Chris Stokes spent a decade at the top of Irish Ultimate, he saw it from the beginning to the glory days. Multiple Worlds and Europeans campaigns, and domestic championships. He’s been there, done it, got the tee shirt, and used it to clean the silverware. It was a privilege to receive his wisdom and wit about Irish Ultimate. It’s a pleasure to bring you an interview with the man himself.
You came to Ireland because of a woman, (like so many of us), true?
Ostensibly true I guess. In retrospect, it was as much about wanting to get out of Leicester and the shitty job I was working. through contacts made in that shitty job I had what turned out to be a marginally less shitty job lined up over here, a girl who had a bed for me to sleep in and so I thought ‘sure, why not?’ Not really the best reasons to move and needless to say that particular relationship ended quite soon after I arrived. Maybe I should take this opportunity, in a semi public forum, to apologise to the girl in question who undoubtedly will not be reading this?
We could always share it with her, perhaps best not to go to the same well again though. What made you stay?
Inertia? Laziness? Lack of imagination? Possibly my hierarchy of needs didn’t extend past the physiological. Are there going to be any questions about ultimate?
Why did you decide to continue playing ultimate in Ireland, you were also a good footballer too for example?
I was an ok footballer. I was good enough to get lumps kicked out of me by people not quite as good as me, but not quite good enough to play at a level where people would not be inclined to kick lumps out of me. That’s pretty much why I stopped playing football. Unlike most people (at least back then) I came to the game after I finished uni and football was all I played. I’ve gone back to playing a bit of 5 a side nowadays and despite missing out on a decade where I was exclusively playing ultimate, I’m still quite average. To answer the question, I carried on playing because I loved ultimate, the game, the social scene, everything about it, I would have carried on playing wherever I was living.
What were your first impressions of the Irish ultimate scene back in, 98? when you first came on the scene?
God, it was awful. The biggest problem was of course numbers. I’d catch the no.7 bus to herbert park, get there 10mins early and wait around for an hour while a trickle of people failed to show up. Being a punctual and committed type of guy I found this immensely frustrating. Even if there were numbers the standard was often atrocious. I’d only been playing for a year but I’d been in an environment where approx 20 players would always turn up twice a week and train. Red (Leicester) were a top 8 side in the UK and that kind of environment of course makes you a better player much more quickly. that was what I wanted and it was a bit of a disappointment not to have it.
Nb, only top 8. Any decent Irish team would have put them to bed. Even in ‘99 at World Clubs, Pookas only lost to them on universe point 14 – 15, and even that was after I missed a long endzone layout for the winning point. (Yes it still irks.) But for our young hero from the the midlands backwaters, they probably seemed like gods.
The overall standard was poor and was occasionally improved by a passing American or expat. A few stick out but I now wonder how good they actually were; was it that they were good or we were used to such a low standard?
On the other hand, the people were much more interesting than the ones I’d left behind. Mad Michael O Meara and Eoghan Barry were punk rock and much more fun to be away with for a weekend. Though you’d be glad to be leaving them behind at the airport come Monday morning.
You’ve stayed in Ireland, and you even came back after retraining back in the UK. That could have been the moment when you decided to head for fresh pastures, but you chose to come back to Ireland. Why?
Well, I’ve just come back from cycling around the Cotswalds and if I’d known that England was that nice and the beer that good then maybe I never would have come back or even left in the first place.
But of course there were both ultimate and non-ultimate reasons for returning. Regarding the latter, at the time I was in a relationship with someone here, I had a network of good friends and career wise I landed a very good (but dreadfully paid) job for 12 months.
[The l(e)ash of the gash? – Get out of the gutter Si!]
In terms of ultimate I was itching to get back and play; I left around Sept 2004 and came back in summer 2005. The scene had changed massively from what was here in 1998. the player base had expanded, there was starting to be a genuine presence outside of dublin, the top players were training regularly and the standard was very good. We were competitive at UK tour and if you were player in Dublin looking to step up a level you’d be looking at a move to one of the big teams (Clapham, Fire, Chevvy). There was definitely a sense that things were on the up here, people were playing and training the right way and the team spirit among those travelling together was incredibly special.
When Ireland had it’s great success at Euro’s, you were perhaps the last link from the first phase of Irish ultimate in the late 90’s. What was it like, almost a decade later to finally be part of a strong successful Irish team?
