(by Alastair Whatley with contributions from Dick Beechener, John Shaw, Stroller, David Lloyds Williams, Tony Wizbek, Keith Lewis, Mike Burman)

I’ve spent many months now combing through past editions of newsletters gone by and speaking with many of you about Southgate Hockey Club attempting to put some meat on the bones of our illustrious and I must say fascinating history. 

To that end, one afternoon out on the rainy uplands of Trent Park Golf course with the esteemed Tony Wizbek I attempted to distract his rampant competitive spirit by talk of Southgate Club history and he mentioned how he’d once fallen foul of his then coach David Vinson. That name immediately conjured up images of a smart tracksuit and a carefully composed man sat within it. Wiz soon moved on to crunching a drive into the trees and mission achieved I got to thinking more about the man that could upset Wiz’ clinical focus on the fairways.

This weekend we played host to some of the top coaches joining our own tactical mastermind in the form of current M1 Mike Williamson and I thought it might be interesting to probe backwards a few decades and explore one of – not just Southgate’s – but one of Englands most influential coaches and try and tease out a bit more about the man behind the legend.

Yet initial flurries of emails and verbal reconnaissance were met with polite parries from my usual fonts of wisdom. Keith Lewis the first back saying,

“I am not sure how much of a help I can be in answering your questions about David Vinson…I didn’t really know him as a person.”

This then led me to my next port of call in the shapely form of Stroller who told me,

“I only ever attended one training session run by DV as he really only coached the 1st team. He did of course create the DFV glass fibre stick which was the stick to have….”

(Ed. In fact checking this article DLW has informed me that his sticks were wood not glass fibre…John Shaw (who made the sticks) told me they were wooden imported from Pakistan as a naked but of wood and then wrapped in a glass fibre coating…one for a bar discussion maybe?)

This is from the 1983 magazine advertising David’s own branded ‘DFV ‘stick and kit

I felt at this stage that I needed some past presidential input so to former Mens 1’s team manager Mike Burman I went, and from Mike came the following:

“Alastair, hi, yes happy to collect some thoughts re DFV… of the few guys who has brought tears to my eyes on the side of the pitch…and they weren’t tears of joy! And I wasn’t even playing!”

My attention duly piqued by this elusive figure I sought out one of our finest hockey minds in the form of DLW (David Lloyd Williams)- and over a Sunday morning Coffee in between him masterminding a new and exciting EH initiative and just before he opened his fridge DLW regaled me with what he remembered of David Vinson.

The first thing to report from that colourful conversation was that:

“Famously Vinny (David Vinson) drove to Southgate back home again from Kings Lynn in North Norfolk for every session. That is 2 1/2 hours, he never stayed over”.

1st team coach David Vinson and Manager Roger Hagen at The Walker ground in 1983

The second thing to report was the discovery of a book, which DLW suggested I buy to improve my own hockey (I have brought it- my hockey hasn’t improved yet) called the science of Hockey by the magnificently names Horst Wein who credits only one other coach in all the world worthy of import and that was of course Southgate’s own David Vinson.

DLW described “Vinny” as a technician and master tactician. A pioneer not just for his famed innovation with goal keepers but also leading the way in which hockey would adjust from grass to artificial surfaces. 

“You could see all the players who had been coached by Vinny. There was a thing they all did which was playing the ball off the right foot. The ball was what mattered and you moved your body around the ball- because of that you could always see a Vinny person”

One such person must surely be Olympic legend and SHC player at time Steve Bachelor,

“– for myself as I would say of many other young England and GB players at the time was that he (David Vinson) was our mentor, a great man who could be extremely hard on you but at the same time one of the most caring coaches I have ever met.

His method of coaching would probably not be inline with The Hockey Association of the time and I guess a love hate relationship with them over the years. For me I would say he taught me pretty much everything. When I first met David I guess he thought I was an OK player but he told me very simply that at the moment you are just a showman not a real hockey player. 

He was probably right and in my view, helped and worked very closely with Sean Kerly and myself.  I would put many of the assists I was involved in with Sean down to David with his attention to detail on where, how and why I should deliver a ball into the right area of the circle for Sean to score . Many of us were incredibly loyal to DFV not the man the DFV sticks he made and produced for us all many with his own hand some I still have in my attic at home.” 

This is John Willmott with David Vinson at the opening of the current club house on 29th March 1998

From demon outfield players to goalkeepers and our current president Dick Beechener who also had popped up in various pictures and conversations including a follow up with Stroller who told me,

“Dickie B is your man on DV. “

Duly told I went to Dick and he came back with a fascinating account of his experiences with our erstwhile coach, 

He was a constant through the 80’s and much of the 90’s. He had a profound effect on how Southgate played Hockey and the career path of many International players from Southgate. He was held in vary high regard by his peers and his Southgate teams were the ones to beat in British Club Hockey. 

 For me it was an intimidating 1st period as whilst I was a competent young county & regional  keeper and had played with or against many of our team at U21 level- to be part of a serious  European Cup Tournament Squad with the history of Southgate in Europe with players of that quality was daunting.  In that tournament (where we got the Bronze), I recall Chris Rielly, a lovely dour Scottish defender, and I spending many a match on the bench (No rolling subs then of course) watching our athletic, fast flowing team play what was then a new style of hockey for English teams. David Vinson had the players in practice sessions in 3’s or 4’s repeatedly running the full length of the pitch inter passing to each other with pace and accuracy. This was replicated in matches so when Southgate attacked it was fast, flowing and deadly. 

