Hockey focuses far too much on the elite level of the international game. This scene is a fantastic aspect of the sport, with much entertainment to provide and many aspects to it for the rest of us to learn from. However, for far too many years, the national teams across the Home Nations and that of the combined Great Britain squads have dictated the resources of the game and hoarded them for their own needs and purposes. The centralised programme has taken players from all over Britain to the South-East of England, much to the detriment of the respective leagues.
The England/GB teams require the players to be within driving distance of the Bisham Abbey training base. The purpose of this has been to allow the players, the chosen few, to train together on a regular basis. This has allowed the national team to compete at a high level and is favoured by those who have been a part of the system. The England women’s team have won the Commonwealth Games (Birmingham 2022) and the EuroHockey Championships (London 2015). In addition to this the Great British side won gold at the Olympic Games (Rio 2016). The men and women have also medaled consistently over the years at these major events and others, suggesting that the centralised programme does in fact work, or has done in the short term since its inception. Although, there has been tangible recent benefits of holding all of the best players throughout the British Isles in a small region of England, I have my doubts about the long term benefits of this policy.
Recently, the Mancunian based team Bowdon Hightown Hockey Club were relegated from the English Women’s Premier Division. They were the last team based north of the English Midlands to play in the top division. In the men’s game, only Brooklands Manchester University are currently in the top division and they are struggling to compete. There are a smattering of teams in the top women’s and men’s leagues are based in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, but predominately clubs are from satellite towns of, or within London. East Grinstead, Surbiton, Wimbledon and Hampstead and Westminster seem to have been consistently near the top of the respective tables in recent years. Additionally, talented players from Scotland and Wales are encouraged to move to these areas, if they have ambitions on playing in the Olympic Games.
Scotland and GB defender Amy Costello has recently moved back to England to play for Surbiton. Welsh goalkeeper, Toby Reynolds-Cotterill plays for Hampstead and Westminster, as does his talented compatriot and short corner specialist Jacob Draper, as well as the bustling forward Rupert Shipperly. The Wales women’s midfielder, Sarah Jones, plays for Wimbledon. The recently capped GB international, Jen Eadie, was playing in the Scottish leagues only last season. Now she joins Jones in South London. They are joined in England by Scottish Ladies captain Sarah Robertson, well respected winger and Taysider Charlotte Watson, Fiona Burnet (also at Wimbledon) and midfielder Lee Morton in the men’s set up, who’s over at Old Georgians. I am only encouraging of these players as they look to get on in life. If you are a hockey player currently in, or approaching your prime and have ambitions to become an Olympian then this is a part of the game that you have to play.
Yes, the world is a smaller place, in this modern era. These players might have moved towards London regardless of hockey opportunities, as the capital city tends to encourage talented people towards that part of the country anyway, as the current British economy has a talent drain towards south-east. However, it would nice to have the option for the hard working clubs that invest time and effort to develop talented youth team players to reap the rewards for all of their hard work. The domestic side of the game is important for the development of hockey. It is how we all start out in the sport, it’s where we predominately end up and it is an important method of community engagement. Here are some reasons as to why the national and international governing bodies should provide a bit more of a focus on the club scene…
A strong league makes for a strong national team. If the players are being regularly and constructively challenged on a weekly basis then this can only be good for the standard of the international matches that we see on the television. The centralised programme for Great Britain requires Scottish and Welsh players to travel south to England. Yes, by focusing all of the sports funding, resources and coaching into one place we can help these players to raise their standards, but what is the cost to the domestic leagues? By removing so many of the top players from their own communities then there will be an inevitable reduction in standards and learning opportunities for those left behind. Who have been forgotten? How many players have withered on the vine because of the current system’s greed?
Stronger leagues across England, even in the north of the country, as well as Wales and Scotland, will see a larger pool of players develop for the Olympic squads. The men and the women will be able to compete with the best of the best more consistently and to a higher standard if they are being challenged in a more varied manner that strong league and cup tournaments can provide. This will not only benefit the international teams, but also the club sides in continental competitions. Wouldn’t it be lovely if the British teams could perform better in the European Hockey League? The experiences gained from this elite club competition would greatly benefit those involved and increase their abilities and decision making processes. Improvements in the domestic championships will help to develop the top players available for selection.
It will also provide a place for tactics, strategy and style of play to be developed. A strong league is an environment for a culture to be grown and nurtured. A weak domestic competition will develop a poor culture, one with unwanted or unhelpful habits. A strong league and cup set up will encourage healthy habits, a better understanding of the game and a stronger culture within the sport that can be taken to the rest of the world. A national league and cup competition is not only a place to develop talent, but it is an environment to create an identity, a methodology and a style of play. It can provide a reference, a starting point, a mutual understanding. It can also provide nuance and some additional layers to the comprehension of hockey, with different clubs trying different things, or stretching each other in a variety of ways. This can only happen with a broad pool of players, who aren’t taken down to the South-East of England, thus creating a very narrow field of play.
