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Norman Hughes: the player who refused to move south from Wakefield

Wakefield’s Norman Hughes made his name as a dynamic left-midfielder in the Great Britain side of the mid-80s. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the country’s most respected coaches. Richard Smyth collared him to talk Olympics, youth coaching, and why the Dutch do it better.

Norman, you’ve just celebrated 40 years at Wakefield HC. What brought you to this corner of West Yorkshire?

I didn’t start playing hockey till I was 16; I was a footballer till then. I joined Crewe Vagrants to work my way up to the first team, and then two guys from Calday Grange Grammar School, Geoff Poole and Peter Cross, put me in for England trials and then suggested to me that I had to move to a team that played at a better standard and on a better pitch.

What age were you then?

Under 18s.

So you started playing at 16 and within a year or two were trying out for England?

Yeah. I couldn’t hit the ball, but I had the usual football skills – y’know, finding space, supporting. I moved to Winnington Park [in Northwich, Cheshire] from Crewe for one year only, to play in the north-west league and play against other internationals – from Brooklands, Bowdon, Hightown. I did a year there and then my studies took me to Leeds University. I was there for four years; I did international marketing and business studies. I played for the uni, UAU [Universities Athletic Union] as it was, and for British Universities against Belgium and France, over in Amiens. Then I moved from Leeds University to Wakefield Hockey Club – and I’ve been at Wakefield ever since. That was 1973. Forty years ago.

You’ve been involved with some of British hockey’s finest moments since then. When did your involvement with the GB side begin?

My first senior England cap was ‘77 in Amsterdam, so I missed out on the ‘76 Montreal Olympics [GB failed to qualify]. My first involvement with GB was the build-up to the Moscow Olympics of 1980 – but the squad was never narrowed down for Moscow, because we pulled the plug. I was basically in line to go to Moscow but then the government and Hockey Association, as it was in those days, decided we weren’t going [Britain joined a US-led boycott of the Moscow games in protest against the USSR invasion of Afghanistan].

That must have been disappointing.

Oh, very disappointing. When you look at what’s happening in Afghanistan now, very disappointing.

Then came the 1980s…

I went as vice-captain to Los Angeles in ‘84 when we won the bronze, and then I retired after the World Cup Final in ‘86 in London [which England lost 2-1 to Australia].

As a top-level player, you were unusual in staying in the north throughout your career.

I was under pressure to go and play London league, which I resisted.

You were the only northern player in GB setup, right?

Yeah, and I’m quite proud of that, because I thought you’re either good enough or you’re not good enough, and you shouldn’t be forced to move around – not at senior level. I can understand it at junior level, if maybe your starter club isn’t at the right standard, and you might be encouraged to move to a higher standard so you get the intensity week-in, week-out – but not at senior level.

In those days, not only did we have the club competition – and there’s no doubt that the London League was far more intensive than the Yorkshire league – but we had the County Championship, and that was our national league. So when we played Middlesex or Surrey or Kent, that was like Surbiton playing Beeston nowadays.

After you retired from playing, you stayed involved in a coaching capacity.

Yeah, I basically coached GB in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics [to a sixth-placed finish]. I was with the England ‘A’ squad up until 1988, when the lads went to Seoul and won the gold. [GB coach] Dave Whitaker couldn’t do the England squad, so I was his assistant coach and then stepped in when he wasn’t available. So I wasn’t on the management team in Seoul; I was getting my stripes.

Was coaching always part of your career-plan?

I’d started to do some coaching, got my Level 1 and Level 2. Looking back, it was probably a bit too quick – it would have been better to do three or four years more coaching and then have a go at it. It was a voluntary position in those days, it wasn’t paid, so you were having to juggle your job with the coaching. I was international marketing manager for Dunlop Slazengers on the cricket and hockey side [Norman went on to found the Wasp hockey brand].

You’re still coaching at Wakefield, of course.

Director of coaching, they call me… among other things! I coach the men’s first team and direct the coaching for all the juniors.

You’ve done a lot of work to develop youth hockey at the club.

Yeah, we do, we work very hard on that. My wife took over the junior section when I was still playing and coaching, about 30 years back, and whenever I was around I helped and joined in. Then when I retired from playing, and certainly after ‘92, when I finished with the GB and England senior coaching, then my remit was to start putting back into the club that had given me so much.

We started with about 27 kids. We couldn’t get an U16 team out, so our ‘boys’ team was five girls and six lads. And now we’ve got 320-350 children in the club. Twenty-seven teams.

You’ve acted as a youth coaching consultant for the European Hockey Federation (EHF) and the International Hockey Federation (FIH) all across Europe. Where is the best youth hockey setup? Who’s doing it right?

The best setup is probably the Dutch, followed closely by the Germans and the Spanish. And the Belgians have started to do good work too. It’s all down to the core of their ethos: club, club, club. So they don’t put single-system stuff in place; they rely very heavily on improving the coaching within clubs, and relying on the clubs to give them better material coming through.

And we’re not doing that?

We certainly don’t do it well enough. We’ve got more clubs, which makes it far more difficult for our governing body, there’s no doubt about that. You’ve 320 clubs in Holland, we’ve the best part of 1,000. So three times the problem. But there are key clubs in each region – your Beestons, your Belpers, your Cannocks – and it isn’t rocket science to find those clubs. We really should be putting more resource into improving all the coaching given to the kids.

