The History of Hockey in the British Isles
Games of a Hockey-like nature have been around for at least 4000 years. It is easy to see how a primitive form of hockey could have developed in ancient, even prehistoric times. The materials needed for a basic form of the game are simply a stick and a suitably sized pebble or similar item. It is not certain who invented these early ‘ball and stick’ games, but drawings of a form of hockey exist from Ancient Egypt about 4000 years ago.
The Gaelic game of hurling seems to predate hockey as such in this country but is a fairly similar idea, using sticks to propel a ball to the opposition’s goal. Hurling dates back to before 1272 BC, making the game well over 3000 years old! In Ancient Greece there are records of a form of hockey dating from about 500BC. Throughout Europe, there are many references to hockey-like games played during the Middle Ages. The earliest known reference to the name hockey is from Edward III in 1363, who issued a proclamation banning all ‘such idle games’ under penalty of imprisonment! Hockey also gets a mention in the Galway Statutes dated 1527. Many games have grown from these roots, including a very large number that contain the word ‘hockey’ in their name. In USA and Canada the Ice Hockey variation is the most popular. In Great Britain, whilst ice hockey has grown in popularity in recent years, the grass variant known simply as ‘hockey’ (known to Americans as ‘field hockey’) is the most popular.
The growth of Hockey, as we know it today, in the British Isles was largely down to the ‘public’ schools who refined and ordered the game. Confusingly, in Britain, a ‘public’ school is actually a private school that charge parents often substantial school fees! Prior to this, the game of hockey resembled early forms of village football, where neighbouring villages would attempt to get the ball to the opposition village, which was the goal. The teams were made up of pretty well everyone in the village and surrounding area! The game developed strongly in the public schools during the early 19th century. The first hockey club to be formed outside of the school system was at Blackheath , formed in 1849. This should come as no surprise as Blackheath seems to have a unique history in such matters, having also been credited with the introduction of golf to England and having the oldest documented rugby team in the world.
The modern rules are a little different to those that the Blackheath club would have played, however. They have been developed from the Middlesex Club that was originally started by the cricket club at Middlesex. Although some sources credit the Teddington Club with the introduction of a shooting circle and the change from a cubic to spherical ball. The Middlesex Cricket Club formed their team in order to help keep players fit in the winter months, during the cricket off-season. During the latter half of the 19th century, many top Association Football, Rugby Football and Hockey teams were started for much the same reasons. The Hockey Association was formed in 1886 and the first international Hockey game was played between Ireland and Wales in 1895. This was followed shortly after by the creation of the International Rules Board in 1900.
The sport was introduced to the Olympic Games in 1908. England won the Gold, Ireland the silver and Scotland the bronze at this debut, but only France and Germany played against them! Hockey appeared again after the war in 1920 and was dropped in 1924. It was reinstated as an Olympic Sport in 1928, but at this time it was only men’s hockey that was played until the introduction of women’s hockey into the Olympic Games of 1980.
The story of the Great Britain Olympic side begins in 1948 with the creation of the British Hockey Board, as the Hockey hierarchy was persuaded to create a Great Britain side for the 1948 Olympics. The historic first game for Great Britain was played against the Swiss, which ended in a 0-0 draw. The team progressed to the final but lost 4-0 to India, one of the traditionally strong international teams.
After managing a bronze at Helsinki in 1952, the British team’s fortunes began to decline. After narrowly missing medals in the next two games, a depressing era was entered where Britain either failed to gain selection for the Games entirely, or fared poorly at the Games if they were selected. The Great Britain women were then denied entry to the Moscow games in 1980, the women’s first ever chance to play in the Olympics, after the British government had advocated a full pull out of the Olympic Games in Moscow. Ironically, the political backlash of this handed the men a much needed lifeline for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. After initially failing to qualify after losing a playoff against Belgium two games to one, the British men got into the contest following the pullout by the former Soviet Union countries. The team grabbed this lifeline with both hands, beating the very strong Australian team 3-2 in the third place playoff game, after missing out on a final place by losing to Germany by one goal. To put this achievement into context, it is worth noting that the Australians were firm favourites for the tournament and had won their previous five top level international tournaments!
In 1984, at the Seoul Olympic Games, the Great Britain team again vanquished the Aussies, this time in the semi finals, setting up a revenge match against the Germans for the defeat in the semi final four years earlier. The British won a dramatic final in an Olympic competition that shook up both the men’s and women’s world orders in hockey. Their success was attributed in a large part to the appointment of Roger Self as long term coach in 1980. Great Britain’s women also achieved a measure of success in the 1984 Olympics, reaching the semi final in what were their first Olympic Games. In fact, they only missed out on a final place by a single goal against Korea. Agonisingly, the British women had missed out on a goal by the merest fraction of an inch. A shot from Karen Brown hit the Korean crossbar, only to drop tantalisingly down onto the goal line, but fail to cross it for the score.
