Published: 06:00, 02 April 2021
Mick Harris is the chairman of Herne Bay Roller Hockey & Skating Club - the oldest roller hockey club in the world that are still in existence, going since 1910. Mick started out with the club as a junior and went onto spend a decade playing for his country in a sport that requires plenty of commitment.
The sport started in London in the late 1890s and developed from general roller skating.
At that time there were lots of dance halls and places like that which provided for this new recreation. Herne Bay had a pier pavilion which in the summer would be used for shows but in the winter it became a roller skating rink. For some, like me, I got fed up of going round and round and wanted to do something a bit more so you get the development of hockey, roller dance, speed skating and those things. Like lots of sports before World War II, England were one of the top nations in the world but then a lot of others started to dominate like Spain, Portugal, Italy, Argentina and Brazil and they operate professional leagues. There are clubs like FC Barcelona, Sporting Lisbon, Benfica, all part of the football club but with professional roller hockey teams as well.
From my perspective, the reason it hasn’t developed in this country is purely down to resources. In other countries there are purpose-built roller hokey rinks, with mini-stadiums, but in the early days we used dance halls and through the 1960s sport in England became Sport For All, so they built a lot of these square brick buildings with no facilities for spectators.
We are fortunate because there are only two purpose built roller hockey pitches in the country, one in Middlesbrough and one in Herne Bay. The national championships alternate between Herne Bay and Middlesbrough because they provide a full size rink and a proper resource with room for spectators.
HERNE BAY ORIGINS
The club played at the old pier pavilion and that was okay, but it was adapted from a theatre, and during maintenances work in 1968 they managed to burn it down!
Then there was an eight-year period when Herne Bay didn’t have anything. In 1976 a new sports centre was built on the pier. That was purposely built for roller hockey because of the town’s history and even now people across Europe see Herne Bay as the birthplace of roller hockey.
For 30 years we had the new pavilion, which was excellent, but the only problem is that we shared it with lots of other sports and so as a club we had just two hours a week to train, that’s all we were provided with and the numbers playing the sport was pretty low. If we were lucky we had a couple of seniors and a junior team, about 30 people. There are three clubs in Herne Bay. The rivalry between the clubs in Herne Bay is extreme. There is Herne Bay United and Invicta.
We are one of the most successful clubs in the country, in terms of winning national championships, we have had our ups and downs, we haven’t always been at the top, fortunately when I played we were. We have gone to the European under-17 and under-15 competitions and qualified for the last five years. That is the top 16 teams in Europe. On that level, I can confidently say we are the strongest and most successful junior club in the country, seniors? We are still not there. We put a team into the National Premier League last season, all 17 year-olds, they were okay but they couldn’t cope with it physically.
After 30 years at the new pavilion they decided its lifespan was over and they needed to pull it down. Because of our historic association with the town a new sports centre was built at the local secondary school and again it was primarily designed around roller hockey. We got a better facility, which we are currently in. Roller skating now gets much more time in the local sports centre and that is divided into the three clubs, the roller dance club and the roller derby club. We are all at the High School.
It is a minority sport because of the lack of facilities, a bit like if Herne Bay had just one football pitch, how many players would you have?
A few years ago we reached our maximum at the sports centre, fully booked out, so where do we go? We started to look at different places but they didn’t quite work out.
We got involved in the Greenhill development in 2017. There could be three pitches and an outdoor roller hockey rink, which is not necessarily what we wanted ideally, but it is a step forward. I have played outdoor, the weather obviously will determine things, but there is no problem with it and it provides extra facilities.
From our point of view, we will always be at the sports centre because that facility is excellent, but what we will have with this is extra facilities, particularly in the summer to be able to increase the number of players and also a clubhouse and that side of things is very much lacking at the sports centre.
HOW EASY IS IT TO PLAY?
From someone who can’t roller skate at all to being able to play competitively, you are looking at 18 months to two years. There is some commitment.
When we get young people at nine or 10, they are very much on par, all still learning to skate, it isn’t such a big issue, they all progress together, we have had young people at say 13 and it’s very difficult for them. It is quite hard to maintain them because they are 13 and we have 10-year-olds who can run rings around them, that has been one of my frustrations.
With our success we have become a bit elitist and because of our restriction on time we have to concentrate on our existing players who are a certain national level. If we had more time we would have recreational hockey, where people could come and play and have a laugh, enjoy it, develop, then after that they could move on or not, if they wanted to take it more seriously.
This is another problem. Most of the senior team have now gone to university and I think it is the same in lots of sports. It does require a lot of commitment and that is why I want to concentrate on the social and recreational side more because I have seen so many players at 16, 17 give up for whatever reason - girls, cars, booze.
When they want to then come back they are just not good enough, they have lost crucial years of development, they are still playing like boys and haven’t matured. Some come back fine, but many find they are only as good as they were when they were 16. Once we get our own facility we can be more diverse and inclusive, we can keep these people ticking over even if they don’t want to play it seriously. Generally, in the whole of our sport, because of the lack of facilities, there is no depth in it.
At one time in Kent there were teams from Faversham, Whitstable, Margate, Ramsgate and Folkestone, but they are now gone. I am going back to the 1960s and 70s. The main area for the sport now is in the eastern counties, which is all around King’s Lynn and Cambridge. King’s Lynn are the current national senior champions, the top team around.
I must admit, I wasn’t particularly strong or fast but I used to make things happen. You are constantly involved, I played football as well and when the ball was up the other end you can have a breather.
It is full out, although you do have a couple of defenders and a couple of forward players but it isn’t really, it is four players who go everywhere and anywhere and it is constant, absolutely constant, you cannot switch off at all. That is the beauty of it, it is fully inclusive, there is not a second that goes by where you don’t need to concentrate.
I enjoyed it because I was reasonably successful at it but many dropped out. We were without a rink for eight years in Herne Bay and that had a serious effect on it. I was 16 at the time. I was fortunate enough to be in the England squad so I kept playing, I used to train at Rochester and different places, but most of my friends all gave up.
I played for England in the European Championships against Spain and Portugal, who had professional players. I can’t remember when but we played in Barcelona, their stadium is part of the football stadium complex, there were about 7,000 people in there and it was on the television, it is another world. We lost 6-1 to Spain and that was a good result!