It was immensely satisfying for everyone involved. Everyone had worked very hard both before and during the tournament and sometimes this pays off. I don’t think having witnessed a worse standard of ultimate 10 years previously made it any more or less satisfying, and in fairness in our opening game we got spanked by eventual winners GB which gave the newer boys a taste of what the old days were like. I was glad I stuck around long enough to be involved but to be honest by the end of the week I was feeling very tired, very old and wondering if I had much more to offer.
What would you say was your most effective position?
Thats a funny one as I did it all backwards; I started out handling and then later on played increasingly as a cutter. Now that I think about it, it strikes me that the same could be said of you. (Not strictly true, I actually had several glorious years as an dead-eyed endzone player, scoring a bunch of points from 91 – 93, for UK nationals winners Horizontal Hombres. However sadly by the time I got to Dublin in ‘95 you are absolutely right I became a handler. A necessary evil until some Irish handlers came through.)
I suppose I started out handling as there was a complete dearth of people able to consistently catch and throw and I could fill that requirement. This slowly started to change – Oisin (Flanagan) and J.D (Coakley) were the first players I remember coming through who were talented enough and smart enough to just take those spots. Of course Oisin was even slower than me, so he had to handle really (fact).
As more capable handlers came along with a growing university scene, I was more than happy to move down the pitch and in many ways I found it much easier to get involved in the game. There’s a discipline required to playing as a handler that at times I found quite boring – those points where you might catch the pull, get the disc off and then watch the offence score. I always find it strange that so many great receivers always want to come back down the pitch and handle. You know, those guys who are 6ft5 scoring machines who seem to think they need to throw more to be taken seriously. It would also be reasonable to say that as better players started to come through we became rich in handlers and less so in decent cutters. This is logical as the good university players tend always to be required to handle for that university team and that’s where they learn to play. In effect they find themselves in the same position I was in. I suppose I was most effective where there was no one else to be effective. But always on offence.
In some ways you were quite a subtle player, not the one making the risky hucks or dramatic layouts. Rather the solid, reliable player, with the exquisite flick action, who kept the disc moving and kept hitting the free spaces? True or unfair?
Thats just the kind of backhanded compliment thats typical of you and which I’ve been begging off you for 15 years like a battered and emotionally damaged spouse.
I love you man, you’re awesome, and I only ever wanted someone to say the same to me (breaks into sobs). Man hugs follow, they then turn to each other, slowly look into each others eyes and …
First off, I could lay out when required. I definitely have a highlight reel in my head that involves laying out, even on Defence a couple of times. I had more of a problem with jumping, and running fast.
I love the expression on your face, ‘oh come on, just keep coming and I’ll hit you’
You are right in saying that my shot selection was risk averse and a lot that is down to learning the game in an environment rife with turn overs. I remember so many incidences of me screaming at people to stop making stupid decisions and to recycle the disc that perhaps I brainwashed myself. Those early years were just so bad in terms of disc retention, patience and decision making even when taking into account the lack of coordination and disc skills. Accordingly, I learned to love possession, which was fine back then as it was badly needed and there was never anyone going deep anyway. however, in a good team you have to trust your throw and your receiver and go large and in later years I didn’t do that enough.
What I did do effectively (and you are right again) is keep the disc moving. I was always very quick to get the disc out of my hands, giving the defence no time to stop and re-take position. So much of the game is (for me at least) based on pattern recognition, knowing where the disc is going next and where it should go to after that. I was never (NEVER)
[ever, ever, not even close to being]
the fastest guy on the pitch but I rarely had trouble getting open and making yards. playing at the back certainly helps your timing and choice of run as does playing for a long time…
on reflection… true.
Laying down the law as a chief Chimpo
You were a member of Ireland’s most successful club team, Johnny Chimpo (5 years at the top), what was that like?
Some described them as a bunch of b#stards with no team spirit, who just stuck together because they liked winning? An unfair characterisation? Surely at odds with your playing persona.
Did I have a playing persona? What was that?
I’m asking the questions! Er, generally languid, chilled, wry nice guy, GSOH, cute, attractive, s&m. The whole package really.
Anyway, playing with JC was a lot of fun of course. Of course we liked winning. Going away for the weekend and winning was more fun (though I’m only guessing) than going away for the weekend, dressing in green and getting smacked again.
(Broccollic references ? Ha ha. Or perhaps a mere metaphor)
We had a lot of team spirit and unless you’re in the bubble you can only guess and project what’s going on within it. ‘Don’t hate us because we’re beautiful’.
You were captain of JC briefly, why not for longer?
Captaincy was never my thing and it was largely ceremonial when I was captain, the team was so strong and the roles so clearly defined, there wasn’t much need for input from me. On top of that we had players like Cian and Rory who are both fabulous players and tactically astute and much better suited to the role.
