Norman sheds teddy bear costume after 18 years
Ulster Rugby’s livewire mascot Sparky today pulled the plug on an electrifying 18-year career in a quirky bear outfit that has seen him run hundreds of miles around the Kingspan stadium and raise thousands of pounds for charity.
And Norman Pollock, the east Belfastman who sparked Sparky into life, admits he’ll probably shed a quiet tear as the final whistle sounds at the end of the big showdown against the Ospreys.
And today, 63-year-old Norman bares all about the bear who got his name from his inner man’s full-time role, as the proprietor of the Strandtown Electrical shop on the Belmont Road.
For years Norman declined to be photographed without his Sparky head on, but now he’s happy to be unmasked — though he’s sad to be saying goodbye to the buzz in the fuzz.
Norman was due to retire after the Glasgow Warriors game last month, but Ulster’s securing of a European play-off game against the Ospreys delayed Sparky’s last hurrah to this afternoon.
It’s all a ‘fur’ cry from Norman’s debut as Ulster’s mascot in 2000, when he’d been a bit player at Ravenhill as a steward before being thrust into the Sparky spotlight.
“They were looking for ways to entertain the fans,” says Norman, a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. “I’d just been over to see Spurs play Man United at Old Trafford, where they had a big Red Devil geeing up the crowd.
“So I suggested that Ulster Rugby should get a mascot. They said they’d thought about it but couldn’t get anyone to volunteer. They’d hired a teddy bear’s outfit and I was asked to put it on with an Ulster shirt and shorts.
“I could hardly turn the idea down, even when the coach Harry Williams brought out the scissors to cut a hole in the shorts for Sparky’s tail to hang out.
“As I leaned over a table I warned Harry to be very, very careful. And it was as I was running out that my old friend Scott Gardiner suggested we should call the mascot Sparky because of my electrical shop.”
And so a star was born, with Sparky lighting up Ulster home matches ever since, whipping up the crowd as he cavorts round the pitch.
“They put a pedometer on me once and it was established I covered about four and a half miles that night. It’s very tiring, but I kept myself fit playing a lot of sports and running, though I reckon it’s time to go now.”
Norman, who briefly played rugby at school and who’s had two Sparky suits made for him, says he has lots of happy memories of great matches and great stars at the Kingspan.
But he also enjoyed competing in an Epsom Derby — for mascots — a few years back.
“I came in ninth, but I was in the top three for a long time”, says Norman who, by renting out Sparky for special occasions like weddings, has raised huge sums for the Newforge Taggers, a rugby team for players with learning disabilities.
Norman is looking forward to giving his as yet un-named Sparky successor a few tips about how to act the mascot.
“You have to remember to stay out of the way of the cameras, that’s essential. But it’s a great job.
“You do get the chance to watch most of the games, but to be out there on the pitch hearing the Ravenhill roar going up is amazing.
“I’ll miss all the fun, but I will be back as a fan in the stands.”
Ulster Rugby have paid tribute to Norman Pollock.
They said his ‘unique’ ability had created a fun, enjoyable and family-friendly atmosphere for almost two decades. They also praised his contribution to the wider community with his fund-raising efforts for charity, adding that he’ll be missed at the Kingspan stadium.