Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Grey College Ultimate Frisbee Club

Having recently finished playing for Grey College Ultimate Frisbee Club I thought I’d try to write a history of the club so far.  This will be partly my memories of the club and partly some comments on various events over the years.  Therefore, it will read partly like a history and partly like a diary.

GCUFC was founded officially in the autumn of 2003 by Ed Gay, then a third year engineer at Grey.  It was initially a club for friends to play Frisbee – at this stage it was the only college Frisbee club in Durham.  Training was on Tuesday lunchtimes and Friday afternoons and consisted of simply playing Frisbee.  I remember going along for the first time and being amazed at the skill and movement of some of the players, not understanding the concept of space, and being taught the forehand by Alex Wilcox.  At this stage the club had about 12-15 players, about half of whom were freshers.
Later in the year, I think in the spring term, the club was invited to the ‘Northern Alliance’ tournament with DUF (Durham Uni) and Too Many Pies (Newcastle Uni).  The conditions were very windy and the pitch on which we played DUF 1 was in line with the wind.  This meant it was very hard to score into the wind and we only lost 6-4.  I remember watching one player I was marking catch the disc in mid-air and land inside the endzone, the first time I’d seen this done.
At the end of the year, I was voted in as captain (in those days we didn’t have president/captain/treasurer roles, just one leader called the captain), and only one player, Hannah Stone, graduated.

The majority of players continued form the previous year and a fairly large number of freshers signed up, expanding the club to over twenty players.  We started training the freshers up and soon had the basics of the game mastered – it was useful to have plenty of 2nd, 3rd and 4th years to teach the freshers.  A second Northern Alliance tournament was held, which led to Grey’s first ever victory, 7-3 against DUF B.  We also lost only 8-5 to Too Many Pies, an early sign of the talent in the team as we took on university level teams.
At some point during the year, I think just before Christmas, I was contacted by a girl from Chads who had set up a team there and knew of a team starting at Hild Bede.  We agreed to play a mini-league in the second term.  I divided the club into two teams to produce a four-team league, and Elliott Hampson and Simon Meadows stepped in as joint B team captains.  Each team played three matches the following term.  Grey finished top of the league, including a 30-2 demolition of Chads, while Grey B finished 3rd, behind Hild Bede.
By this time, the existence of college clubs had come to the attention of Mike Bee, DUF captain.  He suggested an end of year one-day tournament and offered to organise it.  This tournament happened after exams at the Shincliffe Pitches.  Grey A and B were present, along with Trevs, and a Chads/Collingwood combination team known as ChadWood (despite requests for Chads and Trevs to combine to form ‘Chavs’!)  Grey A won the competition, comfortably winning all their games, while Grey B finished third.  Plans were made to start a more formal league the following academic year.  Ben Jiggins was voted in as captain again, while Dave Grimm, Ed Gay, Sarah Walker (Senior), Alex Wilcox, John Shimmin and Kathryn Smith graduated.

