DAVID BARRETT, of Sheffield University Bankers HC, looks back on a season and asks what it means to play the game he loves – one that ended with banker crowd to wave farewell to the club’s longest-serving player
As the dust settles, the hangover and fatigue clear and the ringing in my ears from my annual end of season shindig in the student union fades, another year of hockey comes to a close amid a flurry of awards and applause, trophies and tankards, beer and bad dancing. I won’t claim that this has been the easiest time to be running a hockey team, nor the most enjoyable, but in many ways, it has been the most rewarding, for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, we got through it. We’re still here. It might have been a bit ugly at times, and once or twice I wondered why I was bothering, particularly one frosty Sunday morning when two players dropped out in the space of 15 minutes to leave me a player short. We played anyway and nearly sneaked the win. We scratched twice (due to circumstances beyond our control), and on one occasion didn’t so much take one for the team as take one for the club, but the point is, we’re still here.
Second, whenever we played, we tried to play the right way. We played cleanly, we tried to move the ball around the pitch and involve every player. I know we’ve been sociable, memorably outstaying the opposition several times in their own clubhouse, and I would hope that we played in the right spirit (though that is for others to judge). We weren’t always successful, but if there were a fair play league in our division, I’d like to think we might have been in the top three. I’ll never know.
John Pullin, the England rugby hooker and captain, once stood up after his side had lost to Ireland at Landsdowne Road and began his speech by saying,”We might not be much good, but at least we turn up”.
On the face of it, that’s us this year. We’ve only won three games on the pitch, finished 10th out of 11, and lost by an average score of 1-3 (or thereabouts). In doing so, we have been supported by no fewer than 48 players. That’s more than some clubs have in their entire men’s section and equates to roughly a third of SUBHC’s current playing roster. It’s part of a wider trend in which participation in sport is moving away from formal, organised team sports and towards informal lifestyle activities like running and cycling. I’m satisfied that it’s not just me and my team that are affected, but, it doesn’t make it any less exhausting or infuriating.
Even now, after such a challenging season, I know that in about six weeks when the aches and pains have receded, the bruises and grazes faded, and the irritation has subsided, I will be ready to go again. I will get the urge to put my hand up and volunteer. I cannot help but want to play hockey, to experience the freedom of running around in the open air on a Saturday afternoon, to share in the cameraderie that goes with being part of a team and of a club. To be part of something.
In many ways, SUBHC is a strange entity. One that by rights wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the dogged determination, not to say sheer bloody-mindedness of its members and volunteers. We don’t own our home pitch or social facility. We don’t have a junior section (at the moment). Our members mainly live on the other side of Sheffield from where we play. The majority of our players are students who move home after three years.
We owe our existence in large part to the efforts of our late chairman Bob Hindle, a man who spent most his entire adult life cajoling, nudging, pestering and on at least some occasions demanding that we, as Bankers, repay his investment.
Oddly, it is these circumstances which define us as a club, and forge the common bond that drives us on to bigger and better things. A kind of cussed determination to prove everyone wrong brings us together and has always spurred us on. Spurred me on in fact. Still spurs me on.
When next season rolls around I will be putting my hand up, ready to play, umpire and do whatever else I can do to help the club. I won’t be in charge of SUBHC’s Magnificent 7s however. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a young person’s game. Being captain this year has worn me out physically and intellectually, and it’s time to hand over the reins to someone with the enthusiasm and imagination to revitalise a squad that deserves better.
Reading this, you might be forgiven for thinking that I was somehow disillusioned with hockey, or that I was embarrassed at how the season has turned out for us. Nothing could be further from the truth. We’ve been on the wrong end of some terrible results, and there have been times when I would have happily walked away from the task with not so much as a backward glance, but these are ‘my boys’; abandoning them was never really an option. Besides, when we won occasionally, we were spectacularly good. At least, it felt that way to me.
What does it mean to win at hockey anyway? The obvious definition is the one that involves scoring more goals than the opposition. Crude, but undeniably effective, I’ve only had that pleasure a few times this season. Accordingly, I have taken to using other benchmarks of success. Partly out of necessity but partly because the events of this season have given me much food for thought.
For example, those 48 players range in age from 16 to 60, and include representatives from as far afield as Spain, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Dubai and Barbados. As a club we can boast players from literally every continent, and half the nations of Europe. I am proud to play alongside team-mates of all faiths and none, united by an almost religious fervour for the game.
I am particularly proud to say that we have within our ranks a player with multiple physical and learning disabilities who is a fully integrated member of the club. Particularly proud, because that player is my son.
In the post-Covid era and amid a cost of living crisis that increasingly appears to be deterring some players from returning, we have managed to persuade several players to pick up a stick again after breaks enforced by illness, periods working away and by the arrival of children in the household. I was especially pleased when one ex-first team player who gave up some time ago to concentrate on marathon running, made a cameo appearance in that 10-man side that nearly stole the show. The fact that we almost broke him in the process was incidental (sorry, Jimmy).
The thing that made all the effort worthwhile however, the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake, was the appreciation of my clubmates. When I was at my lowest after a particularly galling defeat, it was my oldest team-mate who reminded me that I had made it possible for 14 people to play hockey that day, not to mention another 14 opponents. When I was down to eight players on a Tuesday night, it was the chair of selection who admitted I had been right to insist on having an extra day to pick the team. When I apologised to my players for not being able to match their enthusiasm and workrate, they were the ones telling me that they were enjoying it and not to worry about the scoreline.
It has been humbling in many ways to realise that I have been striving for a level of on-field achievement that was probably out of reach, when the real measure of success is the fact that the Magnificent 7s have been magnificent in so many other ways. Of the 48 players who turned out for the bottom team in the club, 28 played in a higher side at some stage. Three of our players had never played club hockey before this season. Our final game of the season drew the club’s largest crowd of the year to say farewell to our longest serving player on his retirement.
The overwhelming emotion is therefore one of gratitude for the support of the club, tinged with relief at getting over the line. It may not have been pretty, and at times it has been exasperating, but I can relax now, safe in the knowledge that ultimately, it was worth it.
Some teams play to win. We win every time we play. Bring on next season.