The other person to whom everyone suggested I speak to was our Juniors Coach and former 1’s and GB player John Shaw. So after a few missed calls we finally spoke over a dodgy phone line – John at home in Dorset. It’s clear David had a huge effect on John and his career. Speaking to John it’s clear that he was more than just a coach but a mentor maybe. Interestingly one thing they still share in common in their long relationships with the club is there long commutes. John still drives up and back from the West Country to lead his junior training sessions on Sundays, but he took me back to the beginning as to how he met David,

“I met David at a training course at Bisham Abbey in 1981. David struck me immediately, he was an Irishman, quiet and kept himself to himself. He often said very little, but when he spoke you listened, and it wasn’t always what you wanted to hear! But he drew you in, he never asked me directly to join Southgate for example. After that training camp he dropped me off at Uxbridge and said he’d like to work some more with me, so the next thing I know I found myself on a train up to Kings Lynn and then running along sand dunes until I was sick before only then suggesting we go and hit a ball. I was poleaxed!  I think his philosophy here was that a game should never be as bad as the training.”

Back to Dickie:

David had at least 2 long spells as Coach at Southgate and he also gave me my opportunities as occasional 1st XI Keeper. He used to call me Mr Dependable. Keepers do get better as we age and so in my early 30’s he would get frustrated with younger keepers who vacated the spot just at the wrong moment and the ball went under or over a rushing or moving keeper. That was my opportunity, in a subsequent European Cup 7 years later when again I was reserve keeper. He asked me just to stay in the goal, and “stop the bloody ball”.  I did so, but not very gracefully. My knees and helmet saved the day, as the ball flew at me from shots or corners at body height, whereas in previous matches our highly regarded 1st choice keeper of the time, ( by then not David Owen),  had used the tactic of rushing out and spreading at the forwards feet without much success. David  advocated staying upright as long a possible but using feet more akin to a footballer to make saves and be able to control where the ball rebounded to.  

David was a mighty complex character, equally happy to work with those of us of lesser ability but hard workers and tryers, as well as those with fantastic skills that he wanted to hone to the team’s advantage. He did not take to those who had skills and did not use them to the best advantage of the team  He did his coaching thesis on Goal Keeping and came up with interesting but eminently sensible ways of improving effectiveness. He allied this with a range of Goal Keeping kit to augment his theory. He also is best known by many players for his DFV range of Sticks, Hockey Shoes and Shin Pads. He looked at all the equipment of  the time and decided he could make more effective examples of them all. For many outfield players his sticks and shoes revolutionised how they could play.  

I recall players having hours of conversations and then specific skill sessions about how to improve player skill and effectiveness. From how to place feet to gain an advantage from a standing start, to how to stop the ball efficiently on the left side. 

I  also  had the pleasure of also being his Team Manager over many years. He expected High Standards, both of  Fitness and decorum when representing Southgate and could be very harsh on those who failed. I knew I had to make his wishes happen, but he planned in great detail the build up to tournaments or indeed how to get the best out of 2 matches in a weekend.  

He did like team meetings though and woe betide if you started a technical conversation as you could be there 2 hours later.  He would  make tiny notes on  postage  size pieces of  paper, but would say nothing to the players during the game other than half time. No shouting from the side-line. If frustrated he would simply turn round and kick the fence behind him.  Tactically very astute, he looked at effectiveness of players and end results on the pitch, never afraid to change formations for specific games with false No 9’s or no right midfield to suck opposition attack onto us and then when we won the turn over – spring an attack.

He looked at set piece options. including Short Corner rules and variations. I recall the 1st time we used the Short Corner routine of letting the injected ball pass through the stopper hard and  fast to John Shaw 5 yards out, who then ran in and drilled the shot into the top corner. The Umpire did not know what to give as no one had ever done that deliberately before, but it was in the rules as ball had travelled 5 yards so could be hit at height.  

His influence still pervades the Club and many of us hold him in great stead  

I’ve had perhaps hours of conversations now about David Vinson, read as much as I can about him- and this being hockey there isn’t a great deal- what has struck me is how off the pitch he remained and indeed remains an enigmatic and elusive character- as DLW said,

“He wasn’t a sociable animal and would often be found in thought on his own at the bar- not a drinker either”

Back to John Shaw,

“David was a purist, very simple yet somehow mercurial, he gave me the confidence in myself and simply put I trusted him completely”

A copy of the magnificent ’Science of Hockey’ which pays homage to David’s coaching’

The impression that builds to my mind is one of Norfolks’ equivalent of Marcelo Bielsa, the current Leeds manager. An impresario, a man obsessed with detail and the beauty and potential of the game- someone prepared to rip up the rule book and rewrite it in his own style. Crucially he clearly left a legacy of loyalty, respect and as could be seen from the surely purposeful (…) missed trap at the edge of the D from the M5’s vs Ladies 2’s game on Saturday morning …which lead to a deflected goal by Haimish Patel from outside the 23…a mentality of playing hockey that remains to this day.

My thanks to everyone who gave up their time in preparing this feature.

Please see here for David’s obituary in the Enfield Independent: