By Emma Whitney
I’ve been playing quidditch for a year now, and this season I’m captain of the London Unbreakables – the London Unspeakables’ second team. Being chosen by your teammates’ vote to lead is so flattering (though I must add, the final vote was exceptionally close – I was up against great candidates such as fellow chaser Carly Maling and my eventual Vice Captain, Olly Nguyen). On top of this comes the weight of expectation, of course. I’m still getting to grips with this incredible, surprising, and bloody barmy sport myself; how can I be expected to guide potentially 20 other players through the pitfalls and pressures of a season? Realising that I don’t need to be the best chaser or athlete myself, but do need to create a team environment that enables my players to give their best, has been the catalyst that’s kick-started my journey as captain. Here’s an insight into how Highlander Cup VI went for my unflinching, unwavering Unbreakables. And yeah, I may be a little biased.
Day 0 – Travels Up North
My plan for Highlander was always to use it as an acid test for the season. As a club, the Unspeakables have been fortunate enough to receive an influx of new players this year, many of whom have actually played quidditch before. Being a community club, we’re generally more used to picking up complete newbies, so the possibility of having a solid base of experienced players in the Unbreakables squad is exciting. Having only formed 18 months ago, Unbreakables made their Highlander debut this season, giving me another reason to ensure we gave a good account of ourselves. Our first team, the Unspeakables, had set their sights on winning the UK’s oldest quidditch tournament, but my task as my train snaked northwards was to check I had everything in place for us to give a good debut showing whilst also bonding as a team and as friends over the weekend. With the shadow of Southern Cup looming on the horizon, developing synergy and camaraderie at Highlander was crucial.
With this in mind, in the week leading up to the Edinburgh tournament, I messaged all my players individually, asking them what they wanted from Highlander Cup VI in terms of personal goals and experience. If certain players are looking to prove themselves to the first team squad this season, they’ll want gametime. That doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily get it, but it does mean they could start getting anxious or frustrated if they don’t think they’re performing well enough, or playing enough. One or two more experienced players acting that way can tilt the harmony of a team, so it’s important to be aware of what your players are hoping for. Happy players almost always perform better.
Another effort I made on the journey north to boost morale pre-tournament was both simple and banally millennial: a collaborative Spotify playlist. Inspired by the QPL playlists, I had fun picking not only hype tunes, but anything with a London or Scotland theme. I think my inclusion of The Clash and The Proclaimers went down well; Baby Shark, maybe less so.
Day 1 – First Blood
I woke up to a light rain and the combination of nerves and excitement that only a quidditch tournament can bring. One thing I had felt trepidation about was my captain’s speech. More than anything, I knew the speech before our first match would be crucial – I needed to set the tone, and inspire my players from the off. After a pleasant round-the-houses bus ride (yep, everyone was so much friendlier in Edinburgh than in London) and a slightly dodgy trek through a secluded alley, I arrived at the Inverleith Park playing pitches, geeing myself up for my biggest test in quidditch yet.
My fabulous coach and all round all-star utility player, Gio Forino, suggested I use the same mantra all weekend – ‘do your best, have fun, and never quit’. As a team with a lot of new, inexperienced, and not-completely-confident players, ensuring that people enjoyed the weekend, didn’t let their heads drop on pitch no matter what happened, and gave 100% would be key to us doing well. Ultimately, this mantra served us excellently. My players gave everything in each match, and the results duly followed.
Our first game was against an experienced but depleted Tornadoes side, and we charged ahead to an early quaffle lead. This buoyed the team’s confidence, with new players giving their all and experienced players such as Gio, Arjun Sharma, and John Morris getting on the scoresheet. Out of range by snitch–on–pitch (eight goals for us with no answer if I remember correctly), I was daring to feel confident, whilst manically counting gender and trying to ensure all my players got gametime. However, when your snitch is experienced Leeds keeper, chaser, and seeker Josh Armitage, things don’t always go to plan. Despite my seekers’ best efforts, we drifted into third snitch handicap time. Tornadoes started to inch their way back into the game, coming within 10 points of SWIM, despite us scoring a further two goals. At this stage, I knew we needed to hold our nerve and focus on not conceding further, as Armitage, who also plays for Yorkshire Roses in the QPL, was exemplifying his reputation for being such a difficult snitch to catch, due to his physicality and excellent in-game decision making. It was a case of going for certain goals only, and ensuring our beaters made it as easy as possible for our determined, but by now knackered, seekers – Carly, Gio, and Ned Doherty.