Development of the Grassroots and a Fan Culture
This conversation leads us on to the development of youth team players, the grassroots of the game. By keeping the talent local, this will provide role models for the younger players to look up to, admire and learn from through observation. These top players can also act as adverts for the game. Keeping them within their communities, or at least allowing them to periodically return, can show the uninitiated all of the positives and the values that comes with hockey. It is a great game when played well, but if all of the professional athletes are in and around London, then how can we advertise it in the best possible manner, on a regular basis, in Manchester, Cardiff, Swansea, Edinburgh, or Glasgow? By ignoring the north of England, Wales and Scotland, we risk creating a smaller group of players and making hockey inaccessible to a vast array of talent.
Grassroots development is not confined to the education of youth team players. Domestic hockey leagues and cup competitions are also where the educators themselves start out. Coaches have to learn somewhere, they need to have some place to try out their ideas and theories. Tactics, stratagems and styles of play, as stated previously, can all be developed in the domestic arenas. The development of stronger league and cup competitions can also improve the standard of coaching, challenge old ideas, bring in some new ones and create some diversity of thought within the country and the sport. Coaches need a place to learn and to experiment. Doing this at the international stage is too late. It has to start with the clubs.
Improving the league and domestic scene can also help hockey to grow in the hearts and the minds of sports fans around a country. By providing some good sporting entertainment the game can begin to challenge larger, more mainstream sports, such as football, rugby and cricket. Spectators want a spectacle. Story tellers need a good story to tell. The clubs need the top players to stay locally in order to remain relevant within the sporting context of their communities. Quality breeds success and for clubs to engage with local fans they need to keep the best players in, or attract to, the areas that they are based in.
A strong fan culture can have several benefits to the sport. The more people that are watching hockey, the more enticing it will be for potential sponsors. Visibility is what businesses want and if they can get that in hockey, then they will invest their money here, instead of elsewhere like netball, or other developing spectacles. Having fans coming through the gates and milling around the sides of the pitch can also increase revenues directly to the clubs themselves. Food kiosks, ticket stubs and replica kits can all be sources of income for teams and help them grow on their own terms.
There are alternatives to the current set up. I’ve previously written about how hockey clubs can move towards professionalism, in my essay Business and Sport. You can read it here, but briefly my ideas where based around the options of co-operative, fan based ownership and social enterprise/community interest companies (CIC). This would allow the clubs who already exist to grow and to develop and to help to professionalise the sport, out with the international scene, which is dependent on public funding tied to performance. It puts the control back into the hands of the clubs, themselves. Fundamentally, the international players need to be released to their clubs on a more regular basis. A calendar and a schedule needs to be arranged, a compromise found between the international events and the domestic league and cup competitions. We must allow the top players, the famous faces to play for their club sides throughout the season, especially in the finals and big games.
This can be done by keeping the format the same, or at least very similar to how things are currently set up in Britain. A strong domestic set up allows for a sense of connection between the lower levels of the game and the top. However, there are other options as well. The Oceanic countries have an interesting additional format. There’s a regional league, that is different to the club system, which sits between that and the international team. In Australia, the Hockeyroos and the Kookaburras are both based in Perth, Western Australia (similar to the centralised system in the UK, however, it’s a continental sized country), but all the players are required to be registered with a team in their Hockey One League, which used to be a representative competition run for the local hockey associations. There are fewer teams than within the club scene, but it still gives local fans something to put their support behind and get their teeth into.
The British did something similar a few years ago, with the GB Super League. This was a competition that was used as a talent showcase between 2007 and 2012. It had six teams within it, three from England (Wessex Leopards, Saxon Tigers and Pennine Pumas), two from Scotland (Caledonian Cougars and Highland Jaguars) and one from Wales (Celtic Panthers). The names are a bit naff and it didn’t quite take off at the first time of trying, but it could be something worth continuing with as a compromise. If we want to keep some sort of domestic set up, where players can go back to the communities that they feel some kind of connection to, why not have a revamp of this? Played over a shortened period of time, a reduced season that can fit in with other commitments and a busy schedule. In order to increase fan interest, we would need some sort of sense of competition, to develop an edge that comes with results driven consequences, therefore a second and maybe even a third tier would be necessary. More teams could be developed that included international youth team players from the GB Elite Development Programme, as well as giving the chance to the better club players in order to show what they can do. This, combined with the emergence of a moveable astroturf pitch, we could create a spectacle that can be set up in appropriate stadiums and locations around the country and in each specific region. It’s something to think about at the very least…