The following autumn, seemingly thousands of freshers signed up at the freshers fair.  In reality it was more like 200, and those who actually made a regular commitment to playing boosted the club numbers to over 60.  These numbers stunned DUF, who had nowhere near as many players.  This made us feel good.  We expanded to three teams.  Martin Greenbank took on the role of club and A team vice-captain, Jimi Davill was voted in as B team captain, and Paul Furley as C team captain.  Jimi also became our first ever social sec.  The league expanded this year, to include Collingwood A and B, Trevs, Hild Bede and Aidans.
The captains met to discuss the league rules – such rules as if a team can’t field the full 7 players, games down to 5v5 are acceptable, or that there is a hard cap of 17 points on games.  One frustrating thing about later years in GCUFC was that some of the rules that had been set out in this meeting were changed and the changes were not communicated to players.
The Cs won their first game, beating Collingwood B by a point, while the Bs struggled in their first few games, losing several by narrow margins.  The A team started very impressively, dominating every game and not allowing opposition teams a look in.  Over Christmas, a Cuths team was formed, full of players who had been playing for DUF.  They played fixtures quickly to catch up with the rest of the league and were looking strong for a while.  When they faced Grey A, I was away at a family event so Martin led the team to a solid 11-6 victory, inspired by a fine Rik Smith performance.  The As went on to win the league, with the Bs finishing 7th and the Cs 8th.
In the spring term, a couple of significant things happened, one personal and one on a club level.  The personal one was President’s Guest Night (PGN), the main Grey social event of the second term, aimed at people who participate in college clubs and societies.  It is the event where colours are given to those players who are about to graduate and have performed admirably for the club.  As captain, I was asked to nominate up to three players to receive colours, and I picked Phil Gray, Simon Meadows and Sarah Walker, all of whom had been very good A team players and had also contributed to the club off-field.  When it came to the night of PGN, my own name was also announced with the other three.  I was at first confused at the announcement, and then it was revealed that the club, knowing I wouldn’t award colours to myself, signed a petition to the sports reps at college to allow four colours awards for the club, and to give the fourth to me.  I remember walking up to the stage to receive the award and then sitting back at the table just feeling stunned.  It was a fairly simple gesture from the club, but it meant a huge amount to me – it meant that my effort and hard work had been recognised, and people were grateful for it.
The other significant event, or string of events, involved relations between GCUFC and DUF.  Grey A enquired about going to the university regional tournament at a 3rd DUF team, a request which DUF rejected, saying that as non-DUF players, we could not play under DUFs name.  This was a reasonable response, but a disappointing one, and I think it caused some resentment in the Grey squad.  In response to this, Mike Bee, now DUF A vice-captain, emailed me requesting that I encourage Grey players to go along to DUF trainings to gain skills and experience.  I explained that I would do so, but that I thought Grey players were reluctant to go to DUF training because doing so would jeopardise their chances of playing in Grey A matches, due to not having attended as many training sessions as those players who hadn’t gone along to DUF sessions.  The strange combination of Grey players not wanting to train with DUF and DUF not allowing Grey to play in the uni regionals was the climax of the tension between the two clubs that had been steadily building that season.  In fact, several Grey players saw the creation of the Cuths team as an intentional attempt by DUF to form a team that would stop Grey A from dominating the league – a theory supported by the facts that the Cuths team was composed almost entirely of DUF players and that it disbanded at the end of the year so the players could focus on DUF.
At the end of the year was the college cup.  Most teams who had played in the league attended; memorably Hild Bede brought several barbeques.  I can’t remember many details about the day, though I know I threw up at one point and I remember losing in the final to the Uni/Cuths team – I think the score was about 8-5.
At the end of the year, a club constitution was written to make things more official.  The roles of president and captain were separated and the role of treasurer was created.  Rik Smith was voted in as president.  I graduated and was given special permission by the college captains to continue playing the following year, as I would be doing a gap year in Durham working for Kings Church.

