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Hockey: England learning to expect success

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Ollie Williams | 18:21 UK time, Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Two years ago, Britain's men's hockey team faced a win-or-bust Olympic qualifying tournament in Chile. Fail to win the tournament and Britain would miss Beijing 2008 altogether. They would most likely lose a hefty chunk of funding, too. Head coach Jason Lee admitted the situation was "as pressured as it can be".

A remarkable change has since occurred. Britain beat India to reach Beijing, finishing fifth at the Games, and the England team (which forms the vast majority of the GB squad) went on to stun their rivals by lifting the 2009 EuroHockey Nations title. They came from behind to beat Germany, the current world and Olympic champions, in the final.

Now, England are through to the last four of the World Cup for the first time since 1986, and are once again pitted against the Germans. After years - if not decades - in hockey's doldrums, even a World Cup semi-final caps a commendable reversal of fortunes.

Lifting the World Cup title is a tantalising prospect this week, but just two years ago it appeared unthinkable.

England hockey team members celebrateAll smiles for England - it wasn't like that two years ago. Photo: AP

"I remember you," sighs the England (and GB) team's performance director, David Faulkner, when I mention interviewing him at a freezing cold Reading Hockey Club before that all-important Olympic qualifying tournament.

Pressed on reasons for British hockey's perilous state at the time, Faulkner had told me to be patient - the sport needed two four-year Olympic cycles to be "fixed", and Beijing represented the halfway mark, he said. Now, with that in mind, does Faulkner feel vindicated?

"I wouldn't use that word, but we have moved on after Beijing," he says. "The Olympic qualifier in Chile was an experience in itself and, combined with Beijing and the Europeans, that has made this group of players stronger and stronger.

"But we're still in a developing phase. I don't want people to get too carried away. By all means get excited, I like that, but the job is not done yet. Will it ever be finished? I doubt it."

It hasn't all been plain sailing since Beijing. England finished last in December's Champions Trophy - admittedly a tournament involving the world's top six teams, of which England are ranked sixth, but coming last never looks good.

"Winning the European title was brilliant, then at the Champions Trophy we changed the team around a bit and took a couple of younger guys," explains England captain Barry Middleton - who, at the age of 26, already has well over 100 caps for England, and many more for Great Britain.

"We finished last but we didn't look to peak there, we looked to peak at the World Cup instead.

"One of the problems with world hockey at the minute is it's very busy. It's pretty hard to peak for two tournaments in three or four months, especially during our winter. We always said the Champions Trophy wasn't a true reflection of how good we can be."

Middleton made his international debut in 2003 and has been part of UK hockey's rollercoaster ride ever since. He insists his team always knew they could reach the last four of the World Cup - "nobody really believed us, but we felt we could do it" - and argues, like Faulkner, that the team's upswing can be traced back several years.

"After 2004, things changed a lot. Most of the guys playing now got their first caps then and, over the last couple of years, a lot of the youngsters coming through have been very talented. We have more technical ability than we've ever had before in the squad.

"In the last two years we've been given the freedom to play a different hockey than England teams have played in a long time. Now we play fast, attacking hockey; we want to entertain and put pressure on other teams.

"For the three or four years before that, we looked to contain teams, stay in a game, defend well, and maybe that would get us through. Now we look to attack."

Nor will that change against Germany, according to Middleton, despite their opponents' impressive array of trophies: "Our game plan has been the same for the last two years. We know it inside out, it won't change. As long as we play as well as we can to our game, then we can beat them, so we won't do anything special."

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England captain Barry Middleton's stick skills

But while Middleton's focus rightly extends no further than the next game, Faulkner needs to contemplate the two fronts on which he must now sustain hockey's momentum.

The first is the playing staff. The crop of players first brought together in 2004 is reaching a pinnacle at this World Cup, but the team is older than some, and will need replenishing with new talent sooner or later.

England's Under-21 team suffered a disastrous Junior World Cup in Malaysia last year, earning some damning press back in Britain, in which Faulkner was quoted as bemoaning a "void" where young, British talent should be. He says he is still in the process of plugging that gap.

"The oldest player in the German team here is, I think, 26," he tells me. "Their average age is 22. They can do that because they have a system, and our target is to have the same system, but it'll take another two or three years to develop."

Since another two or three years will take us past London 2012, it is correct to assume the England team you watch face Germany on Thursday will closely resemble the British team that will play at a home Olympics in two years' time.

"In men's hockey, if you're not in the current GB group, you'll find it very difficult to break into that," adds Faulkner. "The current lads are making it even more difficult with the performances they're putting in.

"But everybody knows the most successful nations in the world are looking at the next Olympic cycle while in the current cycle, and I've started doing a lot of work on hockey post-2012 already."

