I think it was at my second August festival that I became more aware of the umpiring side of our precious game. I was only young…well, young compared with the youngsters umpiring and playing today. I would have been at most 15, but probably 14. I was representing Haunchers for the first time, but as a member of Salisbury hockey club I was also helping out behind the scenes, and acting as a spare player for one of the Salisbury teams. I say one of the Salisbury teams……I think there was only one men’s team, but on more than a few occasions I’ve donned a skirt and played for New Sarum ladies, and my not quite failing memories tell me that this might well have been the first time this happened.
The weather was blisteringly hot….as you’d come to expect on an August bank holiday (not recently, I know), and there was much competition amongst the Salisbury hockey folk to see who could play in the most games both on each day, and across the whole of the weekend. Me being a tiddler, and not really knowing as many people as everybody else, only really managed to play for Haunchers and Salisbury, despite hanging around, and making myself available for any teams that were short of players. The winner of this self-styled competition was of course Gary Turner (GT), who I think had organised this particular festival, or if not then he certainly had a hand in it, and knew practically everyone from all of the teams, men and ladies alike. I think on one particular day (the Saturday), he managed to play in every one of the game slots that had been allocated………that’s some achievement, particularly in that kind of heat. I was very jealous; still, I did get to play a lot of hockey.
But on turning up to one of the Salisbury games, I think it was about late morning, something odd happened. We had surprisingly gained a few players, from the less than a team amount that we’d had first thing in the morning when setting up……still, it was a good thing from a winning games point of view. With me set not to start, one of our team asked…..well, it was more like told me, that I would be umpiring.
Up until that point in my hockey experience, not once had I ever really considered the umpires or the umpiring. Oh there’d been games in which I’d played where I’d had little…..’run ins’, let’s call them that…..with whoever had been umpiring. Mainly school games I seem to remember. Having played at club level, my school hockey experience consisted mainly of being suddenly thrust onto a rugby pitch marked out as a hockey pitch with all but one or two of the team being totally useless, against a school that had a team full of proper hockey players. Two matches stand out with regards to the umpiring, both cases involving our opponents’ sports teacher/coach who would have been one of the umpires at the time.
The first match was against a school in Andover, some twenty or so miles away, and I think this may have been around the time I joined the men’s hockey club, but If it was, I hadn’t been playing for very long. Anyway, a cold, wet, midweek afternoon, found our team on, what had to be said, quite a nice grass pitch, considering what we were used to. All apart from one corner, which had an incredible upwards slope on it, so much so, that if the ball was hit into it, the ball would slow, and then start to roll backwards…..quite an achievement in mid-winter. The game went on, and as always we were losing quite badly, and I found myself doing quite a lot of defending. I do consider myself a defender now, but then I was a ‘winger’, not very fast, but that seemed to be how the youngsters, unless you were a goalie, started off. Drawn back into our own half, we were defending, defending, defending. Until suddenly we found ourselves on a break, and one of the other quality players in our side hit me the ball out on the left wing, just inside the opposition’s twenty five. I ran towards it, picked it up, beat the defender and found myself in the ‘D’. I can remember what happened next like it was just yesterday. I looked at the tiny goalkeeper, with his white cricket pads and trainers, striding out from the goal line towards me, and knew exactly what I should do. Even now, and this is something that I fancy myself at, I would probably still need a few goes at this to achieve it. But, at the time, instinctively I knew it was the right thing to do. The ball was on my reverse stick; I was inside the ‘D’, with the keeper coming out slowly towards me. Holding tightly to the slippery leather grip of my Sondico stick, I flicked my wrists with all my might and watched in awe as the ball did exactly as it was supposed to and sailed over the head of the keeper, creeping about a foot over the line, just next to the right hand post of the goal, but not quite hitting the back board. I remember standing still, gobsmacked at what had happened. It was easily the best goal I had ever scored, and it was exactly what I’d meant to do. While I stood there, admiring my handiwork, the opposition left back had run back to the goal, pulled the ball out with his stick, and started to run up the pitch with the ball. I was stunned! Now alright, it was a little drizzily, but apart from that, not foggy or anything. The opposition umpire, their sports teacher, had apparently not seen the ball go into the goal, despite being over that side of the pitch, and was letting her own team run off up the pitch, and play on. I was incensed and although normally rather timid and shy, I seem to recall telling her exactly what I thought. Most of my team had seen what I’d done, so I hadn’t dreamed it, and I remember being quite upset about the injustice of it all for quite some time afterwards, and although the teacher/umpire claimed not to have seen exactly what happened, I found it hard to believe then, much as I do now.
