons. All this before he picked up a pen or earned a byline. Jim took the time out from a schedule that will now revolve around the wheels of his beloved road bike rather than the demands of professional rugby to pen some thoughts for his blog. Here’s some of them, on life in the press box and a wider sporting journey that has allowed him to dip in and out of a peloton containing some of Irish sport’s greatest names

BEST BY NAME AND NATURE

I had the pleasure of playing at Wembley back in 1963, with 40,000 spectators as the backdrop. That was in the European Youth Tournament when the Northern Ireland Youth team lost 4-0 to England in the final. Crazy, really, when I think of it. I was involved alongside players like Pat Jennings, Dave Clements, John Napier and Eric Ross.

The NI Youth team v Wales in 1962 in the Home International series. That’s me at the back behind some skinny kid called George Best.
The NI Youth team v Wales in 1962 in the Home International series. That’s me at the back behind some skinny kid called George Best.

I also played with some skinny kid called George Best against Wales and England in the Home International Championships. We drew both games 1-1. My first introduction to Best was on the eve of that game against England at Oldham Athletic’s Boundary Park. The manager, Norman Kernaghan, was giving us a talk in the dining room at the Piccadilly Hotel in the middle of Manchester when in strode Matt Busby.

We were all gobsmacked when a wee black-mopped head of hair popped out from Busby’s right elbow. It was Best, with white teeth, dressed in the Beatle fashion with the high-collared suit. He was built like a couple of pipe cleaners and we were agog at finally meeting the boy who was on the teamsheet but nobody knew.

He was sitting beside me in the changing room before the England game and the choice of boots amazed me. My parents had bought me a spanking new pair of Adidas boots for the game. Lovely new studs were inserted for the muddy pitch. George, though, pulled out a pair of boots that had NO studs.

Because the pitch was a pancake, mudflat and fairly hard, George had eight jam-jar lid type holes in the soles. He said they were like suction pads on the surface. It certainly looked like it. He was unbelievable, skipping out of tackles as big England defenders attempted to cut him in two, sprinting away from players. Amazing balance. You knew then he was going to be a star.

I got friendly with him, simply because he came from east Belfast, with his home behind where my wife lived on the front of the Cregagh Road. He had gone to school, Grosvenor High, which was on the same campus as my old alma mater. He was a quiet, shy person. Where did it all go wrong for George, as the saying goes?

A LIFELONG LOVE AFFAIR

I first encountered rugby at the all-new Orangefield Boys’ Secondary School in east Belfast in 1956. That’s when my PE teacher, Rodney Usher, a former CIYMS and Ulster flanker, thought I was fairly handy at sport. God bless his cotton socks, I loved him as a teacher and a person, even though he tried to cut me in two in Ravenhill one drizzly Saturday afternoon during a highly-contested Ulster Senior League game.

My first seven games of a ten-year senior club rugby stint with Malone were at Ravenhill in 1962 as a teenager.

We were facing a plethora of Lions and Ireland internationals week-in, week-out, among them the Ballymena trio of Willie John McBride, Syd Millar and the current IRFU president Ian McIlrath. Formidable foes. That was real club rugby.

I played in three Ulster Senior Cup finals at ‘Headquarters’, winning one, before injury struck in the final game of the 1973 season when my knee was mangled playing for the Ulster Presidents XV against a Larne International XV. I managed one final run-out on the Ravenhill sward when, as player/coach to Malone II’s in 1976, we defeated Collegians II’s 15-9 in the final of the Crawford Cup.

Ravenhill — the Stadium of Pain as I dubbed it during Ulster’s great run in Europe 20 years ago — has been my second home from the first time I went there as a spectator in 1958 for an Ulster Schools’ Cup final. While

official rugby correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, I witnessed 15 coaches pass under Ravenhill’s Memorial Clock, starting with the irrepressible Jimmy Davidson.

The late Jimmy D was the best of them all, in my view. In the mid-80s, he was way ahead of his time regarding training, nutrition, game management and the way players under his tutelage improved.

Keith Crossan, who was plucked from the obscurity of the Instonians club third XV, was a prime example when he became an international two seasons after his Ulster debut.

Davidson was not a big fan of the press, mind you, particularly after they skewered him when he was in charge of the Ireland side in the late-80s. He was aghast at any of his players reading a newspaper in his company.

I remember going down to Dublin on the Enterprise train to play Leinster when he wandered down the carriage snapping the papers that players had bought at the station news stand and dumped them in the train guard’s bin.

That included my copy of the Daily Telegraph as I checked whether my 150-word preview of the game was published.

GOOD DAYS

The good days at Ravenhill included that wonderful European Cup run in 1999 under Harry Williams. That tournament featured one of the best games I covered when Ulster defeated Stade Francais 33-27 in an electrifying semi-final, and one of my favourite tries as David Humphreys, in harness with Sheldon Coulter, conjured up a magical effort to help reach the final in Dublin.