That work extends off the pitch, too, because hockey rarely gets an opportunity like this to generate buzz around the sport. Hockey players and supporters mutter darkly about a lack of coverage in Britain, and this competition represents the sport's best chance in years to rectify that.

Faulkner reached the World Cup final in 1986 as a player, then won gold at the Seoul Olympics with Britain two years later, playing alongside the likes of Sean Kerly and Imran Sherwani - names etched into the memories of a generation of British sports fans.

He knows what happens when hockey catches the public eye, and wants the sport to seize the moment this time.

"The big difference between the success in 1986 or 1988 and the success now is that we are prepared for it. What I'm hearing from back home, and reading from articles sent to me, is that there is a lot of consistency with what we saw 20 years ago in terms of coverage back in the UK.

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Highlights from India 2-3 England at the Hockey World Cup

"I understand Ashley Jackson's goal against India was on the BBC 10 O'Clock News - hockey doesn't do that, and hasn't done for two decades. We want to capitalise on that profile.

"What we have to be clear about is how we make our players household names. Before we came out to India we held a press day, which we've never done before. The sport needs to be geared up - maybe a campaign of 'Are you ready for 2012 hockey?', because we will have a profile we've never had before."

Savvy marketing alone, however, won't cut it. Everyone inside the team knows sustained international results are hockey's only hope of grabbing headlines with any regularity.

"We know it's going to be hard," Middleton admits. "The Spanish have missed out this time and they're ranked third in the world. There will be more and more teams who miss out.

"This squad is only going to be together for two, three, maybe four years from now, and it's going to be hard to consistently do it. The Germans have done it for 15 years, the Australians have done it for 20.

"It's hard to get the system right to produce people who can do this all the time but, once you can do it, it's easier. Hopefully we can at least do it for the next three or four years."

England v Germany in the men's Hockey World Cup semi-finals will be live on the red button from 1235 GMT on Thursday, 11 March. Join me on the BBC Sport website at the same time for our live text commentary of the game.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Bet its not on Freeview. BBC is a joke now

  • Comment number 2.

    Good luck England. Shame I'll be at work & will miss it. Will there be highlights in the evening on the Red Button?

    Also, with hockey being an Olympic sport why don't home countries play as GB all the time? I can understand separate teams in Football & Rugby due to the history & the popularity of those sports but i cannot imagine the Scots & the Welsh being up in arms if there was a combined hockey team.

  • Comment number 3.

    Exactly Tiger Rose - it should be Great Britain all the time to give ourselves the best preparation for the Olympics. And it would avoid the crazy situations where England have to qualify on behalf of GB for big tournaments. The England set-up is pretty identical to GB's anyway.

    It would also allow for England, Wales and Scotland to become second-tier development sides that would be more closely matched and more competitive - aiding player development and benefitting everyone.

    Hockey is so different from football and rugby in that it consistently looks to develop and improve itself - surely regional pride can be overcome and we can finally have a British sports team to support?

  • Comment number 4.

    I'll take that bet about it being on freeview, as approximately 5 lines above your post Hyperstar its says
    "England v Germany in the men's Hockey World Cup semi-finals will be live on the red button from 1235 GMT on Thursday, 11 March"

    Tiger Rose - To take a recent example the British curlers from the Olympics played as Scotland in the Euro championships. Don't think its a question of pride or history as to who to play as, just they way its done.

  • Comment number 5.

    For some strange reason the 'Red Button' does not always mean Freeview.

    During the recent olympics the 'red button' gave us one sport not the multi-choice option.

    The coverage via the BBC website has been excellent using another providers coverage to summarise matches. Roll on Thursday....

    C'mon England

  • Comment number 6.

    Not quite that simple tiger rose. There are implications that stem from competing as GB all the time. For example if Scotland no longer played as a country the qualification of our Club sides for European competition (the highly lucrative EHL) would then be on an unsure footing I would guess.

    Moreover (be it a small minded mentality or not) this issue has been raised formally before and I can guarantee that Scottish hockey was "up in arms" and unanimously rejected the proposal.

  • Comment number 7.

    Good blog Ollie

    Hope you are keeping well.

  • Comment number 8.

    @otaki04

    No Scottish clubs come within a whisker of qualifying for the EHL anyway. And in Wales, Welsh clubs have to filter through the N4 Hockey League (South-West Britain) system in order to progress to the national league where they can then qualify for the EHL, so there would be no change to their qualification hopes.

    The Scots are too wrapped up in Alex Salmond-fed regionalism to see the real benefits from a full-time GB set-up. It would give Scottish players a much better chance to play on the biggest stages because they would be able to regularly compete in high-quality competitions, not small-time qualification tournaments where they have a cat's chance in hell of success.