The second match was a home game when our comprehensive school played against the local grammar school. As you can imagine, they had a whole team of hockey players………..and we didn’t. It was played out on our lovely rugby pitch marked out as a hockey pitch (you youngsters with your Astroturfs don’t know you’re born), and took place after school, in the middle of winter, on a night where it was so misty, you could barely see two metres in front of you. How it went ahead I’ll never know, but it did. All was going well; we were losing, but not by as much as it could have been. The pitch and the fog/mist seemed to be hampering our opponents more than it was us…….something that actually seemed quite amusing, and may explain why our teacher wanted it to go ahead. Anyway, once again I found myself on the wing, this time on the right. The ball came out to me, I picked it up cleanly on my stick and ran off down the wing. From out of the mist came a huge mountain of a defender. I ran towards him, and pushed the ball through his legs to run round onto. It was a good move, a good thing to do, particularly on that pitch, and he stood no chance of getting the ball. That is until he very quickly, and very deliberately closed his legs, stopping the ball much as a keeper would with his feet, and then, just as I was running round him, he disappeared off up the pitch and into the mist. I looked over my shoulder to see the umpire, their sports teacher, simply standing and grinning at me, just before he too ran up the pitch, and into the mist. I was devastated. He must have seen what had happened. He must have known that one of his team had cheated. If nothing else, even then, I always knew to play the game fairly. I seem to recall the rage bubbling up inside me…….quickly. It all happened so quickly, but boy was I angry. Now the next part, can I just say that it’s the only time that I’ve ever done this, and in no way should that be used as an excuse. It’s also something that no hockey player should ever do, but on this occasion……..I DID! And I was sorry for doing it, although, not until after the game I seem to recall. I chased after the big defender, who, had quite a lead on me, due to the time I’d been standing around bemoaning the injustice of it all. He was just arriving at the halfway line, about a metre inside the pitch, and his sports teacher, the umpire, had just about caught him up. As I stood realising that I was never going to catch him…………it just happened! With my right hand holding the top of my stick, I leaned back, aimed, and with all my might………..threw the stick as hard as I could towards my opponent. It was a good throw. It travelled a long way, and was accurate. But in the dense mist, and with the defender moving…..it really did have no hope of making contact. But what did happen was that it plonked down in the mud about about half a metre in front of their sports teacher/umpire. He looked aghast. As soon as it left my grip I knew what I’d done was wrong, but of course, by then it was too late. I jogged up the pitch and approached the umpire, and of course my by now, muddy stick. Picking it up, I very carefully wiped the leather grip with the top I was wearing, and muttered something about how slippery it got in the wet and the cold, and then knowing when I was on to a good thing………I sprinted off into the mist, and didn’t return to that side of the pitch for the rest of the game.
Even now these two events from my hockey past still make my blood boil. I was always taught to play hard, but fair……something some players fail to understand, even to this day. To me, being a hockey player is so much more than just turning out on the pitch and taking part in a game. It’s how you conduct yourself on and off the pitch. It’s about making the right pass in a game, and not thinking….”hmmm, that player isn’t any good, I’ll just hold on to it until I can find one of my friends to pass it to.” I can’t tell you how many mixed games I’ve played in where the opposition, for some unknown reason, just pass the ball amongst their men, and don’t use any of the women. How utterly stupid! And in the vast majority of these games, we (Salisbury) nearly always won, not because we had more talented players, usually the opposite, but because we played as a team, played the right passes, and didn’t worry about who we were passing to. When I think about all of this, I think about my hockey playing dragon/human hero who, when in his human form still occasionally believes his dragon tail is dragging on the ground behind him. Sometimes I feel like I have an invisible hockey stick strapped across my back….guiding me, influencing all of my decisions and of course my behaviour. Sounds a bit mad maybe, but that’s how it is…….the one thing I will always be is a hockey player, even if I’m not currently playing on a regular basis.
So back to that August festival. I was umpiring…..like it or not…and I’m pretty sure I didn’t. What didn’t help matters, was knowing that the team we were going to be playing against, were renowned as being amongst the dirtiest teams in our hockey region. I won’t tell you the name of the club/team, but I’m sure every region had/has one. The one piece of advice my very caring clubmates had given me, was that once I’d made a decision was to stick to it……..so, just not to change my mind, basically.
