Margaret Hunnaball says she is “humbled” following her recent FIH President’s Award in recognition of her incredible contribution to umpiring and umpire management.
“My word, an absolutely incredible honour,” she said of the honour. “It came as a complete surprise so I am humbled by it, to think people think so highly of you and recognise what you have done is the ultimate honour. I am still absolutely amazed.”
It is a career which has seen her umpire in over 50 international matches before taking in hundreds of elite club and international fixtures as an umpire manager, taking her around the world to help develop hockey’s officials.
Her first playing days were in Colchester Hockey Club where, quite by chance, she ended up picking up the whistle for the first time.
“At 17, I went on a ski trip and broke my finger. Someone gave me a whistle and said ‘you may not be able to play this week but you can certainly blow the whistle’!”
As most of you know, it is not often that I am lost for words, but earlier today I was! I am honoured to have been awarded the FIH President’s Award 2022. Thank you @FIH_Hockey @eurohockeyorg @NPUAhockey @EnglandHockey – I love hockey! #proud pic.twitter.com/WtEU27yvrQ
— Margaret Hunnaball (@MHunnaball) November 5, 2022
She did it for a couple of weeks, taking in a tournament where she – again by chance – caught the eye of a national umpire’s assessor who joked: ‘I have no idea who you are but you look good, keep doing it!’
And so she did, picking up her level one umpiring award while at Southampton University before dovetailing playing in goal with Winchester Hockey Club and the Hampshire County second team.
Once more, a national assessor – Brenda Bradford – happened to be at a game where she filled in for an umpire who had cried off at short notice.
“‘I am not being funny but you are better at umpiring than you are at playing,” Bradford told her. She would go on to be one of Margaret’s key influences along with Gill Clarke who – until Sarah Wilson in Tokyo last summer – was the most recent British woman to umpire an Olympic final, officiating in Atlanta 1996.
Margaret, Brenda and Gill were all based in Hampshire where there was a really “strong mutual support network” when Margaret’s hockey-focus moved solely to officialdom when she turned 30.
It also encouraged her to think about elevating the trade in different ways, always giving back to her club, her county and the wider game. She was treasurer at Winchester, a member of the Hampshire committee and then led the merger in the south of England of the men’s and women’s umpires’ associations.
“It is certainly a passion. I have always felt strongly about giving back to things which give you so much. I am also quite bossy! Being on committees is quite a natural way of exhibiting that. I was a teacher and then a senior leader in a school so it was a natural outlet!
“You find a lot of teachers go into umpiring or coaching and particularly those in management posts. I often say I learned as much about managing staff from umpiring as any course I went on. You learn how to work with people and make things happen as much as learning to put things right when they go wrong.”
As an FIH Grade One umpire, her highlights include the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 and a World Cup qualifier in Harare, Zimbabwe.
“Being able to travel the world has always been a privilege. I also loved in Europe going to places like Slovakia and Slovenia as well as the Netherlands and Germany.
“I loved going to some of the nations maybe not playing at the top and the challenges some tournaments like Championship III might pose, somewhere you can maybe make a difference.”
She says it was a “natural step” for her to move to umpire management, something she has now done for 20 years.
“It is a wonderful thing to do and really makes a difference. We still don’t attract enough women into it. For me, it was a natural extension from being a teacher who umpired internationally.
“I was also involved in the EHF UDP from the outset, working with Marcin Grochal and also Ana Faias, who I am now pleased to see again at the first FIH Nations Cup. Contributing to how people develop over their careers is a privilege.
“Reflecting back on Tokyo and the World Cup, having worked extensively with Sarah [Wilson], Laurine [Delforge], Ali Keogh, Michi Meister – seeing those people come forward and develop. In England, I have worked with Hannah Harrison over many years and seen her go to the World Cup and succeed.
“You see someone like Ivona Makar from Croatia where perhaps they don’t have the same route to the highest level and then witnessing her journey, it is fantastic.
“Within a tournament setting, trying to do small things they can work on and put right within that setting is very rewarding, to think someone can do something better when they leave a tournament than when they arrived – that’s what we are there for.”
As mentioned, she has been a long supporter of the EHF’s Umpire Development Programme along with the likes of Ray O’Connor and Ermano Silvano to get it off the ground in 2007, and also good friend and fellow umpire manager Louise Knipe.
“We wanted to show young umpires what the international scene is like without going through some of the tortures! We did a lot of focus on what it would be like, the psychology of it, the communication aspect, what they can expect, what they can do if it doesn’t go right.
“One thing we really developed through the UDP is umpires who are reflective and want to learn. Definitely in Europe, our umpires at the top are those who really want to get it right and improve.
“That mentality, if you want to get to the top, asking questions of others, makes you a perfect umpire to work with. We are very lucky in Europe to have a number of those!”
That collaborative outlook has also underpinned the introduction of the EHF Rules Group, something which Margaret felt was important to create when representing EHF on the FIH’s Rules Committee.
The Rules Group saw her convene a group of players, umpires, coaches and technical officials from across Europe to discuss potential rules issues that may arise.
“That has been a really uplifting experience. We discuss the interpretation of rules. At our European meeting, we may have a slight difference of opinion about something but, say, if the participants vote 9-2 in favour, I know I can take this forward to the FIH and know it is representative of where Europe stands.”
She will pass on that role soon but she will attend the FIH Nations Cup in December, the EuroHockey Club Indoor Trophy in February and the Pro League in London next summer among other appointments.