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Nevin was best friend I could've wished for, says former Ulster star

 

By Jonathan Bradley

As Paddy McAllister boils the kettle and prepares to discuss the fateful events of September 15, 2012, reminders of just how much has changed over the last five years are everywhere.

The Gloucester crest that now adorns his training gear, the sound of a wedding ring clinking on china as he reaches for his coffee cup and, most importantly, the din of his two young children playing in the next room, it's almost hard to take in all that has happened since the day he lost not just a team mate, but a best friend.

Having first met at an Ulster summer camp as 16-year-olds, the pair had packed a lot into their six-year friendship until, five years ago today, Nevin Spence, his father Noel and brother Graham, were killed following a slurry tank accident.

Despite five years' worth of water having passed under the bridge since the tragedy that devastated Ulster Rugby, McAllister's pain still feels almost eerily fresh.

Just as he'll never forget Nevin's humility and dedication, as well as the sense of mischief that once saw his then housemate hide in a bedroom cupboard for up to an hour waiting for the perfect moment to cause a fright, the chilling moments after his death are forever etched in the brain.

On 15th September 2012, Nevin Spence tragically passed away along with his father Noel and brother Graham. Five years...

Posted by Ulster Rugby Official on Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"It's hard to describe," says the prop who has spent the last three years in England having also enjoyed a spell in France.

"It's really weird, because there's so much emotion still about that accident it seems like it was last night. I remember the finer details of that day like it's only just happened.

"I was home, up at my parents' home in Markethill just about to go to meet a few friends from Armagh (Rugby Club). Our agent Ryan Constable rang me and just said, still very casually at this point, that he'd heard there might be an accident on the farm involving Nevin's dad.

"He was very calm about the situation at the time, he just suggested that maybe I give Nev a ring to see if he's alright or maybe if he needs anything from us.

"I rang a few times but he just wouldn't answer the phone. I rang Ryan back to say I couldn't get in touch with him.

"It wasn't even half an hour later but I could tell from Ryan's voice that things were maybe a bit more serious.

"By then he had heard that Nevin's brother was involved and that there might be a fatality. I tried to ring again but there was still no answer and, for some reason, at that stage I turned the TV on. The news were reporting a third man involved and at that point it was just a jolt. I rang Ryan back and he was in tears. I knew it then but he broke the news to me that it was Nevin. I didn't know what to do. I was in shock.

"My parents were away and I rang my wife, she was my fiancée then, but it was just crazy, it wasn't something you could get your head around.

"I went up to Belfast to our house, I guess I just wanted to feel closer or something. There were people we lived with and Kev Geary (Ulster's S&C coach). We sat there until 6am, and just talked and cried.

"I'm emotional now just thinking of that day, it's still so fresh, still so sad and still so shocking. I suppose it always will be."

Currently nursing a knee niggle - indeed it was a much more serious knee problem that kept McAllister from carrying Nevin's coffin on the day of his funeral - the 28-year-old will return to Kingspan Stadium tonight for the first time since he departed as a player to see the province honour the memory of his dear friend with a minute's silence before taking on the league champion Scarlets.

For the Armagh man, it will be another especially poignant moment as he reflects on the opportunities not afforded to his pal who many believed destined to play for Ireland.

"There's a lot of aspects of my life and Nevin's life that were very similar," said the man who, along with wife Deborah, this summer celebrated the birth of Maximus Robert Nevin McAllister (inset).

"We were both young Christians, both rugby players, same club side, both got into the senior team at the same time, our contracts were lined up at the same time. We were different positions but our careers mirrored each other in a lot of ways.

"As a young Christian, to have that person beside you all along the way, it was something important. Looking back there were certainly times he was like a safety blanket.

"When you think about all that's happened since, we were kids then. I'm now a married man with kids of my own, I've been in a different country for four years since.

"It's scary to think how much has happened and sad to think about all the things that he would have done. Would he ever have found that special woman he was always looking for when nobody seemed to fit the bill?

"We all think he would have gone on to play for Ireland, but that's another opportunity that he never got.

"I have this sense of that when I'm out there, that he never got to play rugby at 23, 24, 25 years old.

"That is something that has had a massive impact on me.

"What I've done in my life, my career, and my personal life, I've been helped here by a lot of people, my parents, my grandparents, but Nevin as well. It's important to honour that."

For McAllister, the words etched on the wall inside Kingspan Stadium will forever ring true - Nevin Spence, always with us.

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