‘hospital pass’: meanings and origin

In sports such as rugby and soccer, the phrase hospital pass denotes a pass to a player likely to be tackled heavily as soon as the ball is received.

The implication is that the player who receives the ball may end up in hospital, or, at least, be injured.

This is the definition of the phrase from Soccer Glossary, by Jerry Byrd, Sports Editor, published in the Shreveport Journal (Shreveport, Louisiana) of Thursday 15th June 1978:

Hospital Pass—A pass thrown too close to an opponent, leaving the intended receiver wide open for a collision and likely injury.

Michael Foster evoked the risk of injury in the account of a rugby-union match between ANU and Norths, published in The Canberra Times (Canberra, Australian Capital Territory) of Monday 5th May 1975:

ANU played, if that is the term, dreadfully. What ball the forwards did win was flung without ceremony or care at the halfback, Paul Dodds. His problems were compounded by the fact that his five-eighth drifted further and further away and into different positions with each set play. This meant that not only did he have to pick up bobbling ball but had to find his man before attempting each pass.
This latter nicety did not bother the rest of the backs. They just flung “hospital passes” in the general direction of the next man, giving the impression that they disliked one another intensely and sought each other injury.

Frank McGhee also evoked the risk of injury in the account of a soccer match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, published in the Daily Mirror (London, England) of Monday 11th December 1978:

The high, looping ball Thompson sent back in the vague direction of ’keeper Ray Clemence, in the sixth minute, is known in the trade as “a hospital pass”—because it should be accompanied by a roll of bandages.

Hospital passes do occasionally result in injuries—as exemplified by the following from the account of a soccer match between Scotland and Bulgaria, published in The Courier and Advertiser (Dundee, Angus, Scotland) of Thursday 11th September 1986:

In the early sparring, Nicholas showed he has lost that vital bit of pace by failing to get on to a Strachan pass properly and sending a “hospital” pass to Johnston, which saw the Celtic striker injured in a hefty tackle.

These are the earliest occurrences of the phrase hospital pass that I have found, in chronological order:

1-: From the account by Tony Pawson of a soccer match between Chelsea and Leeds United, published in The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 7th November 1965:

Bell put Hunter through on the left and Young turned his centre back with a classic hospital pass to Bonetti who was only mildly injured as he dived at Peacock’s feet.

2-: From the account by Christopher Ford of a rugby-union match between the Royal Navy and Oxford University, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 10th February 1966:

The first try followed two dubious pieces of stand-off half play: Phillips dithered, was caught, and gave a hospital pass, whereupon Ainslie, from the subsequent heel, ran back into the ruck with Pearson clear outside him.

3-: From the account by David Frost of a rugby-union match between the Barbarians and Cardiff, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 7th April 1969—both the Frenchmen Jo Maso (born 1944) and André Campaes (born 1944) were then playing for the Barbarians:

Hospital passes
After the players had found their way to the pitch by clambering over steel girders strewn about waiting to be hoisted into the embryo north stand, the opening stages were enlivened by a large party of schoolboys from Roanne who set up a chant of “Ma-so-Cam-pa-es” to the rhythm of slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. But the French boys had little to cheer about. The Barbarians contrived to make their first pass to each of their French players a hospital pass, and the Cardiff pack so dominated the forward play for much of the time that the Barbarian backs were seldom given room for manoeuvre.

4-: From the account by Peter Saunders of a rugby-union match between Moseley and Liverpool, published in The Birmingham Post (Birmingham, Warwickshire, England) of Monday 6th December 1971:

The full back had eight shots at goal and kicked seven of them. He laid on the first of Fielding’s three tries by coming into the line and flicking on the sort of hospital pass that makes strong men run the other way.

5-: From the account by David Irvine of a rugby-union match between Fylde and Nottingham, published in The Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Monday 16th October 1972:

Minutes later Ashton was at it again. This time he took a “hospital” pass, squirmed free of a double-headed tackle and then, jinking off one foot and then the other, sliced the Notts defence apart before sending Ray Tabern over.

In extended use, the phrase hospital pass denotes a task or project that will inevitably bring heavy criticism on the person to whom it has been assigned.

The earliest occurrence of this extended use that I have found is from The Observer (London, England) of Sunday 15th March 1981:

Code war threat
In deciding that France should be left to clear up its own Bourret affair, have the International Board done any more than present M. Ferrasse, the French president, with a most unwelcome hospital pass?
Yesterday the French newspapers gave up whole pages to examining the case of Jean-Marc Bourret, the Rugby League international who caused the furore by joining the Perpignan Union club. He has now been suspended, and though his eventual fate will rest with their Minister of Sport, the French rugby writers are indignant that he should have been made the scapegoat in an unsavoury war between the two rugby codes.

—Cf. also:
‘don’t argue’: meaning and origin of this rugby phrase
‘rugby, racing and beer’: meaning and origin
‘aerial ping-pong’: meaning and origin
history of the word ‘soccer’ (football)
a soccer phrase: ‘where’s your white stick?’