I went to [England U15 assistant coach] Kwan Browne’s presentation at Leeds University a couple of weeks ago; he was saying: “The German kids can do this, the Belgian and Dutch kids can do that” – and I asked him, why can’t our kids do that? He said: “I’ve been over in Europe, I’ve been to Holland for a season, and you find that they insist on their first-team members coaching their children”. I said, why don’t we do that?

Our lads are forced to play national league on Sunday; our junior section is Sunday. So I can’t get our 1st XI players to come down in the morning if we’re legging it to Khalsa that day. So we’re missing out on all of that inspirational experience and demonstration. Not all of them would be great coaches, but they’ll inspire the kids, and you then get those kids more interested in coming and watching the national league games, because they’ve worked with the players. It builds the crowd up in the league.

That’s what the Dutch and Germans and Belgians do far better than us at the moment. It’s a big plea from me: national league, male and female, should be Saturdays – certainly up to premier level. If the governing body want to have premier [games] on Sunday, I’ve no issue with that, taking 20 clubs out. But you’ve got another 30, in the north, east and west conferences – with respect, all their lads and lasses want to do on a Saturday night is have a good social time. But they can’t do that when they’ve got a national league game on the Sunday.

What are the reasons given for that?

I don’t think they’re good enough reasons, to be honest, but the reasons that come back are that we’re short of umpires and we’re short of pitches. Now, I’m sure we can get round that. With good programming, you’re not telling me that an umpire won’t do a couple of games in a day. I don’t think anyone would irk at that – it’d be good use of limited resources.

The other reason given at the very start was the media coverage: they wanted media coverage on the Sunday for the women, and on the Monday for the men – but that’s not happening at the moment, is it?

So the reasons don’t really wash with me. I’m sure there’s a way through if we have the desire to make it happen.

Speaking of the National League, what’s your take on Wakefield’s season so far?

We’re meeting expectations. The men’s firsts, we’re thus far satisfied – not delighted, but satisfied. At the start of the season we set ourselves a target of fifth or sixth in the [Conference North], having finished eighth last year. At the moment we’re sixth.

If you look at the conference, there are three leagues forming within that league, really – a top group, a middle group and a bottom group. Our target from February onwards is really to consolidate our position in that middle-table group. We’re not good enough at the moment to break into Brooklands, Bowdon, Durham…

It’s the results against those big clubs that’ve been punishing Wakefield this season. What will it take for the club to step up into that top group and really compete?

We need to get the full squad fitter. We’re not fit enough as a whole group. We’re working hard at that, but we’re still off the pace. And that won’t happen this year; it’s a two or three-year programme to get up to the speed of Durham Uni – who are training pretty much every day. So we need to do more work on the physiology side.

Then, as a group, we’re probably short of two or three players to really break into that top-three group. We’ve got some quality players, real quality players – a couple of our lads, Dan Berry and Ollie Stoddart, got picked for the league XI last year, and we finished eighth. And there’s another couple who would get into a Bowdon or a Brooklands or a Durham Uni. With respect to the rest of the lads, they’re not quite at that stage yet.

The club as a whole has a really positive feel at the moment. We’ve been a good family club going in the right direction for about 10, 15 years now. Obviously the club has built on that.

Our facilities are owned by Wakefield Sports Club, not by the hockey club – we’re one section of a larger club, so we had to be very patient. When [our rugby section] left, the sports club wanted to retain a natural grass pitch, but four or five years later, when soccer couldn’t pay its way, we convinced the board that the best option for them was to put another astroturf down.

It was really, really pleasing that the National Hockey Foundation and England Hockey got behind us and helped us achieve that. We were still heavy into the bank, but without those two coming on board the second pitch [a ‘smurf turf’ opened in 2012] would’ve been sand-dressed or sand-filled, not water-based.

It’s a great pitch to play on.

We’re lucky with both pitches, to be honest. A lot of people say the green pitch plays better than the blue pitch, but we’re very lucky with the stand and all the infrastrucure now.

Who have been the most satisfying success stories, playing-wise, during your time at Wakefield?

The thing that’s really pleasing is that a lot of the success has come from home-grown talent. Rob Leighton came through as a six-year-old; he’s now a key member of the back four. Sam Shute, who plays centre-forward for us, came through our junior section. Ben Foster – I know his job and his desire to play at higher level took him to Doncaster and Ben Rhydding, but he was a Wakefield lad who came through our junior section, and he’s back with us now. We’re proud of the fact that about five of the squad have come through our nursery.

What are your thoughts on the north-south divide in the present-day game?

From an overall hockey point of view, I don’t think it’s healthy. The centralised programme may be justified from a winning-of-medals point of view, but the beauty of spreading key players across many clubs, rather than three or four, is that they are then inspirational on a week-to-week level, on a training-night-to-training-night level, with hundreds more people. So if you had Barry Middleton still at Donny [Doncaster], then he would inspire 200 kids at Donny. I’m not saying he doesn’t at the moment, but he’d be actually on their pitch, they’d be watching him play, he’d be training with a bunch of them… You can’t say that’s not a healthier model than four or five of them being at Holcombe, four or five at Surbiton and four or five being at East Grinstead. We’re lucky if we see them online through FIH sites or in the odd international that’s played in this country.

I really feel that in terms of the whole of the sport it’s better if those players are spread around. We started off talking about why Holland, Germany, Belgium were better than us – well, if those boys were spread around more clubs, I think we would see in 10 years’ time the impact that would have.

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