This was the touching moment that a grieving team celebrated their title win, with the name of their beloved late coach worn proudly on their shirts.
Ben Dudley has been described as a “legend” and “inspirational” by the students he coached as Head of Hockey at the University of Bristol.
Ben’s devotion to the game and his generosity to players is writ large in his achievements: as a goalkeeper he played for England and competed in the top European club league, and as a coach he took his teams to success at the highest level.
But it’s in his personal approach that he is remembered. One student recalled the father-of-one travelling to Belgium and back in 24 hours to watch her play in the under 21s European Championships, another remembers daily phone calls to discuss tactics and share laughs.
And this was all while Ben had Hodgkin lymphoma, a cruelly aggressive cancer that he battled with a seemingly endless supply of good humour.
He found out about the diagnosis in July 2017, not long after he started coaching at the University.
Tragically, Ben passed away in April 2023 aged 36.
But his student athletes vowed to continue his legacy, and have won the England Hockey Mixed Tier 2 Championships. On the back of each University of Bristol shirt was the name ‘Dudley’ and ‘13’. The University’s number 13 shirt has now been retired in honour of Ben and will only be used again if his son, Ruben, decides to join the University.
Ben entered the club into the mixed league and team co-captain Amy Salmon said “everyone was encouraged by the idea of winning that trophy for Ben”.
She added: “Winning that game and wearing those t-shirts is something I will never forget and I am so grateful that I was able to not only be a part of it but co-captain the team. It was a very special day.”
Bristol beat Lichfield 2-1 in an emotional display at the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London. The team played Ben’s famous 4-2-3-1 formation and never forgot his constant mantra: “Defence wins titles.”
On the touchline were some of Ben’s family, who continue to support the club.
Ben’s father, Paul Dudley, described the win as a “final fitting tribute” to a “rare talent” whose “drive, passion and coaching talent shone through”.
Paul added: “Ben’s time at Bristol was his favourite time. He was brilliantly supported by the Bristol performance senior management, even during his darkest times battling illness.
“He will be so sadly missed as a son, dad, husband, brother, coach and mentor. Long may his legacy be a positive one.”
It took 60 minutes for the game’s deadlock to be broken, when Bristol’s Phil Barnett scored during a penalty, before co-captain Archie Sansome grabbed a second.
Archie described the final as “one of the most special days of my life” and one he wished “could’ve been shared with Ben over a Corona or two”.
He added: “I honestly could not explain in words what he has done for me. Ben pushed me to be a better player and more importantly, made me believe in myself as a man.
“I considered him not only a coach but a friend and someone who made me laugh even in his darkest days.
“I don’t think a team has ever wanted to win the England Hockey Mixed Tier 2 Championships as much as this one.”
Amy added: “Ben is without a doubt the best coach I have ever had. He was an inspiration to me and I feel lucky to call him my coach, my mentor and my friend.
“He is the reason I came to Bristol and his loyalty and willingness to help was unwavering.”
In his six years at the University, Ben took the men’s squad to the National League (the highest level of club hockey in the UK) and promotion to the British Universities and Colleges (BUCS) Premier Division twice.
Ben is survived by his wife, Sally Dudley and Ruben, now five. He is remembered by students, alumni and staff around the world whose lives he touched.