Possibly the best player not to have captained Ireland. Discuss
Most definitely not true but thank you.
There was a brief period of a couple of years (at the turn of the millenium…) where I was captaining travelling teams and that was fine. It was as much an event management role as anything and if you were going and had played a few years then most likely you were in charge.
Beyond that, again, I never had a lot of interest in being captain. Looking back it all seems to have happened quite quickly that I became surrounded by people who could read the game from the sideline better than I could. I think one other factor worth mentioning is that I wasn’t (still aren’t but I could be) Irish.
(Expensive business to do so, far cheaper to just be born into it).
It never had a relevancy while I was playing but then I never put myself in the position of having to motivate the troops with a rendition of Ireland’s pride. I’m too self aware for that kind of thing, I would have felt like a phony and also I really hate the song.
What was your favourite game, the Denmark win also, or something else?
Of course the Denmark game was particularly sweet. I remember Rob Kiely (sorry) getting absolutely toasted in the first few minutes. He was meters behind his man and that not being a regular occurrence I thought “oh oh, we’re in trouble here.” It’s remarkable that we won that game and we did so as the offence pretty much played a perfect game and scored all their points.
British Open, 2002, scene of the 0 – 8 at halftime, Pookas comeback!
A couple of others stand out although they were less significant games and were of lesser standard. Pookas v Brighton at tour (2001ish?) (2002, Eastbourne Open) I think they took half 8-0 and we came back and won that one. I think it was the first real example of our team spirit and willingness to run for each other actually having a tangible and quite incredible outcome. (I think Mark Early would remember this one, I know JD, Oisin, and Dec Bres even were there – you? Yes I was. I gave a half time speech saying that they were a piece of sh*t, and if we could stop playing so badly then we would trounce them. Shows what an impact my rousing speech had! Ha ha).
I see this as significant, I don’t think many teams have experienced and used the closeness and bond that exists within the Irish set up.
Another great game was against Chevvy (Manchester’s Chevron Action Flash, legends of English ultimate or perennial UK Nationals finals bridesmaids, depends who you ask. Also winners of European Clubs, a great team). Opening game of tour 2005/6(?) we lost by a point but that was the best I ever played. I can now look back and identify that single hour as my physical peak. The next game, versus Fusion (Scottish team, top 5 approx) some fucker ran across the back of my ankle and I didn’t play again for 3 months. The ligament pulled itself and a piece of bone away from the rest of the ankle joint. It still hurts if the weather is damp and I never played as well again.
By observation rather than declaration you seem to be retired? What prompted you to call it a day.
Most definitely retired. It was just getting harder and harder to motivate myself to get out there and run myself into the ground. It was a combination of physical and mental weariness; if you’re really strong in either of those aspects you can carry on at a high level. I was just tired both ways and I was feeling it by the end of the week at Euros 2007. Before the week was over I’d decided that this was where I would bow out. Unfortunately the game, at the highest level, doesn’t really allow you to grow old gracefully. I was at a point where I felt I could play a couple of games a week and be competitive and play to my ability. But playing 6 games over a weekend or even a week just wasn’t going to happen; it was a chore and after game 3 I wouldn’t be enjoying it or having much of an impact.
Any desire to come out of retirement to play masters?
The easy answer is ‘no’. If someone said ‘hey, we’re off for a weekend away, we’re going to drink tasty beer, stay somewhere nice, there’ll be scenery, rollercoasters, a young lady on work experience as a masseuse and you probably won’t have to play much.’… then maybe.
Observations on Irish Ultimate, good points, bad points? Things that irk you, and things that you like about it?
Anything I say in this regard going to be outdated. I have no idea what goes on in Irish Ultimate these days. I might see the odd hour of play if Emily is playing something local. The biggest positive change I’ve seen is the move away from white bread and jam from lidl towards a guy in a van serving actual food. I would have loved that.
Undoubtedly the best thing about it in my day was the sense of togetherness that went with being a close knit bunch of guys (and girls) who were all pulling in the same direction. There’s more of a club scene going on these days but from what I can see this still largely remains.
One thing that did irk me for a long while was the enthusiasm which ‘players’ had for playing and training for ‘Ireland’ as opposed to actually just playing and training for it’s own merits. People were very keen to get involved if it meant they would get a green jersey and a week away, but getting people out to practice outside of this remained difficult. The force of numbers and the competition for places means this just can’t happen anymore but it was frustrating to witness people coming in who had no real commitment to being a better player, who just wanted to scream about being Irish and ‘have the craic’.
