HOCKEY: Ulster facing up to an ‘umpire crisis’

Hockey clubs across Ulster are experiencing difficulties in finding umpires, leading to points deductions and even one potential relegation. Photograph: Rowland White / PressEye

Hockey clubs across Ulster are experiencing difficulties in finding umpires, leading to points deductions and even one potential relegation. Photograph: Rowland White / PressEye

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Ulster Hockey is in the midst of an ‘umpire crisis’.

That’s the agreement of both the Umpires’ Association and clubs within the province, one of whom has claimed their quest for an affiliated official has become “like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Ulster Hockey’s constitution rules that all clubs with teams competing in the top two provincial divisions (Premier and Senior One) “MUST have at least one graded umpire per team available...every week during the season.”

However, that has caused its fair share of problems with 13 clubs handed disciplinary measures for failing to comply so far this season.

Under the current system, clubs can be punished twice in one season and eight are set to be sanctioned in the second wave, the Umpires’ Association told the NEWS LETTER.

In the ladies’ game, Cookstown face a potential relegation from Senior One. They have been deducted two points and, with the threat of another hit, could drop to the foot of the table.

Senior One side Rainey have also had two points stripped and Premier League title challengers Randalstown were fined £100 and deducted one point.

That was despite lengthy efforts to resolve their problems, starting in January 2016 when their nominated umpire stood down. All umpires known to the club were contacted twice between January and June.

No acceptable umpire was found and the club then advertised widely, even offering a weekly fee to any available umpire. Randalstown then funded 15 of its own members to attend an umpiring course, although none were willing to sacrifice their own playing careers to fulfil the role - an issue at more than one club.

All of those exhausting efforts were wasted when, in January, Randalstown were hit the fine and point deduction. And that has left a feeling of frustration.

“We have been proactive, we have obtained help from Ulster Hockey and yet we still can not recruit an umpire,” read the club’s subsequent appeal. “What more can we do? The players of the first XI battle and fight for every point in the Premier League, to punish them for something that is beyond their control is unacceptable. Ulster Hockey’s role is to support its members and to promote hockey, but punishing those who are doing their best and working hard to reach a benchmark that has proved to be unobtainable is simply wrong.

“It is clear at this stage in the season that Ulster Hockey’s strategy to solve the ongoing umpire crisis, which exists across the province, is not working. It is now time that Ulster Hockey and the Umpiring Association double all efforts in further promoting the role. The perks, attractions and possibilities within the role should be highlighted positively so when clubs look for an umpire it’s not the equivalent to finding a needle in a haystack.”

Ulster Hockey’s Umpires’ Association chairman Gareth Herron, however, claims the current sanctions, brought in two years ago, are proving a relative success, backed up, he says, by the fewer clubs set to be sanctioned in the second half of the season.

“Anecdotally, I understand that many clubs would be happy with a fine; but not a points deduction,” he continued. “Although UH would find the extra revenue welcome, this approach would not give us another umpire. We think that points deductions are the correct approach.”

Herron explained the rules were brought into force after realisation that the body’s training courses were failing to bring enough umpires into the pool.

“We recognised that if the trend continued we would soon be unable to cover Premier and Senior matches and concluded that the only source for potential umpires was in the clubs,” he said.

“After all clubs already develop players and coaches and had nominated club members for rules courses. We noted that Scotland compelled their clubs to provide umpires and if they didn’t sanctions would be applied.

“As a consequence the Scottish panel had stabilized and started to grow; though they did say that it took a while for clubs to understand their obligations.”

While clubs were not sanctioned during year one of the new rules “year two was much more difficult,” continued Herron. “Some Senior One clubs appeared to have put very little effort into meeting the rule, while Senior Two clubs despite having a year’s notice to prepare for the implementation of the rule didn’t bother then tried to play catch up during the season.

“The UH Board decided that there was little point having the rule unless the sanctions were meaningful - but they saw a difference between clubs who had genuinely tried to comply with the rule than clubs who did not bother.”

That led to the implementation of the current tiered quota system, whereby clubs are santioned with a £100 fine for umpires being available less than 80% of the time, £100 fine and one point deduction for less than 55% and a fine and two point deduction for under 30%. The Association also decided not to sanction Section Two clubs, instead moving them to the same Club Umpire Registration scheme as Section Three and Four clubs.

Armagh men’s Match Secretary Jason Whitford echoed Randalstown’s frustrations after his club fell into the lowest bracket and were handed a two point deduction and £100 fine.

They were left on a sticky wicket after their umpire got injured shortly before the start of the season.

“Hockey is suffering enough with other sports taking younger players. This doesn’t help,” he said.

“We pay over £600 per team per year to participate then we have to find an umpire as well. A certain amount has to go to Ulster Hockey’s running, of course, but you would think they could use that for umpires as well.

“I believe we have to pay umpires. They get paid in other sports and it’s a big commitment.

“At meetings with the Umpire’s Association at the start of the season, we’re always given the same answer that we should try to get people to share the load or get younger players involved but it just doesn’t work. We struggle to field two teams let alone find an umpire.”

However, Herron insisted that increased financial packages are unrealistic.

He said: “We would rather NOT be in the position of sanctioning clubs; but without the ‘umpiring package’ (match fees, a better mileage rate, etc) being more attractive it is difficult to see a way forward: and given the resources available to UH they are simply not in a position to introduce a more attractive umpiring package that would entice new people into umpiring.”

Armagh ladies’ Match Secretary Grace Nugent pointed to the treatment of match officials as another potential barrier.

“Ultimately umpires can’t be found due to the attitude of players/ supporters,” she said.

“From experience, if you award a free, one side will be rather happy and the other (annoyed), which leads to abusive or intimidating language towards the umpire and leaves them feeling like they’re in the wrong. I know new rules have been imposed to try and deal with this but it’s the stigma that really puts people off.

“Obviously there’s no quick fix but in short if the issue doesn’t get resolved sooner rather than later there won’t be any games happening as the supply of umpires is wearing thin.”

Herron agreed that the issue will not be solved overnight.

“Arguably we have reached crisis - hence the rule, which I believe has started to stabilise the panel; clubs are starting to understand their obligations and I have a proactive Development Team who are willing to run courses to support clubs,” he said.

“I also hope that from the Club Umpire Registration scheme that we may get a few umpires wanting to umpire for the panel. Unfortunately there is no quick fix. But remember, UH already has a competition rule that states all games must be played irrespective of whether panel umpires are appointed to a match.

“In such cases, either two players or coaches will umpire, two nominated club members will umpire - the bottom line is that the game must be played.”

“The area we would like to work on is with the schools. We hope to start making inroads here with the support of Ulster Hockey. This is for the long-term, but it is clearly the right approach and has been included as part of the UH Strategic Plan.”

As a resolution remains difficult to discover, the situation is a pressing one for a much-loved local sport.