The sport of wizards – quidditch gets real

A quidditch match at Milton Park   Photo: Habibur Rahman
A quidditch match at Milton Park Photo: Habibur Rahman

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No, they don’t fly.

It’s the first question most people ask anyone who says they play quidditch – the sport created by writer JK Rowling which is played by wizards and witches in the ever-popular Harry Potter series of books and films.

Ellie Wilkinson, co-founder of The Horntail Strikers.  Photo: Habibur Rahman

Ellie Wilkinson, co-founder of The Horntail Strikers. Photo: Habibur Rahman

In Rowling’s version, two teams of seven fly around a huge arena on their broomsticks, scoring by throwing a ball (the quaffle) through one of three hoops floating high up in the air at either end.

The rather more prosaic Muggle version (Muggle is the derogatory name given to regular people in the world of Harry Potter) sees the two teams engage in a full-contact and surprisingly vigorous sport played entirely at ground level.

While there were other attempts to make a real-world version of quidditch, the one that has stuck originated at a college in Vermont in America in 2005.

There is now a World Cup, European Cup and British Cup with a northern and southern regional tournament here in the UK.

The roots of it are in Harry Potter, but it’s now becoming quite detached from that. Our focus is definitely on the sport and not the books

Scott Brown, club president

Most teams have their roots in universities, but community teams such as the Werewolves of London have, more recently, sprung up too.

The University of Portsmouth has had its own team now for the past two years – The Horntail Strikers. That too has now begun taking members from beyond the campus.

Practising in Milton Park in Portsmouth twice a week, the team carry out drills and play matches against each other. It’s confusing for the casual observer at first, but once you get a handle on what’s going on and why, it’s an involving game that requires plenty of strategy and a high level of fitness from its players.

Ellie Wilkinson, from Southsea, a post-grad student in crime science investigation and intelligence, set up the team with her friend Victoria Sadler as a way of getting some exercise for someone who didn’t feel a connection with conventional sports.

Scott Brown scoring a goal during practice at Milton Park. Photo : Habibur Rahman

Scott Brown scoring a goal during practice at Milton Park. Photo : Habibur Rahman

‘I was talking with one of my friends and we wished we were good at sports, but we weren’t any good at any established sports,’ explains the 21-year-old. ‘We were already Harry Potter nerds so we had a look around and found out about quidditch.

‘We didn’t want to just talk about the books – there’s already a Harry Potter club at the university for people who want to do that, and that’s great – we wanted to exercise as well. We’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. Our first season was shockingly bad. We had just enough players for a team and we didn’t have any proper hoops so we had to improvise.’

The sport has started to attain a degree of professionalism – their is an international governing body, the rulebook is now on its eighth version and there are regulations about the equipment teams have to use.

And here in Portsmouth, the team, which was originally formed as a society, is now affiliated with the Athletics Union, putting it alongside more traditional university sports such as rugby, hockey and football.

Sophie Ward, Alastair Taylor and Jack Latoy practising drills during a training session. 
Photo: Habibur Rahman

Sophie Ward, Alastair Taylor and Jack Latoy practising drills during a training session. Photo: Habibur Rahman

With a new kit this season, they definitely look the part as a sports team.

‘We’ve been accepted into the AU this year, which is very important for us,’ Ellie adds. ‘I’m really pleased, especially with the number of new girls we’ve got this year. And we’ve still got a handful of the original players as well, which is good.’

Scott Brown, 21 from Fratton, is the team’s keeper and club president.

‘Before this I didn’t play much sports. I was a chubby nerd and now I’m in charge of the club.’

Looking at Scott in action on the pitch, you wouldn’t describe him as ‘a chubby nerd’.

‘The roots of it is in Harry Potter, but it’s now becoming quite detached from that. Our vice-president doesn’t even like Harry Potter. Our focus is definitely on the sport and not the books.

