In 1999 a group of older scouts started playing canoe polo on Southport’s Marine Lake, using Waterside Lodge as a base. Regardless of ice, wind, waves, and darkness, the team trained once a week using a homemade goal hung beneath the pier. They called themselves the Waterside Wildcatz and played in regional and invitation tournaments.
Peter Simpson, a Scottish-born player and excellent kayaker, was an early influence on the team and many of the players. He began training, became their coach, and in 2001 played with the young team in their inaugural summer tournament, where they won Class 3 at Liverpool International. Peter Simpson taught the team kayaking skills, polo skills, and boat repair skills, but he also imparted his open and inclusive philosophy of the game.
Competing in National Division 4 the team managed to stay together as players dispersed to various University towns. James Davis played in Scottish Div 1, Matthew Gill was a strong influence at Warwick University Canoe Club, Calum Cowan at Glasgow, and Chris Smith at Manchester.
A new venue
The teams training base changed to Salford Watersports Centre in 2002, where Dave Walker supported the team. It was then that the promise of a permanent pitch was first suggested. Salford Wildcatz entered a youth team into what turned out to be the last season of NW Regional Youth League. They finished an impressive 2nd in 2003. One youth player, Peter Hollis, then only twelve, took a keen interest in the sport and along with Chris and Matthew Smith (players from the original Southport team) formed the core of the team.
The team went through ups and downs for a few years in Division Four, getting better but struggling with player commitment. They developed close ties with Manchester University Canoe Club and student players often completed the Wildcatz team. The Wildcows, (all ladies team), was a Wildcatz/MUCC conglomerate. In 2004 they were promoted from Yorkshire and NE Regional Novice Ladies League to Premier League in their first year of competition.
In 2005 Wildcatz entered Ireland International with an A, B, and Ladies team – the A team taking Bronze in Class 2. By this stage Wildcatz A had been promoted into Division 3 National, but were still drafting players from various parts of the country, although the solid core in Salford was steadily growing.
Training facilities and centre support slowed progression. The team(s) used a narrow canal with homemade goals hung off a bridge, which was small improvement since the beginning days in Southport. The hope for long term interest and development was often thwarted by cancelled sessions, enthusiasm for outside winter training, and an inability to offer ‘club’ kit to new recruits. There were many periods when two or three players trained without a goal and the team was made of ‘tournament-only’ players.
In 2007 Wildcatz A won Division 3 and gained promotion to Division 2, by this time a MUCC/Wildcatz B conglomerate were competing in National Division 4. In the summer of 2008 a floating pitch was built out of bits and bobs found at the centre – seeing the enthusiasm and the potential for Canoe Polo, PAYP (Positive Activities for Young People) kindly bought the team a set of floating goals. For the first time ever the team had a full size floating pitch, and training sessions boomed.
Team commitment and training problems led to a demotion from Division 2, but the ‘unofficial’ Wildcatz club that had been growing stronger was formerly constituted in 2009. This coincided with a changing attitude and a more supportive approach from Salford Watersports Centre. The club still struggled with the 2009 winter season, but started strong in 2010 with great attendance at training. Summer 2010 highlights included Wildcatz B taking 3rd place in class 3 at Hull International, and our early recruit (Peter Hollis) competing with the GB U21’s in Milan and coming home with a Bronze Medal.
The team has taken a turbulent and slow evolution into the formation of a club, but this has left the club with committed individuals, and a strong sense of club loyalty with a positive and inclusive ethos. The club wants and understands the need to have grass roots development, the need to have consistent training in the pursuit of excellence, but most of all the team and club has proven that having fun while doing something you enjoy will lead to players, committee members, and volunteers who are willing to go the extra mile for their club.