This season was very different for me.  Although I was still playing for Grey A, I had no responsibility for the first time in two years.  This took a bit of getting used to but was ultimately a really nice change.  I enjoyed just being able to play, and contribute to the team, without having to be constantly thinking about tactics, drills, players, matches etc.
Rik took on the presidency and did a fine job.  He took the club to the next level by organising for us to go to outside tournaments like Northern Winter League.  This gave players lots of extra experience at playing at a higher level.  There was still a bit of resentment felt towards DUF from last season, so it was great to almost beat them at one NWL tournament.  We had an equivalent of our B team (3 As, 4 Bs and 3 Cs), and they had an almost full-strength squad.  We were level at 5-5 before losing 9-6.  A full Grey A would have destroyed them that day.
Back in Durham, Grey had 3 teams in the league again. Grey A were captained by Dave Dodd, the Bs by Paul Furley, and the Cs by Poul ‘Samwise’ Alexander.   With no Cuths team (they were now concentrating on playing for DUF), the main threat to Grey A’s dominance looked to be Aidans and Collingwood A.  We faced Aidans first, I think.  I seem to remember a bit of rivalry had been building from the previous year, when meetings in the league and cup had been feisty affairs.  Grey A certainly had felt that Aidans were not the most spirited of teams.  When it came to the league match this year, Aidans were not happy that I had special permission to play, and we were forced to negotiate that I could play every other point.  This really wound me up, especially as this was the one time my parents had come to watch me play.  There was nothing we could do about it, however, so I played the upwind points and managed to help us win all of them.  We won a hard-fought and bad-tempered game 7-3.  The Collingwood game came later in the year, after they had already beaten Aidans, so it was basically a championship decider.  This Collingwood team were really good.  They’d looked excellent all season and had beaten all the other decent teams in style.  We knew we were up against possibly the biggest challenge we’d ever faced in the league.  We needn’t have worried.  Solid handling, well-thought out tactics, 2 layout Ds in the first 2 points from Matt Knight and myself, an intense mental game and hard defence meant we won 14-0, a scoreline that no-one would have predicted.  The best moment was at 6-0 when we’d been defending our line solidly for several minutes (Collingwood even thought they’d scored at one point but their player landed outside the endzone).  We managed to take possession several times but had failed to get out of our own half.  Then I took the disc on our line, Xander ran long, and I put up a pitch-length huck which he took down superbly, just inside the Collingwood endzone.  That was the killer point.  I won MVP that day – it’s one of my fondest on-pitch memories for the club.
The B team played incredibly well all season and managed to secure fourth place, beating Hild Bede on the way.  An outstanding season for a B team, in a year that had seen Trevs B, Collingwood C, Johns, Mildert join the league.  The C team also played well, finishing 9th out of 12 teams.
Towards the end of the year, another competition was introduced, giving the A team another chance to dominate.  The College Festival of Sport was a one-day tournament featuring all Durham colleges and many sports, to find an overall college winner.  I can’t remember many details about this or any other festival of sport in later years, but I do remember that these were yet more competitions in which Grey continued their outstanding, unbeaten streak at college level.
Unfortunately I can’t remember what happened to the Bs and Cs in the cup, but I do remember the As.  We cruised through the early stages, beating Grey B to a pulp along the way, and met Aidans again in the final.  Aidans had brought along some DUF A players to help them.  I still disagree with the rule that allows DUF A players to play in the cup, but that’s another story.  So, we were up against the old enemy, to regain our cup title.  We went 5-1 down.  We weren’t playing well at all, and then, for some reason I still am not sure of, everything started clicking.  The drops disappeared, the movement was efficient, the D was tighter.  We won the next point very quickly – just two passes.  Rik popped the disc to me in space, Chris Rodd ran long and I picked him out.  The momentum had changed and, from 5-1 down, we fought back to win 8-5.  That felt really good, especially against Aidans.  A great way to end the season.  At the end of this season, several players such as Rik, Dave, Chris and Ed moved on to join DUF, leaving a sizeable gap in the A team that would need to be filled.  Rob Balmer was voted in as the new president.

This year, I started a PGCE and Maters in education, allowing me to continue laying for Grey.  This was a season of stability and growth, as far as I can remember.  Rob did a great job as president, getting us to NWL tournaments as well as Edinburgh beginners and a variety of other outside tournaments.  The club maintained 3 teams, with Alex Jamieson, Eley Haslam and Marc Etherington as the respective captains.  As usual, I can’t remember much of the B and C teams’ seasons, though I don’t think they were as successful as they had been in the previous year, which was, and still is the strongest overall year in the club’s history.  The A team were strong once again, with very little threat from any other team in the league or the festival sport.  In the cup, the As lost in the final to another DUF-heavy Aidans team.  Colours were awarded at the end of the year, but the rule about colours only being given to finalists seemed to have either disappeared or been ignored by now, something I was not happy with.  I think it is a bit farcical to honour a person’s career for the club in that way before they are at the graduating stage of uni.  The trend of giving colours to non-finalists continued into future years, which is a shame.
One final thing about this year – I believe Alex Jamieson to be the best captain the As ever had.  He had big shoes to fill, following such a successful previous season.  The As had lost a lot of quality players, but gained more good players who mostly had decent experience.  It was a very hard to job to gel a new team together quickly in order to continue the dominance of previous years.  But Alex did a superb job, was an excellent leader, and outstanding motivator and a good tactician.  I was very proud to play under him, gutted that I never had a chance to captain him myself (he was in the C team in my final year), and touched to see him cry when he finished the job – I believe that he and I remain the only captains to be so emotionally involved in our jobs.

