Monday 21 October 2019

Neil Francis: Heaven might be a little bit too PC for Ned but trust him to find a perch somewhere

‘The core value of Ned Thornton was loyalty. With all of his friends and wider circle, moral integrity and unflinching loyalty were demanded, received and reciprocated’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘The core value of Ned Thornton was loyalty. With all of his friends and wider circle, moral integrity and unflinching loyalty were demanded, received and reciprocated’. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Some of you may find it hard to picture the scene, so bear with me. It is the 1980s and UCD Rugby Club have just won the McCorry Cup, an underage competition for Leinster clubs. UCD had gone through the Gobi for a long, long time. In the search for success, a cup, any cup, was worth celebrating and that is precisely what half the college did on that great day. The Belfield bar was awash with beer, there wasn't a sober head in the place, but everyone was happy.

Paul Howett, who had played at centre, was one of many enjoying the fruits of victory. There was a tap on his shoulder. The hand belonged to Ned Thornton, coach of the UCD senior team and a man revered by the whole club. Howett and Thornton were connected, ostensibly by the association of both having gone to Terenure College. Thornton put his arms around Howett and looked him in the eye. "Well done, we are proud of you."

Thornton had enjoyed the night, and had breathed in the giddy behaviour and skittish bonhomie. It was late into the night but not yet the crack of dawn when he explained he had to go. As he did, he slipped a big wad into Howett's trouser pocket, patted the pocket, pursed his lip as he put a finger over them and issued an instruction, "Go get the lads a drink." A quick wink and Thornton was out the door.

Howie went to the bar and soon trays of frothies were being delivered all over the room. "That'll be 92 quid," says the barman. Howie took out the wedge and proffered it to the barman - four teabags! Howie looks at the barman. The barman looks at Howie. "I'll go and check son but I don't think that's legal tender in here"

When somebody told me during the summer that "we have lost Ned", my reaction was, "Did you find him again?"

When I was told he had died in May, two things came to my mind: Firstly, how in the name of God had he made it to 78 years of age? And secondly, there was a profound sense of loss.

Freedom of speech is no longer available to any of us. I salute anyone who speaks their mind and does so out of a sense of conviction or a deeply-held belief. Thornton was a champion in many walks of life, but what set him apart was his ability to speak his mind. He not only got away with it, but anyone with inflated sensibilities was utterly flummoxed by, on one side, his sincerity and earnestness, and on the other, his charm and irascible humour.

Ned Thornton's life is worthy of newspaper space on many levels, especially because of the many apocryphal stories which have their genesis in him.

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When I first met Ned he was in the cigarettes and alcohol stage as a bog-standard blazer hovering around the usual haunts in Leinster. I dug a little deeper and his quality shone through.

Thornton played in two Junior Cup finals and three Senior Cup finals in his time at school, winning one of each. He was good enough to play for Leinster Schools for two seasons. He won the Leinster Senior Cup with Terenure (twice) and UCD (twice) back when it was worth winning. He played for Leinster as well but that was as far as he got.

I never saw him play but I am assured he was one of the quickest ever to play in Leinster. He was left-footed and had a rare ability to sidestep at full pace. Thornton was an easy and intelligent footballer and his speed of thought and uncanny anticipation left observers wondering why players of far lesser pedigree got capped ahead of him for Ireland.

I always reserve a healthy sense of admiration for athletes who squander their talent. Thornton enjoyed the good life, and had a healthy disregard for authority, coaches and selectors - many of whom he told to 'go and get fucked' - which ensured that blue was as far as he got. That said, he was happy with blue and he achieved something nobody else will ever achieve: he played for Leinster Schools and Leinster, he selected for Leinster, he coached Leinster and in 1999/2000 he was president of Leinster, all with varying degrees of distinction. He died a week after Leinster completed the double.

Thornton was also a fantastic high hurdler and was the NACA Ireland champion. Quite how he managed this was a mystery as he often stubbed his fag out on the starting blocks. Thornton and Niall Brophy used to travel around the country to athletic meets like two hustlers. There was no money involved, but there were prizes on offer from sponsors. In one rural meet, Brophy won the 100 metres and Thornton the 110 metres hurdles. Brophy won a suitcase but had at least a dozen of them already, so he asked if Ned would like to exchange his prize. No problem. As they were just about to get into the car to head home, Brophy asked where was his prize. Thornton pointed over to a ton of coal provided by the local hardware merchant. It might still be there.

Ned went back to UCD, but only after a cooling-off period after he drove a bubble car up the stairs and through the main door of the great dining hall in Trinity. He parked it at the main table, got out and ate his dinner. What else could you do after losing the colours match?

I knew Ned was a bad flyer and always needed a few relaxers to get through the flight. When UCD went on a tour of Australia they flew Garuda Airlines because it was the cheapest, but there were six stops before they landed in Sydney. That's 12 take-offs and landings to be endured. Ned was in a heap when they got to Sydney, he was less than co-operative and was promptly arrested. After a few hours in the clink the police interrogated him.

