Rookie Umpire Alastair Whatley talks through his experience blowing the whistle for his first league game on Saturday afternoon.
I was definitely nervous. The tell tale signs were there. Too much caffeine consumed. Inability to hold a conversation for longer than 30 seconds. Eyes looking heaven wards hoping for a reprieve from the weather Gods. Worse, a fulcrum of umpires and ‘supporters’ were gathering on the balcony to offer their festive cheer and wisdom. It looked like a long 80 minutes was about to follow. But there was no turning back.
I’ll be honest and confess that umpiring has not been on the top of my hockey to-do list. It looks like hard work, people seem to get irate at you with increasing regularity and possibly crucially I really don’t know the rules.
However needs must. The club needs umpires and maybe I might encourage a few along the way. Surely I can blow the whistle…how hard can it really be…?
Over Christmas like every avid reader of the newsletter (…) I signed up for the rules course and waded my way through it. Amazing how much I really didn’t know. Almost all. I wouldn’t say I passed it with flying colours. Stumbled through, fell over finish line…kept on going until I got it right. That sort of thing.
Next up my umpiring coach RBL hooked me up to a wireless mic and I commentated my way through the Christmas mix-ups whilst attempting to umpire. I worked through 4 20 minute games, learnt where not to stand, to not forget to actually blow the whistle and also something to do with obstruction. Honestly- i thought it had gone quite well. Yet the bar debrief post game suggested otherwise.
One senior Titan begged me (I think quite seriously) to never umpire again for the good of the club’s reputation and the good of the wider hockey community and my coach scored me a less than mighty 1.6 out of ten (and that was rounded up …and ‘generous’). I attempted to take the positives from this.
All 1.6 of them.
Which leads us to 15:30 on a chilly Saturday afternoon, Wapping were top of their league and our W6’s were expecting a tough encounter. Handshakes with team captains went off rather marvellously. My fellow umpire Justin sort of dropping me in it by confessing to the opposition captain that his opposite number was a complete rookie. I decided to deploy some serious acting muscles which albeit a little rusty helped I think convey the aura of a reasonable demeanour of calm and confidence- masking the growing terror.
My first big mistake followed when Justin asked which end I wanted, I didn’t think this through and opted for the one away from the players. The mistake here was to ignore the growing presence on the balcony and offering them a clearer line of sight.
The second mistake was blowing to start the game with great confidence and élan… only to realise there was no ball on the pitch. An easy mistake-
Game started. Then Wapping started attacking at my end and didn’t really give up. I ran around trying to avoid a perilous spot Justin had pointed out called Box’s Box a bit like Dogger if you’re a fan of the fishing forecast. Don’t go to Dogger. Don’t go to Box’s Box. It might look lovely and hidden away from prying eyes right in the corner of the pitch but don’t be tempted. Stay in the game.
I mean I tried. Things tended to happen very quickly and I couldn’t swear I knew what I was seeing. And I may have forgotten to blow my whistle (re: played advantage) quite a lot. Yet despite a few goals heading into the Southgate goal nobody seemed to be getting too irate and the game was definitely happening. I even thought I was getting quite good at the ‘giving the goal’ signal. I liked that one. So it seemed did Wapping. They went 4-0 up quite quickly.
A few times when i had absolutely no idea what i was doing I would stand with my hands behind my back, which is a classic acting technique when you are on stage and thinking about your evening meal and post show drink (and note- not the play you are in- it happens quite a lot). This seemed to me a very imperious and commanding pose straight out of the Sandhurst guidelines. Yet coach RBL could be heard cursing not far away as this pose had already been pointed out as one of ‘disinterest’ and the poor umpire. So I had to go back to hopping around trying to look calm. 5-0 to Wapping.
And then Sarah Richardson came on.
Sarah is a very fine chum, hugely talented and an equally aspirant hockey player. Both of us with 1’s potential. Yet immediately Sarah seemed to have an altercation and fell over with a Wapping player in tow and clearly with both grounded a decision was needed. Having no idea what had really happened I blew for Wapping as they were visitors and its good to be decent to visitors. This cued some words and a Paddington Bear Stare which chilled the blood. Then it was 6-0.
Then half time came and I needed to sit down. But instead Justin and I stood at the half way line and spoke about what I imagine cricketers do in between the wickets. However I did feel great relief that the second half would all take part down Justin’s end and I could relax and watch him show me how it was done.
And then the second half started.
And somehow Chris Pearce (the match day coach for W6) had effected a miraculous change in the home side as suddenly Southgate were attacking…and winning corners and Wapping players were beginning to get a bit physical and started giving some ferocious looks of their own. And then just as a Southgate counter attack was heading directly for Box’s Box the comms went down and I was alone with no voice of Justin in ear. It was terrifying. I had complete control of the game (in theory). My decisions would determine the outcome. The players were reliant on me to make the semblance of the right decision and keep the game going. I had to get on with it and actually blow the sodding whistle.
It seemed such a quiescent revelation calmed by addled brain and by just focussing on the game and trusting that I might actually be able to tell if a ball hit a foot and so the gates of confusion lifted. Beyond that lay a tranquil moment of clarity as I played an advantage from a corner which led to a Southgate goal and resulted in a very fine signal (from static base) which in turn prompted Justin back in my ear to congratulate me on a good decision. 6-1.
Whilst it did then get a bit easier, the last ten minutes seemed to go on for an age, which is not a reflection of the game but rather my exhausted brain which had concentrated at 130% capacity (that is possible) for 60 minutes and needed a good sit down and glass of wine. But we kept at it, Justin coaxing me through the remaining minutes. And out of nowhere Justin blew the final whistle and everyone came over and shook hands and were terribly polite and just like that, that was it. Done. Thank God.
I waited for Justin to pack up his whistle and then we strode like the team we were across the half way line with real purpose and with great umpiring looks to the assembled throng which I’m sure impressed them mightily. Up the steps, ordered my (free*) wine and sidled up to coach RBL- Southgate’s answer to James McNeill and looked appealingly for his judgement. Surely a 6/10 at the minimum.
Room for improvement”
So with that I went home and reflected that umpiring really is a fantastic challenge and unexpectedly requiring great team work and a host of skills I clearly don’t have (yet…). However I will keep at it and would encourage others to come forwards and give it a go. It left me full of admiration for our umpires and the work, skill, energy and time they put in to allow us to all to play. And maybe if my 2.3 can move to 3 or 4 in time maybe I can take my place as one of those who work to keep us all playing on a weekly basis.
My thanks to coach RBL for his support, time and efforts to make gold from clay and to the W6’s team for putting up with a novice behind the whistle (and winning the second half) and finally to Justin for being a hugely supportive presence on pitch.
*umpires get free booze^ (let it be known)
^not all the time