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Lou Tonkin keeps Cambridge South in safe hands in the East Women’s Leagues



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Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell

"It’s funny but one of the things I always tell people is that it is one of the safest positions to actually play in because you have so much more protection.”

Lou Tonkin’s assessment of being a hockey goalkeeper is far detached from the impression that many of us have in mind about the position.

The speed at which the rock-hard ball travels on leaving the stick at relatively short distances often leaves you with the feeling that only either the brave or the foolhardy would put themselves in the firing line.

“You’ve got all this padding, all over, and you’ve got a pretty solid helmet,” explains the South first-team goalkeeper.

“Playing for nearly 16 years now, you get hit pretty much everywhere and the worst you get is a couple of bruises.

“I think it’s a mental block of trusting the equipment you’ve got around you to make sure that you’re not going to get as badly hurt as perhaps you might do if all you’ve got is shinpads and a mouthguard.

“It was an interesting experience, seeing a ball flying at you at speed for the first time. But the nice thing is I was treated quite gently to start with, so nothing too horrendous until I was a little bit more confident.”

If anyone should know, then it is Tonkin.

Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell

The 43-year-old has made 397 appearances since joining South in 2006, and kept 137 clean sheets.

She had played a bit of hockey at school, but was not part of a team when moving to Cambridge for work in 1999.

“Basically my friend had been playing in goal quite regularly for them, and when we went for a drink, she bought me a couple of pints and floated the question ‘how do you fancy joining hockey and playing in goal?’,” explains Tonkin.

“That’s how it started as I said ‘yes sure, I’ll give it a go’, and in turns out I wasn’t too bad at it, and the rest is history really.

“My friend and I alternated for playing matches to start with, just so that she could see how I was playing, and I could see how she was playing to get a bit more practice.”

The learning curve definitely came through matches.

Back then, South had just one ladies team, with plans to set up a second, and so there was a wide range of people and abilities, but the welcoming environment meant that there was no pressure if anything went wrong.

You imagine that could quite easily happen as well, given the size of the ball and the speed at which it can travel – 100mph if hit correctly – and that begs the question as to how important hand-eye coordination is in order to be a keeper?

“I don’t know if I’d ever really thought about it that much, to be honest,” says Tonkin.

“You don’t really know until you give it a go, and then you realise that maybe it’s not so bad and the more you do it, the more you practise, the better it does get.

“So much of it is building reactions. There is a lot of technique, the best technique to use in goal, and positioning and tactics and focus, but mostly it is just getting those quick reactions and coordinations together and that just comes with practice, I think.”

Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell

As those appearances have clocked up so to has the size of the club, which does mean that Tonkin is kept increasingly busy.

They now run six teams, and with a dearth of keepers, it can require Tonkin to feature in multiple games on any given day.

Whatever the team, though, and it is usually the firsts these days, she gets as much satisfaction as ever from keeping the opposition at bay.

“It’s definitely nice to come away with that clean sheet,” says Tonkin.

“I guess that is defensively how you can measure yourself and your team on how well you’ve done on that side.

“Those games that are closer, the 1-0s and 2-0s, it’s quite satisfying that you’ve managed to keep that a shutout.”

South have gone from strength to strength during Tonkin’s time at the club, and quite a few players remain from when she first joined.

“It’s one of the nice things about the club, it has always been so open and welcoming because it is always quite fluid,” says the club’s president, who took up the honorary role in February 2019.

“I think Cambridge as a town is like that because you have a lot of people come in, stay for a couple of years and then move away again so it’s always been very open.

“But, at the same time, it does feel like there are a core handful of people that have stayed there for the last 15 to 20 years.

“The way it has grown, particularly on the ladies side, has been brilliant.”

Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell
Lou Tonkin, the Cambridge South Hockey Club goalkeeper. Picture: Keith Heppell

Tonkin puts that down to the successes at the Olympics, with a bronze medal for the women’s team at London 2012 and a gold at Rio 2016, and at the world championships.

It has inspired people to have a go for a first time or pick up a hockey stick again. The development of South’s juniors’ section has also played a part.

“There were a lot of parents who were bringing their kids along to hockey and it reminded them that they used to quite enjoy it and maybe they wanted to come back and have another go. That is when we started the ladies veterans’ teams,” she says.

“It started as a knockabout for the more mature people in the club and an opportunity for new mums who hadn’t played for a little while to see if they still enjoyed it.

“It has built up and a lot of those women have joined the club fully and are playing league matches for a lot of the teams, so it’s really nice to see.”

It is safe to say that South are in safe hands both on and off the pitch, especially with Tonkin between the sticks.



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