Mike White took over as president for the next year and continued Rob’s trend of entering us into lots of outside tournaments, giving great opportunities to gain experience at higher level Frisbee, and also spreading the name of Phoenix Knights, our open team name, around the country.  The club shrunk in terms of numbers this year so we downsized to two teams with Sam Jones and Stefan Kemp as captains.  Graduates of Grey had by this time set up an alumni team called Ashes which provided a chance for alumni to play together from time to time.  I don’t know whose idea this was, but it was an excellent one.  The A team this year was a strong one, which quality from top to bottom.  This was the year I moved from playing handler to playing in the endzone, due to our wealth of handlers.  I loved the chance to run more and to score more.  I forged a lethal partnership with Jack Butters – I think we must have scored about 100 points between us that season.  I scored 10 in one match, against Collingwood B.  Success abounded again for the As, winning the league, cup and festival of sport again.
Links with DUF were now a lot stronger than in the past, which was both a good and bad thing.  A good thing, because positive relationships with other local clubs are always good, and it helped the league to build momentum as more players from different colleges new each other.  A bad thing because it pulled people away from Grey – players started going to tournaments with DUF B and therefore missing matches for their Grey teams.  These conflicted loyalties caused a few rifts within Grey, mainly between the older players such as myself, Alex and Ant, and the younger ones who were now running the club.  Luckily, this season the A team was strong enough to cope without a few players each weekend.
At some point, possibly this season or possibly a previous one, but after I had finished as president/captain, DUAU (the university sports team) took over the running of the league, which had previously been organised by DUF, and the cup, which had been organised by the Grey president.  This made our league more official and provided better organisation, though it started to cause problems in later years.

The club entered the next season with our first female president.  Emily had been B team captain last year and now took on the top role.  Although we had had excellent female players in the past (most notably the legendary Sarah Walker (Junior)), and Eley had also been a captain, this was another step and was great to see.  Grey has had a perennial problem of not having many female players and there was hope that Emily would help to change that.
Ant Bailey and Alex Pettitt were the clubs new captains.  This year, I found myself in the B team.  Emily acknowledged that I easily had the ability to play in the As, but said that they were concerned about the As gelling together and knew I that as a teacher I wouldn’t be able to attend Wednesday trainings.  I knew this argument didn’t make sense – many of the As had played together before and it was actually the B team, consisting largely of freshers, that would have the trouble gelling.  I believe it was also thought that my experience would help the B team, and that this was more of the reason for the decision.  Nevertheless, it was hard to take, with my past commitment and time playing for the As.
The As dominated yet again this year, winning the treble again.  The Bs enjoyed a successful season, finishing a record-equalling 4th in the league and also getting third place in the cup.  And here is where I try, and probably fail, to not sound arrogant.  Although there were a few decent players on the B team, I was by far the most experienced and skilful.  I found it frustrating playing with inexperienced players.  They did not move where I expected, they threw away what I thought to be easy throws, and they dropped lots of catches.  I persevered, trying to teach and encourage as best as I could, but I desperately missed playing for Grey A and often felt like I was carrying the team.
There was also the issue that club figureheads started giving preference to DUF over Grey.  This was not the same as the previous year because it now happened more often, with more players, and with more significant players.  When a club’s most senior and respected players, in fact its leaders, start abandoning the club to play for local rivals, it sets a very poor example of commitment to the junior players at the club.  I believe this to be, not the only factor, but the most significant factor in the downfall of GCUFC.  Other factors include a shrinking in the size of the club due to, I believe, lack of community spirit and lack of players living in college, a lack of commitment from some senior players to training, and a lack of hardcoreness – training would often finish after a couple of hours rather than continuing for four just because it could. But the biggest factor was players prioritising other clubs over Grey.  It comes down to why you play Frisbee.  Do you play for yourself, and therefore take every opportunity to gain personal experience and skills, and play at the highest level that you can, or do you play for your club, and therefore sacrifice your personal development and opportunities to play at higher levels, in order to make your club as successful as you can?  It seems that as players deprioritised playing for the club over several years, the standard of players and teams declined.
I almost left the club at the end of that season, even though I was eligible to play for one more.  In the end I stayed, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to not play while still being eligible.  I loved the club too much, and had invested too much in it, to give up now.