Carrie Roberts, coaching co-ordinator for The Horntail Strikers.  Photo: Habibur Rahman

Carrie Roberts, coaching co-ordinator for The Horntail Strikers. Photo: Habibur Rahman

‘There is still a bit of a stigma to playing quidditch and I was guilty of that myself when I first heard about it. I was like ‘‘are you serious?’’ But then you come along and try it and it’s a full-contact, mixed gender sport.’

That full contact aspect has left some of the team with nasty injuries.

‘Every time we’ve gone to a tournament we have had people go out on backboards – they’ve been okay though, it was just as a precaution,’ says Ellie.

‘There have been concussions, broken bones. At the last tournament someone bit through their lip.

‘It is an intense sport – it’s in the same category as rugby.’

At their first tournament, last year’s Southern Cup, three of the team also ended up with hypothermia after they camped out in a storm.

‘We finished the tournament though,’ adds Ellie with pride, ‘and we got a lot of respect from the other teams for that.’

The players are well aware that they suffer something of an image problem.

But it’s not something they’ve let stop them from practising in a public park.

Ellie explains: ‘The worst we’ve had is a few 12-year-old kids shouting at us while we train.

‘And my family does tease me endlessly about it as well.

‘But that helps keep it light and I think it’s part of the fun of it.’

To find out more about The Horntail Strikers, search for them by name on Facebook. For more general information go to quidditchuk.org.

‘It’s not just a hobby...it’s a really competitive sport at a national level’

Jack Latoy is a recent graduate in sports and exercise science and is the Horntail Strikers club captain. He also runs the training sessions.

‘I found them at freshers’ fair in 2014, and the two girls who set it up, Ellie and Tory, were there.

‘I was vice-president of the re-enactment club at the time so I was quite interested in finding out more about it.

‘It quickly became apparent that nobody on the team had any sports background or did much exercise really, so I took over responsibility for training.

‘In the early days we had a lot more Harry Potter fans and not so many sportsmen and women, and we have concentrated on recruiting more from that side of things.

‘It’s hyper-competitive at a national level and getting more so, which means we have to get more competitive at a club level.’

The Southern Cup takes place in Southampton next weekend. Out of the 17 teams, Jack is optimistic that they can finish in the top eight by getting through the group stage to qualify for the second day.

And he’s even more bullish about their prospects for the British Cup to be held in Rugeley, Staffordshire, next March, when he believes they can challenge for a podium place.

‘We’ve got a lot of new players this year and we are ambitious. You have got to be ambitious and I do believe we have got a team we can win with.’

Getting accepted by the AU has been a key moment for the team.

‘It’s super important. It means the funding we can get is now sports-focussed and it gives us access to certain bursaries. It also gives us a certain credibility as well.

‘The presidents of other sports voted to allow us in – it’s a badge of honour. We are physical and we are competitive. It proves that it is more than just a hobby.’

‘Ignore any negativity’

Carrie ‘Khaleesi’ Roberts, (left), from Fratton, is the team’s coaching co-ordinator and fantasy fan – her nickname comes from another series, Game of Thrones.

‘Jack pestered me through the second half of my first year to get me to join,’ she admits. ‘I went along to a session to humour him but I actually really enjoyed it and I’ve become the biggest nerd for it on the team.

‘I read the books and I had seen the films, so I was as much as a fan anyone.

‘When you first start it does feel a bit ridiculous running about with a broom between your legs, but now it feels weird without it.

‘I generally find that people closer to my age are quite curious, but they will ask questions like ‘‘can you actually fly?’’

‘When we used to practice in Ravelin Park we would get schoolkids walk past us and they would be interested in what we were doing.

‘It’s mainly older people who look at us like we’re a bit sad, but quidditch is a great community. I think ignorance of what it actually is, is a big part of the problem.

‘But once people try it they get really into it.

‘You just learn to ignore the negative stuff – we’re out having fun. This team is like a second family to me and is so inclusive – you meet such a wide range of people. It’s the best thing I’ve been part of.’