"Name, address, blah, blah. Do you have any criminal convictions?"

"Didn't think you needed one of those to get in here anymore . . ."

Yes, it's an apocryphal story but he did say it and it did happen - it was perhaps the original. Thornton was minutes from being sent back home when an Australian University delegation saved his bacon.

His career as Leinster coach didn't last that long. Leinster flew to Llanelli and it was in and out on the same day. It was my first season with Leinster and his only words were, "Just do what you do son."

The clock hit 80 minutes and Leinster led by 15 points. The referee, from Llanelli, had played a dozen minutes of non-existent injury time and suddenly there was only three points in it. When Llanelli knocked on at our 22, we thought that would be that. Instead of clearing the ball from the scrum, we walked the Scarlets over 20 metres onto the 10-metre line. Llanelli dropped the scrum and the whistle went for a penalty. The Leinster pack got up, pats on the back all round, only to realise that Homer Simpson had awarded the penalty to Llanelli. Jonathan Davies banged it over for a draw in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Ned - in airport mode and a nervous spectator at the best of times - had to be restrained. He went to the referee in the tunnel. "I'm glad you blew your whistle when you did! We have a flight in three hours and we'd have fucking missed it waiting for you to fix the game."

That was the end of his coaching career.

Years later, as president of the Leinster Branch, he was flying back from Italy. He had a few relaxers and planned to sleep on the plane. Then the announcement came: "This is Captain Elaine Murphy. We are flying at 32,000 feet. We will be coming into some strong turbulence so please don't use the toilet. Please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelt."

Ned awoke from his slumber and was too petrified to even fasten his seatbelt. A young air hostess approached: "Sir, did you not hear the message from the cockpit?"

"Is it appropriate to call it the cockpit anymore?"

Thornton's core value was loyalty. With all of his friends and wider circle, moral integrity and unflinching loyalty were demanded, received and reciprocated. Once an understanding was reached you shook his hand and it was for life. You can't trade loyalty.

Ned was especially generous with his time and his money. I know that he bailed out fellas who were in trouble, on top of the time he spent listening to their problems. Lads up from the country in UCD would regularly be brought out for dinner or get a hand with food and rent.

His loyalty extended further than the human race. One day outside his tyre business on the South Circular Road, a dog ran out onto the road and got minced by a car which promptly drove off. Ned gathered the hound up and brought him to a vet. They suggested that the only option was to put the animal down. The hound looked up at Ned and there was no way he could agree to have him put down. It took about six months to get the dog right, but Ned nursed him back to health and the dog followed him everywhere. He christened him 'HAR' - hit and run!

It is the mark of a man in how he deals with and treats people less fortunate than himself or much further down the pecking order - even a dog.

Thornton was forthright in his views and ruffled many feathers. Not a particularly good communicator, he always seemed to get the job done. He was political and he didn't lack vision. Himself and Dr Tony O'Neill were instrumental in getting the Belfield Bowl funded and put in place. A footstep on the way to the world-class campus that UCD has today - both academic and sporting.

Given his lifestyle, it is incredible that he made it to 78. His health, though, was not good in his last five years and he retired to Bettystown. He was prevailed upon to speak at the UCD centenary rugby dinner. Before the dinner started, Ned collapsed and was brought to St Vincent's by ambulance.

Thornton, without doubt the best rugby after-dinner speaker in the country, couldn't bear the thought of leaving his post and unplugged all of the monitors and took out all of the needles and tubes, dressed and walked out of the hospital.

There were 600 people in the room chattering about Ned's demise when he walked into the room and up to the podium. I have never met anyone capable of bring a rowdy room to a point of whisht. The whole of O'Reilly Hall was mesmerised. "Was this a ghost? Was he alright? Had he been sedated? What was he going to say?

The hall fell silent and he went into Ned mode, fiddling for his notes and mumbling into the microphone. Then a diatribe about friendship. He is not well! Somebody take him off. More mumbling and blank stares into the room. An intro about a friend of his who cleans Dublin Corporation toilets and his life. People are mystified. He tells of how difficult and dangerous the job had become. People coming into the jacks to shoot up heroin, men having sex with other men in the cubicles, drug deals being done, people being robbed and assaulted in there - it was almost like a breath of fresh air when someone came in and actually had a dump.

The punchline completely caught the audience off guard. He spoke for an hour and brought the house down. He went back to hospital the next day.

Earlier this year he had a fall coming out of Paddy Power's. He told the ambulance man that it was normally the horse that he backed that fell. The fall was serious, he punctured a lung and never really left hospital until the end.

They say heaven for the climate and hell for the company. I think heaven might be just a little too PC for Ned. As he always did, he will find a perch somewhere.

Miss you Ned! And all the people who loved you too - imperfections and all.

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