Friday, May 27, 2022

The changing face of Easter hockey festivals

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Hockey Paper staff
Hockey Paper staff
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The years when dozens of hockey clubs from across the length and breadth of England would stage traditional and memorable end-of-season Easter festivals are sadly long gone. There were just two held in the resorts of Torbay in Devon and Blackpool on the Lancashire coast this year.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the gradual decline in the popularity of hockey players getting away for a long weekend with their team-mates and enjoying the friendly rivalry of festival team matches, intertwined with a hectic social programme off the pitch.

Tony Forward, who was the long-running chairman of Torbay, said before his death in 2019 that introduction of astroturf pitches may have introduced new and fast skills to the game of hockey but it has also, to a certain extent, undermined clubhouse team spirit.

“In the old days on the grass teams would play at the same time on pitches alongside each other and then get together in the clubhouse for a drink and chat,” said Forward.

“But now with just one astroturf pitch the fifth X1 might start and 10.30 in the morning and most of its players would not still be around when the last game of the day on Astroturf ends at six o’clock. That doesn’t help team building. And that is sad.”

Sad too the number of teams taking part compared to many decades ago although the absence of a Pakistani hockey team that wanted to play was caused by the failure of its players to be able to get visas to travel.

However, the emphasis on the social gathering at Torbay is highlighted by the two trophies that the club puts up each year.

It is not about winning and losing but recognising the team that scores the most goals, as well as rewarding the best ‘fairplay’ team based on highest total of points accumulated from the 1-4 marks handed out by each of their opponents.

And while there may not be separate men’s and women’s sections in the festival, the hockey certainly has a ‘mixed’ element because any female travelling with a team can play for it providing she is either, the wife, fiancée , sister or daughter of a male team player.

And ironically, a side travelling one Easter from the Midlands called The Stags included in their line-up three members of the Torbay women’s Hockey Club.

While Tony emphasised that Torbay was “trying to maintain the character and standards’ of traditional Easter festivals”, the same cannot be said of events in the Kent port of Folkestone on Easter weekend which was home to the most prestigious of all English hockey festivals in the last century.

Founded a century ago and run by Colonel George Wagstaff, the secretary of the Hockey Association when he died in the 1940s, he passed it over to his daughter Barbara and her husband Neville Milroy. Run by the family for close on four decades, it achieved international status and the archives at The Hockey Museum in Woking feature many of the historic programmes.

In 1939 a team from Hamburg took part just weeks away from the start of the Second World War and over the years it was visited by teams from faraway places like Argentina and South Africa, as well as big clubs from all over the UK and Europe playing in front of stands full of spectators.

However, the biggest annual festival which ran from Good Friday through to Easter Monday ceased to exist after the death of the Milroys in the early 1990s though the reasons for that are somewhat obscure. As Folkestone current chairman Leigh Marshall says: “It was great that Barbara and Neville ran it for so long though they never really let us know the process of how they organised it. And that was a shame.”

And Leigh also has another slant on why the number of Easter Festivals has fallen so sharply. “At this time of year,” he says, “a lot of the top clubs are involved in European Hockey play-offs and our nearest top teams like Sevenoaks, Holcombe and Surbiton are all playing in Europe.”

But on Easter Saturday and Sunday Folkestone did host a much smaller two-day festival with a very different format. “There is in hockey a modern desire to get mixed teams involved. So we put together an itinerary of seven-a-side matches with a mixture of men and women.”

The only other major Easter Festival has also gone mixed and was played on the two astroturf pitches in Stanley Park at the seaside resort and there again the number of teams participating was only a fraction of a couple of decades ago.

Festivals are undoubtedly part of the folklore of hockey. That word usually means a thing of the past which festivals certainly do seem to be.

Do you have any recollections or photos of festival days? Please email them to curator@hockeymuseum.net

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