    And as i've previously mentioned, a development system of English, Welsh an Scottish teams would then provide a strong competitive second-tier to develop squad depth and bring on young talent.

    That's the way to boost Scottish and Welsh hockey - through Great Britain. Not by plodding along helplessly in the unheard-of doldrums of international hockey.

  • Comment number 9.

    *Rather a Scottish club gets through to the qualifying round but gets soundly thrashed as this year's results proved.

    So long as they operate their own league, European qualification won't be an issue - like Wales in football.

    But I would much rather see the top Scottish players contributing to a stronger British team than doing a Ryan Giggs because the narrow-minded administrators vote SNP.

  • Comment number 10.

    Have managed to persuade my local Weatherspoons to broadcast the hockey tomorrow lunchtime. Should be good - even if it will be silent.

  • Comment number 11.

  • Comment number 12.

    Hello all,

    Thanks for the comments. The merits or otherwise of promoting a GB team at the expense of the home nations is probably a subject worthy of a separate blog at some point, although I suspect those involved in the elite set-up would almost all say they're happy as things stand. Not that that stops it being interesting. Duly noted as a future topic.

    To Hyperstar, Buckers and hainba - I am 90% sure the game is not on the freeview red button. (Stop throwing those spears at me... I am just a messenger, yadda yadda.) However, it is on the Daily Telegraph's website for you to watch for free, and we'd far rather you watched it there than missed the game entirely. But keep a browser tab open with my live text commentary in it, too, since I'm hoping that'll turn into a discussion of English/British hockey as much as a straight narrative of events, and I'd appreciate your views.

    Tiger Rose - I don't know about the red button but we will have video highlights on our website.

    manikochar - good to hear from you, glad you're reading, if anybody is going to spot the many and varied errors it's you. Definitely another one I'd like tuning in for the live text on our site on Thursday.

    DT50 - excellent work. Now get them to install free wi-fi and take a laptop down there with you for the live text. Can't think of a better way to spend a lunchtime. (What are you doing in a pub on a Thursday lunchtime? Well done you, regardless.)

  • Comment number 13.

    Hi,
    Just to answer the Freeview question - the game will unfortunately only be live on the red button for satellite and cable viewers (1230 GMT). This is due to restrictions on bandwidth on the Freeview platform.
    However we will be replaying the whole game 'as live' on Freeview at 19.10 GMT.
    And as others have mentioned, it will be live online at telegraph.co.uk.
    There will also be highlights on this website.
    We will also be showing the other semi-final (Australia v Netherlands) on the red button at 1500 GMT - again, unfortunately cable and satellite viewers only. Highlights here at bbc.co.uk/sport.
    Claire

  • Comment number 14.

    I've starting following hockey for a while now since I was taken to my first match at East Grindstead last year. I've played a decent amount as well so I feel I have a decent understanding of the game, but not the system. The question I have is what system is in place for this to be continuous? You mention the failure of the U21 side, and surely that's only negative. There are mentions of following Germany's system or Australia's, but is there a desire amongst British people to play Hockey. I agree with with the campaign to raise awareness of Hockey before 2012, but in the grand scheme of 2012 how important is Hockey considered? And what help are hockey federations getting from the Government or Lottery schemes? These are merely questions from essentially an onlookers point of view. I'm probably just not aware of what is going on.

  • Comment number 15.

    I'd be delighted if England's success here and in the European Championships translates to increased interest in hockey up to during and beyond 2012- UK wide.

    However I don't think national identities should be lost. I'm happy for Scotland to have contributed to the Olympic squads of GB in Athens and Scotland has a good record in its own right of participation at top levels in international indoor and major club outdoor competetions (including EHL by the way).

    We must be cautious of what happended to hockey post Seoul 1988-basically it went bust and part of its recovery is because of the current collaborative approach amongst the home nations that gives us our current structure.I don't think it should be tinkered with.

    There could be a great future for hockey as we see the structure of Rugby Union creaking under its professional burdens and its (TV)entertainment value plummeting in comparison because of its tactical attrition.

  • Comment number 16.

    There is mention of a full game playback on the freeview red button at 7.10pm. Will this also be available on cable red button as well?
    I have to work today, and I cant get the stream through works PC. Really want to watch the game, but happy to catch it later if it is available>?

  • Comment number 17.

    at international level hockey can be exciting, but at club level there is a lot of dross and TV woul dnot shake a hockey stick at it

  • Comment number 18.

    So it looks like on 301:

    NOW: School Report
    19:10: Hockey Replay

  • Comment number 19.

    Why not take up hurling. Its twice the fun and ten times as manly!

 

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