Thankfully, Gio caught at around the half-hour mark, and our first victory was secured, with the final score ending 130*-60 in our favour. Nevertheless, this match taught me an important lesson; fast starts have to be sustained, our defence needs to be top-notch throughout a game, and we will always need to be prepared to put some sheer bloody effort in.
Having goal-refereed Holyrood Hippogriffs Seconds’ match against Liverpool Quidditch Club, I knew we were capable of beating the Edinburgh outfit. To overwhelm them so thoroughly, however, was especially pleasing. Buoyed by our first victory, our offence went to town, and it was brilliant to see new players such as Karolina Góralik among the scorers in this match, as well as more experienced players getting their first competitive goals (here’s looking at you, Carly). Scoring ten times for the second game in a row was very satisfying, and in this game our defence held up more, only conceding twice, albeit under much less pressure from our opponents than in the Tornadoes game. A fantastic snitch catch by our new American beater/seeker Ned, studying in London as an international student, summed up our positive, aggressive performance against Edinburgh’s second team, with the final score ending up 130*-20. When the catch was confirmed good, it was one of those joyous running-on-the-pitch, screaming-together-in-a-heap kind of celebrations. The only fly in the ointment was an injury to our point chaser/keeper Arjun, suffered whilst seeking. Having performed excellently in the two games up until that point, this was a major concern. Would one of our most influential players be able to last the tournament?
Our final game of the day was set to be the toughest, against Holyrood Hippogriffs Firsts – the eighth–best team in the UK, according to British Quidditch Cup 2018 results. We were expecting a physical match and a different kind of gameplay to what we’d seen before. Hippogriffs Firsts’ main point chaser and seeker, Kieran Newton, is a player very familiar to us, having been part of our club and a first–team stalwart last season. We knew he’d be a danger man, but were looking forward to proving ourselves against strong opposition. The game started off well, with our spirited play forcing Hippogriffs Firsts to call a timeout after less than five minutes. We knew we’d rattled them, but momentum swung in their favour. Gio, who’d been our talisman throughout the day, was no longer 100%, and it had become clear that Arjun’s injury was more serious than first thought (with John stepping up to keeper and point chaser duties instead). Caught on the fast break too many times, an exhausted Unbreakables eventually succumbed 130*-40.
I finally got back to my B&B at almost midnight, having spent three and a half hours getting far more acquainted with Edinburgh Royal Infirmary than I ever expected to be. Exhausted, I was at least assured that Arjun was okay, though concussed. He would not be playing on the second day, which was a real blow for the team, and for Arjun personally. However, a player’s health is far more important. This sport we love carries risks; sometimes winning or losing isn’t the only thing you worry about.
Day 2 – Home Truths
A tired, battered, yet battle-ready Unbreakables faced Düsseldorf Dementors in the first slot of the tournament’s second day. One of the great things about Highlander is the chance to play northern teams – a chance, as a London team, we only otherwise get at Dev Cup/BQC. Being able to pit ourselves against an international team was even more exciting, especially seeing as Düsseldorf provided the Unbreakables first ever international opposition. Getting to see different tactics and play styles in action was going to be a great learning experience for us.
