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Is watching field hockey becoming boring?

49_crowd_opt.jpegWatching hockey is boring… .

And I speak as one who knows. Goalkeepers watch an awful lot of hockey. We don’t have a very good angle on the action; it’s more like the sort of view you used to get from home broadcasts of eastern European UEFA Cup matches in the early 90s. And very few fans would sign up to a pay-per-view deal that granted them standing-room-only viewing rights on an exposed Sheffield hillside.

But still, ours is very often a watching brief. And so I say again: watching hockey is boring. Boring, that is, compared with playing – compared with the heart-thump and adrenaline rush of being thrown into the thick of it, the buzz of extreme exertion, the thunder of high-speed contact, the satisfaction of success.

This is a game, I think, for playing, not watching – for players, not spectators. Yes, the athleticism of pro hockey is something to marvel at. Yes, the rapid-fire geometry of top-level ball-play is a thing of beauty. But so much of what goes on in a hockey match is lost on the viewer (particularly the viewer who hasn’t played the game). This goes double for goalies: very rarely does a hockey goalie’s save have the same obvious ‘wow’ appeal as a football ‘keeper’s full-length dive or a cricketer’s greased-lightning slip-catch. We know, of course, how much speed, skill, strength and courage a Pinner or a Hinch is putting into every stop, what a technical and physical challenge even a kicked clearance or routine interception presents. But does that translate into show-stopping TV?

Our own Top Of The D warned in these pages recently that re-tooling the game to make it more viewer-friendly in the light of recent lucrative TV deals will not, ultimately, benefit hockey. That’s true. Ours is a sport that’s watched largely by the people who play it; that makes it (don’t shoot the messenger *dons helmet*) a minority sport.

And minority sports are great! Maybe that’s a very goalie way of thinking (goalies generally being, by definition, in a minority of around 10-1). I don’t want hockey to take over the world. I don’t particularly care if it gets overlooked in favour of other sports (and it always will – it simply doesn’t have the cultural and historical heft of football or cricket, in this country at least). It doesn’t bother me if TV ratings are low (*dons additional helmet*) the ball’s hard to see, the crowd-noise is weedy, and all those crouching athletes give me backache.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve put in the hours – from being dragged from bed as a ten-year-old to gaze glassy-eyed at Sean Kerly and Imran Sherwani in 1988, to sitting in the tepid sunshine and enduring that bloody Muse song at London 2012 – but these occasions, for me, aren’t what the game is really about. We might not have grass any more but we still have grassroots hockey, and that’s what counts – more than ever, perhaps, as the elite levels of the game go, well, just a little bit premiership (hello, Holcombe!).

Complaining about hockey being excluded in favour of other sports – which, however ‘minority’, all have their own enthused, committed and passionate advocates – misses the point. Just play your game – and remember that, as long as you’re playing it, it is your game.

If participation levels decline, well, yes, that might be a problem, long term – but as long as there are 22 of us left, or thereabouts, we’ll get by all right.

The only audience I care about is the one that’s at pitchside, slurping from plastic beer-glasses, joking with the subs, barracking the bigshot centre-forward and calling me a useless old bastard when I dive over one.

The hockey I care about is played on a pitch, not a TV screen. And the best view of the action is the one through a goalie’s grille.

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