My Weekend: Mark Whittell

Times Online, November 5, 2007

Mark Whittell is the head of Cobbetts’ commercial litigation and dispute resolution practice in Manchester. He is also a lifelong lacrosse aficionado who has represented England at the game.

I confess that I did not even know that England played lacrosse at league level, let alone that there was a national team, but Whittell puts me right: “There are two leagues, a Northern League and a Southern one. It’s an amateur sport but it’s highly competitive, with Flags competitions — the equivalent of the FA Cup — played at the end of the winter season. The Northern League, with six divisions, is perhaps the stronger of the two.”

Whittell, 50, took up lacrosse as a schoolboy growing up in Manchester. The North-West, indeed, is one of the centres of the game in England, along with London. It is also popular at university level, with Whittell’s choice of university heavily influenced by its pedigree at lacrosse. “I went to Sheffield University to study law because it was the premier lacrosse university,” he says.

The experience cemented Whittell’s love of the game. “I played for the next 30 years,” he says, adding that he only stopped playing two years ago “because my knees went”.

In that time, he played in the first division for several clubs and can also list appearances for Cheshire Schoolboys, English Universities and Yorkshire Veterans. His proudest moments came, however, when he represented the England Veterans’ Team in two lacrosse World Cups.

Whittell hung up his crosse and took a year out of the game, but found that Saturdays spent shopping did not adequately replace the adrenalin fix he had enjoyed for so long. So he returned to the fray — as a referee.

Thankfully, lacrosse has moved on from its early incarnation among the native North Americans, when games would last for days, human skulls would be used as the ball (now a small, and potentially lethal, ball of solid rubber) and death among players was commonplace.

Whittell does not have to cope with quite such trauma, and says that, as a breed, lacrosse players are not prone to surrounding the referee and remonstrating in manner of their peers in football’s Premier League.

As for the game’s appeal, Whittell is passionate. “It’s the fastest game on two feet. It’s physical and there’s a lot of testosterone flying around on the pitch. The camaraderie is fantastic, and enhanced because it’s a minority sport. I could go anywhere in the country as a player or referee and know other people involved.”

And as for how lacrosse fits in with life as a lawyer, he is similarly unequivocal: “Lawyers work under a lot of pressure. Come Saturday afternoon, getting out onto the lacrosse field gives a total release of all that pressure.”