I would like to think I would feel this way whether I was born here or not, that maybe a real patriot trains hard, works hard and does the best they can. Sometimes patriotism is a cheap lowest common denominator. Maybe thats just my own apathy towards nationalism kicking in.
I think that’s one of the attractions of not living in your own country. You’re not so closely impacted or annoyed by your own countrymen’s over enthusiastic patriotism, and you have more distance on those emotions manifested in those where you currently reside. I think it will always irk my Dub’ father in law that not only did his daughter man marry an Englishman, but also one that played for ‘his’ national team.
Best players you saw play, best ones you played with?
Well you’d have to pick Cian as the best I’ve played with; it was obvious he was a natural athlete when he was playing here and that he could also read the game, lead a line and make good decisions. The fact that he’s slotted into a very competitive Clapham team only confirms this. But there’s others who have outstanding qualities; your own will to win and refusal to lose is like nothing i’ve seen in anyone else (a by-product of psychopathy perhaps. Completely unjust and unfair. I looked it up, and it’s closer to sociopathy http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sociopath).
Or Dom and his insane stamina which means he’s still playing now and playing well. Or if you go back to the Denmark game, it would never have been won without Enda dominating the endzone and being unplayable; he was like that all week.
Going back a bit though, Declan Moore was a player who at the time just blew me away. here was a guy who could have played for any of the top UK teams and moved here in 1999. A big guy with a monster huck, who knew how to play the game at the top level. We had no one here like him at the time and his influence was immense. People like Oisin, J.D, Brian Mac really benefitted from having him around and the effect rippled.
The Roy Keane of Irish Ultimate. A great player, actuary and top drawer sociopath.
In terms of players I’ve seen, well there’s been lots from international tournaments over the years and I always loved watching the best teams from the U.S and Canada. When I started out I saw the tail end of the DoG years, actual ultimate legends like Jim Parinella and Steve Mooney. I got to sit in a stadium, drink German beer and heckle the shit out of them. I’m sure they remember me with a similar sense of awe.
Later on players like Mike Grant and Damien Scott demonstrated that there was still a whole level of ultimate beyond what you’d experience in Europe, but they were so physically imposing I kept my mouth shut.
Similarly the best player I remember playing against was Alex Nord at a Dublin tournament. He was playing for the pick up team so obviously we won. He was effectively a one man cup he was so fucking big. Just getting the disc away on the force side without being point blocked felt like an achievement. (Great game, I marked him on the disc and put a foul in on him, just to let him know I had his number. Naturally I came up to about his thigh, and I’m not sure he even felt it. He was very good about it. But we beat them and that taught him!)
What should I have asked you? What is it like to no longer play?
Everyone stops playing at some point, I think I was just one of the first. I can’t think of any other irish based players before me who played solidly for a decade and then stopped. Absolutely no regrets about stopping; I tried playing for fun for a couple of years but I knew it wasn’t going to satisfy me and it didn’t. Unfortunately I’m too much of a bastard to play with people who can’t run and catch and it became even more frustrating when my own lack of practice meant I was doing things I knew to be wrong or rubbish.
There’s not much space for ‘fun’ anyway, at least not under the watch of the IFDA.
I do still sometimes wonder about playing. I’ll even watch a bit of play if I’m giving Emily a lift somewhere and I’ll think ‘jeez I reckon I’m still better than most people here.’ Seeing Ranelagh finish in the bottom pool and win spirit at WUCC made me think that they obviously need me back! Of course this is all daydreaming and arrogance and it quickly passes. If you’ve spent so much time doing something for so long of course you’re going to occasionally think back on it.
Dublin’s a small place but I’ve been surprised at how infrequently I see people I used to see all the time. In some cases this is a good thing and of course moving to the ‘burbs and having a child can keep you out of any loop.
One thing I have learnt from not playing is how little I care for competition. I now do a bit of biking and play a bit of tennis badly but I’ve no interest in doing either competitively. its for me, I have to keep it fun and if I don’t then I’m liable to turn into a c*nt and stop enjoying it. I think perhaps I was always like this, I enjoyed playing more than I enjoyed competition. Doyler gives a great explanation of the difference between loving to win and hating to lose. I still love to win but real competitors, as he explains, hate to lose.
Anything else you’d like to add
I think I’ve gone over the allocated word count already.
Probably, but it was quality content, thanks a million for your considered thoughts. Thanks too for being able to pay back the favour of interviewing me back in 2003.