Mark Savage became the next president, while Jacob Hicks and George Hicks (no relation!) were the new captains.  I was moved back into the A team, and it was so good to be playing with more experienced players again.  However, the club was much weaker now than it had been two years previously.  Many ex-Grey players were now playing with DUF, and both the A team and B team struggled to get enough players to turn up to matches.  Senior players missed trainings and matches, or turned up hungover and few freshers stuck with the club.
DUAU were now causing problems too – most matches were played on the school pitches because Mary’s field was in such poor condition, but because of the nature of Frisbee and the large number of games being played, the school pitches were soon in poor condition too.  This meant games had to be postponed and the fixture list became very clogged.
Then came the day that I’d always known would come, but I’d hoped it would be after I’d left.  I had already received the news that, after graduating in January 2011, I could no longer play for Grey due to insurance reasons (another situation caused by DUAU).  However, I intended to continue supporting the team in matches.  In the first term we were still unbeaten, though looking weaker than ever before.  Then in the first match of the spring term Grey A faced Johns.  Not only did Grey A lose at college level for the first time ever, they were demolished by 11 points to 2.
Johns were a decent team who worked hard, but were nothing special.  Grey however, were missing their captain through injury, their most experienced player (me) through ineligibility, one player through other commitments, two players who simply did not turn up, and had one vice captain returning from injury, another hungover, and a president hungover.  Little could have been done about illness, injury and the ban, but the other problems showed how much the mighty Grey A had fallen.
The team that once could field a 14-strong squad of university level players, the team who would only concede a couple of points to the next best team in the league, the team that could win forty minute games in twenty minutes, the team that trained and trained and trained, 3-4 times a week, the team that balanced socialising, studies, commitments to other sports and were still fiercely loyal to the club and to each other, the team that would grab every opportunity to play an extra half hour of Frisbee, the team that refused to give up, refused to stop running, and considered every point conceded to be a personal insult from the opposition…that team was no longer.  Over the past three years or so, many things have contributed to GCUFC, and particularly Grey A, being less passionate and committed than it had once been.  No individual people are to blame; it has been a combination of factors.  I suppose that I am the only person in the world who fully understands this, being the one person who has seen and been a part of the entire story.

As someone who has invested hundreds (possibly thousands) of hours into the club, on and off the pitch, playing over a hundred games, it is both hard and satisfying to look back over the last eight years.  It is hard to see the recent decline of the club, and to think back over past difficulties and struggles.  It is satisfying to remember the matches, the victories, the socials, the tournaments, but most of all the dozens of players we have produced.  I am immensely proud to have played with the players I have at this great club, to have had the honour of leading some of them and coaching most of them.  To anyone who has ever played for GCUFC: thankyou for your contribution to the club that means so much to me.

Update, Summer 2013:
Over the last couple of years, the club has begun to rise from the ashes.  While they are not at the level of previous years, and Grey A are not head-and-shoulders the best team around, the whole 'feel' of the club has changed.  Entry to outside tournaments has increased.  Players seem more committed and excited about the club.  There are three teams again, and probably the highest number of girls we've ever had.  When I watch them play, or help with training, it feels like how the club was when it was strong.  The results aren't yet as good as they used to be, nor is the quality of play, but in a way, those things are secondary.  It feels like the passion is back.  I'm sure that many people are to be credited for this, but some that I am aware of are John Oliver, Craig Hawes and Will White.  Well done to them, and to everyone still at the club who is helping to make it great again.  Keep it up guys.

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