The game started, and within seconds it became clear that this was no festival friendly. I remember not being sure whether I was unhappy at having to umpire, or just happy that I wasn’t playing, seeing some of the tackles that were flying in. It was only then that I remembered the whistle in my hand, and that I had responsibility for controlling the game. What I have failed to mention up until this point, is the degree to which I’d been stitched up. So not only was I ridiculously young, and had never umpired before, taking charge of a match that was always going to be…..explosive, but I was umpiring on my………OWN! That’s right…..just me. How crazy! I can see that now, but at the time I had no idea, and of course just went along with things. And given what I’ve just said, I don’t doubt you can work out what happened next. Inevitably things went rapidly down hill. Sticks and tackles flying, on the death side of hospital. You name it, it went on in that game. One of the opponents……again, well renowned….for what, I won’t say, was blown up by me for a tackle. He didn’t take it well, and after confronting me (remember, it’s a festival, nice hot day, everyone’s having fun, first game I’ve every umpired, only me umpiring) and threatening me, my whole team advised me to give him a yellow card………..which I duly did, much to his surprise and consternation. The game continued and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. What I didn’t know at the time was that he was supposed to go and stand behind the goal. (I hadn’t seen anyone, I don’t think, ever, sent off, up to that point in my playing time.) Anyway, he must have known this, but instead he chose to stand next to me as I was umpiring (my team mates didn’t spot this for some time) and was constantly telling me how he was going to beat me up and put me in hospital…………..lovely! Needless to say nobody was happier than me when that game finished (a few minutes early if memory serves me correctly…..can’t think why) I scurried off, and stayed well away from that team for the rest of the weekend. My clubmates were very apologetic afterwards, and said on reflection that they shouldn’t have got me to umpire……………GREAT! So that was my first experience of umpiring. How long do you think I’d have to wait for my next experience?
Well If I’d been asked when I’d like to umpire next after the debacle just mentioned, my reply would have been “when hell freezes over”. However, the god of hockey (and when I use that term Millie, it in no way means you, despite the fact that it was you that conned me into doing it) had other, much quicker ideas. The next day, with chaos ensuing as the organisers were trying to sort the umpires for all the games, I was asked once again to assist. Even now, all I can think is, “Why would they do that?” after what had happened the previous day. I think they were up a certain creek, without not only a paddle, but a boat as well. So to sweeten things up, they told me that it wouldn’t be like the day before, because I’d be umpiring a ladies game, and not just any game, but New Sarum ladies vs Norwich ladies. I fell for it, hook. line and sinker. To be fair, I did know just about all of the New Sarum ladies (most of whom watched out for me, or at least that’s the way it felt at the time) and had met the Norwich ladies in the bar on a couple of occasions…….and they all seemed fantastic. So with a whistle and some cards provided (I remember being a little bit dubious when given the cards to take with me onto the pitch…..but again, hook, line and sinker) I wandered over to the allocated pitch for what I knew was going to be a great match. The New Sarum ladies team at the time was pure quality with some great players in it, and the Norwich ladies were a fantastic hockey playing team, all adding up to the prospect of a great game and some brilliant hockey. The only weak link in all of this was obviously………….ME! Now, just to set the scene, this was during a time which some of you might remember, and some of you might not. It was when there was offside in hockey, from the halfway line. Ohhhhhh! I hear some of you cry. Was there ever offside in hockey? Yes there was, and this took place at that time. Now, where was I? Ahhh the game. Of it started in the heat of the Sunday afternoon. All was well. I was one of two umpires, the game itself was a humdinger, both teams going at it like a league game, but in a fair and balanced way. I would almost say I was enjoying it, that is………….UNTIL IT HAPPENED! About 20 minutes in, New Sarum had pushed right up to the halfway line. The play was all in the Norwich half, that is until one of their midfielders picked up the ball and played the perfect pass between the New Sarum defenders and into the empty half of the pitch, apart from the New Sarum goalkeeper. I was stood right on the halfway line and watched the pass go through, and the Norwich forward timed her run to perfection. Unfortunately, although I understood offside fine in a playing kind of way, as an umpire……….NOT SO MUCH! To the whole Norwich side’s dismay, I blew the forward up for offside. I kind of knew I’d got it wrong, but didn’t know what to do. Also by now, it was too late, as I’d already stopped play. The Norwich ladies, perfectly justified in doing so, went ballistic. Up until that point, I’d never heard that sort of language from a lady……..EVER! Anyhow, another unqualified disaster on the umpiring front. Again I scurried off after the match, to hide away. That evening I, along with some of my clubmates, went out to a lovely country pub which was the tradition on the Sunday night of the festival. Imagine my horror when we walked into the establishment and found the entire Norwich men’s and ladies team’s in the bar. There were shouts of, “There he is!” and “That’s the umpire from our game this afternoon.” I wanted to die. But, to my surprise, they all to a player apologised for what they’d said, and were all so sweet. I’ve never been so relieved in my entire life. I have since then, umpired many hundreds of times, and would recommend that every player umpires on a regular basis because it give a unique perspective on a match, on how hard it is to do, and on the reaction of the players towards an umpire…..something I found out all about at a very early age.