SAM Judge has been at the centre of a spectacular renaissance at Edinburgh University, and silverware at today’s Arthur McKay Scottish Cup final at Peffermill would be the icing on the cake for the student’s ambitious player-coach.
The stumbling block in the final is Milne Craig Western, ironically the team Judge played for since 1997.
The 35-year-old PE teacher at St George’s School in Edinburgh took over as player-coach at the University in 2011 when the students had just survived a relegation play-off to stay in the top flight. Two years on Edinburgh finished a very creditable third in the league –their highest final placing.
Then the students have also made their first cup finals, perhaps the hard way by seeing off holders Grove Menzieshill 6-5 in a dramatic penalty shoot-out after the sides drew 2-2 in normal time.
But the partnership might never have happened. “When I was first approached to coach University I dismissed it straight away, but after a few meetings and hearing about their plans and ambitions, I thought it sounded like a really exciting opportunity,” said Judge.
That meant leaving Western after 14 years, and that was a wrench. “It was a really difficult decision to leave Western, but travelling along the M8 for the last seven years takes it’s toll too! I have always enjoyed coaching and this was a chance to work with and develop young, talented players.”
Although Judge has brought the students on leaps and bounds in the two years in post, modestly she still considers herself to be a relatively inexperienced coach. Consequently, she has admitted to relying heavily on advice from the likes of Dennis Hay, head coach to the Great Britain women’s bronze medal squad at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, and Eugene Connolly, manager to the Scotland men’s squad. However, there was no doubting Judge’s playing credentials – she first played for Scotland against Ireland in 1999 and went on to collect a total of 184 caps. And she is not finished yet, the international striker recently played in the second round of the World League in Brazil, and if selected she will represent Scotland in the European Nations Championships in Belgium this summer, and hopefully the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow next year.
Meanwhile, Judge’s University charges have progressed up the league, fourth last season and third this time. But she still hopes for improvement. “I was a little disappointed that we only won one game after the winter break and slipped from second to third in the table,” she said. And Judge is clear what the ingredients of the revolution have been: “Our strengths lie in our attacking play, we have some exciting players going forward and can cause any team problems.
“I also think the team spirit is a massive strength, the girls all get on so well off the pitch, and this undoubtedly helps on the pitch. This season the girls are more experienced, and they know the style of hockey I want them to play.”
The acquisition of some key players at the start of this season has assisted the success story – fellow Scotland player Nikki Kidd from Grove Menzieshill has added to the strike force, Louise Fleming from Giffnock, and goalkeeper Nicki Cochrane, also from Grove, have given quality to the squad.
But grabbing the cup trophy from under the noses of her former club Western would undoubtedly be the pinnacle of Judge’s short coaching career with Edinburgh.
“Of course I have mixed emotions, I have a good relationship with Elaine Macara [Western’s manager], she was keeping me updated with their results in Europe last weekend. I was pleased they gained promotion. But I’m sure there will be a few tackles flying in, and there’s always a bit of spice added when you’re up against your former team.”
But there is no sense of divided loyalties for today’s final, she says: “I absolutely believe we can win, we have to believe it. It will be extremely difficult, but if we play to our full potential, then we have a great chance.”
However, Judge does not believe her lengthy playing career with Western will provide any valuable inside knowledge. “We all know each other so well from the Scotland connection and playing in the league, I don’t think I have any advantage here,” she says.
Western, fresh from European success, will be a difficult hurdle for Judge’s fledglings. And they have this year’s league record to proffer as evidence – the first game was a 1-1 draw, but Western beat University 3-1 in the return.
The wily Neil Menzies, Western’s coach, remarked: “In a one-off match these results probably have little meaning. A cup final is all about who has the best attitude on the day and consequently who is able to rise to the occasion.
“I definitely believe we can win the cup final. On the back of a good performance in Prague, the girls are in good spirits and in good form.”
Perhaps an ominous note for Sam Judge’s aspirations.