The next highlight for both the men and women was at the following Olympics where the women gained a measure of revenge, beating the Koreans 4-3 in a thrilling encounter which saw Jane Sixsmith hit the winner from a penalty corner in the 82nd minute. Other than that things have been pretty disappointing for both the men’s and women’s hockey teams, although the women came tantalisingly close to bronze in Atlanta, losing out to the strong Dutch team on a penalty shoot-out. The men have had a particularly disappointing time since the dizzy heights of the 1984 Gold Medal, leading to discussions about a series of changes to future preparations. Roger Self returned as president of Great Britain Olympic Hockey and new funding was obtained.
Ironically, just as the British success of the early 80s was built partially on the growing strength of British Hockey teams playing in the various leagues from the home countries, some have blamed the recent poor performances on the fact that the four home union nations split into their various factions in between the Olympics. Nevertheless, it is clear that a healthy league structure of some kind in Britain is one of the keys to ensuring the level of competition needed to produce Olympic winners! The League has a large number of member clubs, the Men’s and Women’s Leagues being split into the Premier Division, which is the top flight division, plus three regional conferences, West, North and East.
The Havant Hockey Club has always been a strong club in the history of British hockey, sending several players to the British side and possessing excellent facilities including a brand new Astroturf pitch. This was important as the Astroturf pitch was fast becoming the standard for all major hockey tournaments. The artificial surface was much faster, meaning that you had to be aware of the differences, or be caught short. New tactics and even new rules followed the Astroturf revolution! Havant was formed way back in 1907 and has achieved many successes since those early days. The club took some while to win their first league title though, finally reaching the goal in 1974. During the 90s though Havant were probably the best known club and certainly the most successful club in England, winning three national titles in four years at one stage. Sadly the club’s heyday is over and the Havant Hockey Club is now longer in the top flight, instead they’ve slipped down to the second tier of the English hockey League, Nevertheless, they are still achieving successes and league titles. Currently the team is coached by player coach Calum Giles, who himself was one of the major players in the successes of both the Havant and Great Britain sides in recent decades.
Cannock Hockey Club is another successful club who have achieved a great deal and are perennially competitive in the Men’s Premier Division. The club provides a number of players to the Great Britain squad and their ground is often used for major hockey events, particularly when the National Hockey Stadium at Milton Keynes is used for Association Football matches by the Milton Keynes Dons . The National Hockey Stadium is normally the home of England Hockey. The Cannock Women’s team is improving rapidly and is now just one division below the Premier Division. They had the honour of sending the youngest member of the Great Britain Women’s hockey squad to the Beijing Olympics. Charlotte Craddock was just 17 at the time of the Olympics, having made her debut for Great Britain less than a year earlier in November 2007 against Argentina. Cannock Cricket Club is part of the same club set up; they have the distinction of having had Kevin Pietersen, one of the world’s most famous current cricketers, playing for them prior to his joining the Nottinghamshire County Club .
Another club with a high proportion of international names is the Beeston Hockey Club . The club currently has some players in the Great Britain Men’s team, as well as other representatives in the England, Wales, Scotland and Pakistan national teams. Although the club has been around since 1907 Beeston won its first major title in 2008; beating Bowdon 4-3 to take the HA Cup. Unfortunately for Beeston, they lost the title in 2009 after losing 3-1 to Reading in front of their own crowd at Beeston’s Highfield Hockey Stadium. After equalising early in the second half, Beeston squandered too many chances and allowed Reading two more goals to take them to victory. The Reading Hockey Club has been very successful in recent years with honours in both the National League and Cup. The Men’s team are in the Men’s Premier Division, whilst the Women’s team are in National Division One. The team operates a strong youth policy and runs summer camps aimed at attracting more talent into the club, whilst providing a valuable community service by giving the youngsters a positive focus during the summer holidays.
Despite the disappointments of the Beijing Olympics hockey will continue to have an important place in British sport. Its continued presence as a core sport in many school curricula will no doubt help ensure a healthy future for both the game and the supply of players for local and national clubs. With the popularity of the game increasing or resurgent in many other countries, Britain will need to work very hard on training future talent and developing world class facilities to ensure more success in the future when playing hockey at international level.
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