Back in the early days of my jottings, there were other nail-biting and exciting affairs. Philip Rainey, who was playing for Lansdowne at the time, rifled over a 45-metre penalty in the dying embers of the game when Ulster defeated the ‘84 Grand Slam Wallabies 15-13. Davidson was still coach, David Irwin (The Doc) was captain (and referee) and Willie Anderson was frothing at the mouth. No fewer than 13 of that starting side went on to play for Ireland. Says it all.

There were other magic moments, like Crossan’s last-ditch try at the Memorial Clock corner and Peter Russell’s touchline conversion that saw Ulster squeeze Leinster out 18-17 for another inter-provincial Grand Slam. That was only surpassed by an Ian Brown injury-time dropped goal which recorded a similar deed a couple of years later.

BAD DAYS

It was easy to write about Ulster in those days. It was harder to lose than to win. They won 15 games on the trot and ten interprovincial titles in a row, including eight Grand Slams. The bad days came when Irish rugby, and Ulster in particular, were dragged kicking and screaming into the era of professionalism.

Michael Reid made a very good fist of things during his spell as CEO. He pressed all the right buttons and has to take a lot of credit for bringing Friday night rugby to Belfast.

But it wasn’t long before Ulster’s 1999 European crown slipped. The next season, in fact. Ulster lost all six of their pool games with poor Fijian prop Joeli ‘Big Mac’ Veitayaki taking most of the flak. Fresh from the 1999 World Cup, he was rumoured to have had a plaque erected in the Bangor branch of McDonald’s for his gargantuan efforts in devouring burgers. It was a golden era for the north Down farmers.

And let’s not forget the day Ravenhill, or the pitch itself, turned orange after it was accidentally coated with a weed killer six months after that Euro success.

And before the 12th of July, I may add. It was out of action for over three months and Ulster had to play home games at the start of the new season on the back pitches at The Dub.

Some say it ruined the momentum Ulster had garnered the previous season and they are probably right.

DEPRESSING DAYS

Two of most depressing of times were in 2012. In September, the tragic death of young Ulster star Nevin Spence, along with his father Noel and brother Graham, in a farming accident had a devastating effect on everyone.

The whole episode was handled with delicate diplomacy by the media and, in particular, Ulster Rugby through CEO Shane Logan and Humphreys, who had moved upstairs as operations director. The Nevin Spence Centre beneath the family stand is a fitting memorial in what is now a five-star stadium.

Six months earlier, was also depressing, but in a very different context. The successful Brian McLaughlin learned he was being ousted from his head coach position after taking Ulster through to the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. They say his demise emanated from the dressing room. Anyway, the irony was that Ulster went on to defeat Munster at Thomond Park in the quarter-final,

then Edinburgh, to reach the decider at Twickenham.

Even though they were subsequently trounced by Leinster, it was a strange decision to move McLaughlin down a number of rungs to head up the Ulster Academy and bring in somebody with more ‘clout’. It has taken Ulster a long time to recover. Looking too far forward can be fraught with danger.

And, of course, who can forget the annus horribilis of last season when the Belfast Rape Trial had scores of the uninformed and informed alike having their tongues and social media fingers in hair-trigger mode?

Understandably, the whole scene around Ravenhill was a miasma of despair. Let’s not forget, the principals had a unanimous innocent verdict bestowed on them in the courts. They were, nonetheless, guilty of unprofessionalism through their interactions on social media.

TOY DEPARTMENT

Sports journalism wasn’t a bad profession in those days! Still is, in many respects. But it is a different animal today. Writing about rugby, and sport in general, was what life was all about for me. I had no pretence to be an intellectual wordsmith, but I had great experiences with the being a Belfast Telegraph sports writer.

My first actual rugby match report from Ravenhill was the 1978 Ulster Junior Cup final when my own club team, Malone II’s, ‘cruised’ home 9-6 against Ards. Chris Henry’s late dad Willie, a dear friend of mine, captained the winning team, if I can remember . Exciting stuff. Not!

Sailing — yes sailing — basketball, cricket, and particularly hockey were my blackboard in the early days before I was handed the rugby correspondent gig I had coveted. Being a sports correspondent in those days was done alongside some proper work. That included the daily sub-editing and page design duties which necessitated stone work. The stone was the large room where the pages of type were assembled in iron forms before being transported to the press hall.

I can still smell the aroma of Coates’ ink and the swishing sound of the giant printing machines as they spewed out the roll of pages. I can also still hear the clickety-click of the old Royal typewriters on the editorial floor, like a stuttering machine gun and the incessant yell of ‘copy’ as the editors requested the copyboy or girl to dispatch the journalists’ written offering down the hatch to the production floor below. That’s where the deafening cackle of the linotype machines spewing out metal lines started the process of the printed page and the make-up of the newspaper began.

I spent a decade at BBC Northern Ireland from 2000, working mainly on the then fairly newish sport online web pages with rugby, and Ravenhill, still not too far away. Then came the official ‘retirement’ in 2010 before a little freelance work at Ulster’s home games kept me fairly sharp in mind and body until now.

Some will rejoice, maybe a minority not so much. So, while my official stint writing about Ulster started with a defeat when an international-stacked Queensland touring side defeated them 6-4 on a hurricane-like evening in January 1986, it ended with a handsome 33-19 victory over Southern Kings last Saturday evening.

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