A YEAR OF HOPE, FEARS AND TEARS

REVIEW OF THE PIRATES 1999/2000 SEASON:

A campaign that promised so much ends in anti-climax but at least the club survived. Not even the Queen suffered as many departures or money problems in her Annus Horibilis as Pirates did in theirs.

In just six months Pirates went from being a team with the brightest future in British ice hockey to the brink of extinction.

The season began with hopes of taking the British National League by storm, following the signings of star forwards Claude Dumas and Doug McEwen on the back of the new wealth created by a successful summer floatation.

The club was reported to be worth almost 1million and it s future secure, but those foundations were to prove shakier than a royal marriage.

Pirates started the season strongly. A narrow B&H Cup defeat by Superleague Nottingham Panthers put Pirates into the B&H Plate competition, and the first of many bruising encounters with Fife and former Pirates skipper Ted Russell, who claimed he would never play for Pirates while Troy Walkington remained as coach.

A month after Pirates had beaten Fife home and away to make it to the B&H Plate semi-final, Walkington was no longer the Pirates coach.

But having seen his eventual successor, Randy Smith, slam Russell into the boards early in that first encounter, it was obvious that the departure of Walkington was not going to open the door for the former skipper to return, something that became increasingly clear as the season wore on.

The shock news of Walkington s decision to quit came 24 hours after Pirates had lost 1-0 to Slough in the first leg of the Plate semi-final on October 21.

It was the first indication that all was not ship shape and Bristol fashion in the Pirates camp.

Rather than break promises he had made to players at the start of the season, Walkington sacrificed himself.

On a highly charged and emotional Friday night, Walkington led a Pirates team out at Planet Ice for the last time. Fittingly one of his young prot g s David Clarke fired home the overtime winner against Slough.

Randy Smith was sworn is as Pirates coach soon after and led them to the top of the British National League on the back of a nine-game winning streak.

By December Channel Four had rolled into town to film a documentary on the goings on at Planet Ice. In hindsight it was the television equivalent of dumpingyour partner the day before they won the National Lottery jackpot.

At the time, that was exactly what it looked like Pirates had hit, as they walloped Guildford 7-3 on home ice before going up to Scotland and hammering eventual league champions Fife 6-1.

That without a doubt has to be the highlight of Pirates season, and any Pirates fan who made the long trip up to Kirkcaldy will happily retell the story of 1500 Scots stunned into begrudging silence.

It was a completely different feeling on their next visit as a Ted Russell goal ended Pirates reign as Christmas Cup holders.

But the winds of change had already blown up to gale force proportions in the Pirates camp.

As the club s Financial Director it would be unfair to compare Dane Paul to Scrooge, but his Christmas Eve announcement to quit brought back the ghosts of season s past, with Pirates facing a crippling future.

It had finally come out.Pirates were in serious financial difficulties.

They spent the next six weeks with every game being noted as possibly being their last.

For the majority of the club s imports this happened to be true.

A 16 man brawl and a 6-0 defeat in Basingstoke proved to be the swansong for the likes of Matt Brush, Jimmy Andersson, Craig Lindsay and Junji Sakata. Andrew Milne, Claude Dumas and Dan Granqvist also moved on, although the latter was brought back thanks to fan power, but then left again of his own accord.

It was only through the efforts of the fans, who raised nearly 15,000in under a month, and the loyalty of two Canadians that the Pirates were able to see out these trying times.

Doug McEwen and Randy Smith will be long remembered for standing by the club in it s hour of need, and then taking them to an almost glorious finale.

A new board of directors headed by former members club chairman Paul Brewster was put in place, with chairman Kevin Tatam stepping down, but still remaining as the plc s majority shareholder.

The squad was bolstered by the arrival of Pasi Raitanen, John Oddy, Scott Stephenson and incredibly Shannon Hope so they could see out the season with a competitive team.

The Ted Russell saga came to a head as he swore at Pirates fans during a 10-2 play off defeat in Kirkcaldy, then turned and hid behind the Fife bench when Randy Smith and Todd Bidner came to question his actions.

Pirates bowed out of the play-offs against Basingstoke in the semi-final, but before anyone had time to contemplate what a tumultuous season they had sat through, there was one final revelation.

After the final hooter Randy Smith announced he was retiring and would not be returning to the Pirates next season.