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Beckie Middleton column: National League needs a revamp

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For the first time in almost 30 years, if you ask a member of the British public whether they’ve heard of a hockey player, the first (and possibly only) name on their lips won’t be “Sean Kerly”.

With the greatest respect to the outstanding class of ‘88, hockey finally has another opportunity to become a genuine powerhouse in British sport. The GB women’s phenomenal gold in Rio can’t just be about British hockey making history – it has to be about shaping the future.

Engaging with the hockey public is important but, as demonstrated by the GB women’s social media amnesty during Rio, inspiring people to pick up a stick or support the game requires more than Instagram posts or Twitter followers. Coaching sessions, school visits and gold medal selfies undoubtedly have a positive impact, but it’s our sport’s infrastructure that is crucial to creating a momentum shift rather than just memorable moments.

Club hockey is in a unique position to enable this process because it can tie together several fundamental aspects of growing the game. As a whole, it can inspire and involve everyone – from players of every age and ability to coaches and volunteers who help create the special feeling around many clubs. At the highest level, with the right strategy, it has the potential to be brilliant, engaging and media-friendly. However, my belief – borne out of experiences during and after my international career – is that top-level club hockey in particular isn’t valued and positioned as it should be by England Hockey.

Exciting: National League action like this should be given its true recognition (PICTURE: Andrew Crayford)

Clubs are the key providers of training and competition for the majority of hockey players. They are family-friendly social hubs.  For those girls on the podium in Rio, club hockey was a major reason why most of them caught the hockey bug in the first place. This means that while England Hockey initiatives such as QuickSticks and Back to Hockey are great vehicles for giving new and returning players access to the sport, it remains essential that hockey’s existing participants feel valued too.

TV coverage is seen as a critical factor in widening hockey’s appeal. Recent deals with Sky Sports and BT Sport for the World Cup and Champions Trophies – and nine million BBC viewers for the women’s Olympic final – are promising steps. But can we really afford to wait until international tournaments in June 2017 to have our sport back on TV?

The National League is the best regular shop-window for hockey. For six months a year, we have the opportunity to show off the best of British every weekend. With an honourable mention to Galvanised Hockey, we aren’t making the most of it.

The format and structure of the current competition requires a comprehensive review. It is encouraging that England Hockey are considering changes, but decision-making cannot become too focused on the idea of club hockey as a support system for developing international players and coaches. Elite club players deserve a National League that is designed as an exciting, challenging and important competition in itself.

Admittedly, the substantial financial backing is significant, but the Dutch federation’s support of club hockey helps to create a high-quality competition – just ask Maddie Hinch or Sophie Bray if they think club hockey can be a powerful and exciting environment to be involved in.

So why hasn’t England Hockey focused on promoting our National League in the same way? It’s easy to say small crowds or difficulty with filming games mean it isn’t TV friendly, but England Hockey aren’t recognising the potential of encouraging international players and elite club players to push the standards higher together on a weekly basis.

Substantial gains could be made from aligning the National League better with the GB centralised programme. For club training and even league and European club matches, player availability is limited by the lack of cohesion between the domestic and GB schedules.

When an international tournament is around the corner, this may be understandable. When the next tournament is months away, why not prioritise club hockey more? The National League would be better for having fresh, motivated internationals who feel encouraged to play.

The GB women have already made history. To allow their pledge to “inspire a nation” to be sustained in the longer term, it is essential that the governing body and GB coaches actively support and value the role of elite club hockey.

We can’t afford to rely on international success once or twice a year for our game to grow and thrive. We must return to celebrating what the National League should be about and get excited about hockey every weekend.

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LIONESSES MUST NOW MOVE ON FROM AYMAR

THE women’s Olympic tournament was dramatic and exciting, but something was missing: the incomparable skills of Luciana Aymar.

This was also the first Olympics since 1996 that “Las Leonas” didn’t return home with a medal – is this a coincidence, or will Argentina struggle to succeed without their legendary eight-time World Player of the Year?

Perhaps they’ve already proved they can cope, having won the 2015 World League Finals and the Champions Trophy in June.

However, while any tournament victory is special, other teams probably held more back in terms of tactics, fitness and selection with Rio looming. I doubt GB women (fifth out of six) and Argentina’s men (withdrew from hosting) have lost much sleep over the 2016 Champions Trophy since their Olympic victories.

Since Aymar’s retirement in 2014, the talents of Carla Rebecchi, Delfina Merino and Maria Granatto have been allowed to shine. Previously, these players had to do extra defensive legwork, enabling Aymar to run riot in attack.

The obvious comparison is with her football-playing compatriot Lionel Messi – it doesn’t always sit well with “British” notions of playing as a team, but perhaps if you have a player as special as Messi or Aymar it would be crazy not to build your game around them.

I consider it a privilege to have played against Luciana Aymar. Her ability to create goals from nothing and mesmerise defenders at astonishing pace meant that the main focus in any game against Argentina was simple: try to stop Aymar. International hockey isn’t the same without her, but it’s moving on.

Las Leonas have enough individual and collective talent to succeed without their talisman. Whether they will remains to be seen.

This article originally appeared in The Hockey Paper on Wednesday 16th November. 

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