Unbreakables’ final Day One rankings were excellent – having won two out of three games, we placed sixth in the upper bracket with a positive QPD of 60. However, we couldn’t get too complacent, as Düsseldorf harboured a serious threat in the form of their No. 13 chaser, German international Johannes Klein-Peters. With Gio man-marking Klein-Peters and Arjun unable to do more than be our sideline coach, we lacked a certain speed and dynamism and began to struggle against a disciplined and well-organised Dementors side. With momentum slipping away from us, the last snitch we needed in many ways was Edinburgh Firsts’ Guntis Rutins. For those who don’t know the player, given his height, strength, and stamina, he’s almost impossible to catch. Our seekers, Carly and Ned, defended the snitch and kept away Düsseldorf’s seekers valiantly, with Carly in particular putting in a herculean effort. My fantastic and long-suffering Vice–Captain Olly (believe me, he’s the one a screaming, panicking, moaning Emma goes to) even got to chase in this game, and scored a great goal for us. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough, though. Düsseldorf caught (an excellent feat given the relative inexperience of their seekers), the match ended 110*-40, and that was that. We were out.
‘Being knocked out is horrible’ is the most obvious sentence I’ll ever write. We knew this would happen at some point – we weren’t expecting to win Highlander – but we had hoped that Unbreakables would be in the mix for a medal. The feeling when we lost at Dev Cup last April was awful – bitter, shocking, gut-wrenching. This time around, it was just as bad, particularly as we knew that beating Düsseldorf would have meant a showdown against our first team, the Unspeakables and a chance to play for that medal in the third–place play-offs (as much as we can dream; we’re nowhere near matching our first team – yet). As our loss sunk in, there was nothing more to do but take part in friendly games (thanks Dublin) and cheer on the Unspeakables in their quest for gold (TL;DR – Kieran bloody Newton).
[Editor’s Note: Holyrood Hippogriffs Firsts beat London Unspeakables 100*-80, with Newton catching the snitch for Edinburgh.]
Day 3 – The Hard Work Continues
Our final standings were excellent – we came sixth overall, out of 12 teams, so top half – and had a QPD of +20, according to my calculations. I couldn’t have asked any more of my team – every player gave their all and I’m so proud of everyone. Chaser Chow Tsun Hin’s excellent, aggressive debut bodes well, Emma Jones and Ellie Prior grew in confidence over the tournament and were formidable beating options for us, Pip Raven as ever was a lion in defence, Sarah-Louise Lewis impressed with her attacking tenacity, Hannah S. also impressed with her defence and her adaptability, and Ai Omote was the perfect merc. All that what was left to do the Monday after the weekend before was to look back on what we did well, decide where we need to improve, and to give individual feedback to players.
As happy as I was with our Highlander performance, I knew hard work would be needed in order to improve in time for Southern Cup. I also knew I desperately needed to start improving my own game, too. It’s natural for a captain’s performance to dip as they focus on the team as a whole, but on the journey back down south, I earmarked certain areas for me to work on – e.g. being far more aggressive in my attack and all-round play. If I’m asking my players to be positive and dynamic, I have to do the same. Overall, though, Highlander was great. As my train pulled into King’s Cross station, I could reflect on a tournament gone well. After all, my first competitive test as captain had passed without me making a complete hash of things. I was – and still am – genuinely excited about the season ahead for Unbreakables. This team has real potential, which the Highlander results emphatically underlined. Having the support of my VC Olly and our club coach Gio was phenomenal, and I headed home looking forward to working with them further as Unbreakables aim to progress and improve upon the solid foundation we built at Highlander.
As captain, my main areas for improvement are definitely the tactical and technical sides of the game. Highlander made me realise that I have to have enough confidence in my own knowledge to speak out and lead consistently, rather than rely on others with more experience to do this. Also, being able to react quickly in gameplay situations both on and off pitch is something I want to be more ready for, come the regional tournaments. The most difficult part of actually captaining at a tournament is probably the most obvious – I was the one making decisions. It was my call all weekend. That was both terrifying and really exciting. With my inspiring team behind me and just under a month of hard work to go, Unbreakables can regroup, recharge, and redress those areas that need working on, and be ready for the next test. Roll on Southern.