As the traffic grinds to a halt outside the Century Club on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, goalkeeping hero Maddie Hinch is already on amber alert as to what the next eight months, let alone the next eight years, or two Olympic cycles, might hold for the England and GB women’s squad.
“We can be constantly winning medals,” she says. “That’s what I want to be doing and not to be a team that wins the odd big medal and then goes quiet for a little while. We have to be like the Dutch. To be always in the final and always competing.”
This is no pipedream end to the year for the 28-year-old, as she describes the last three months as “chaos” since returning from the Rio Games, her first foray playing on the continent with SCHC and focuses on the immediate target of England’s defence of their European title on Dutch soil next summer.
After a raft of awards’ nights and media commitments in the UK, which will culminate with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year on Sunday, Hinch will finally escape the golden glare with a Christmas break in Thailand before the hockey juices start flowing again in early January.
“It has been incredibly busy, with a lot of people wanting time,” she says. “Going over to Holland, there is a lot which has happened quite quickly. But you dream of this stuff happening as an athlete and the attention that the sport has received. However being able to juggle the demands back home and doing a good job in Holland has been tough.”
This has included being nearly stranded back in Holland on the day of the Olympic parade in Manchester in October before Twitter and a flight carrier saved the day. Yet the travel has hardly affected her performances, with Hinch contributing to SCHC’s second-place standing in the Hoofdklasse Dames league.
“We’re competing against the giants of the hockey world and it’s no coincidence that the best players want to play there,” Hinch says of the Dutch league. “The standard is fantastic and the atmosphere is one with thousands watching. You can see why people want to play.”
Therein lies the crux of the problem back in the UK. “We’re fortunate that our centralised system allows us to generate enough players to compete at the top and do well off the back off it. If we can get the club system stronger then we are filtering through more talent early doors and we’re not having to get people to catch up in the first couple of years.”
This could well come to fruition in the next cycle. As with every Olympics, both England and the Dutch have seen a number of retirements. Ever since Maartje Paumen, one of the great Dutch captains of the modern era, not a week seems to have gone by when another Oranje has hung up the famous shirt.
“The Dutch have lost players and it’s the same for us,” admits Hinch. “We have to replace those girls and we have a European title to defend in eight months’ time. Where will we be in comparison to the Dutch? We shall see, but it will be a great test. We need to be competing well by then, otherwise it’s a medal opportunity lost.”
Hinch is in this position thanks to her own dogged determination to fight for the jersey. After being rejected countless times at county level, she first made her international debut in 2008 before taking over as number one in 2013. Originally coached by Steve Bayer, now Belgium’s goalkeeping coordinator, he allowed Hinch to work on her diminutive strengths as a quick athlete.
Having initially “bounced around” between the posts five years ago, her dynamic movements soon changed – coach John ‘Hursticus’ Hurst at Bisham has also been crucial here – while the theory within the GB camp that top teams must have a match-winning goalkeeper has been portrayed thrillingly by Hinch in the last two years.
She was no advocate of the penalty stroke before it was disbanded for the drama from the 23-metre line in 2011. The shoot-out has certainly been to the detriment of the opposition in those intervening years.
She first noticed signs of Dutch weakness during last summer’s EuroHockey Championships in London and has admitted that England were always going to prevail at Lee Valley.
It included seeing Paumen bizarrely stand away from the team in London during her first shoot-out heroics. Then, on that balmy Friday night outside Rio a year later, Paumen seemed hesitant in coming forward for the first-half penalty stroke, which Hinch easily saved.
At least it did from my vantage point in the press tribunes. “I don’t know why she would have been worrying about the stroke,” says Hinch. “I am about five feet tall and all she needed to do was put it where she always puts it. I had done my homework for it and I could probably see two that she missed in the last six years.
“I remember thinking it will either hit me or it won’t. She just didn’t seem to get hold of it at all. What an unusual thing to see. Was she over thinking a little bit? Maybe. I am very flattered if she was, as I thought she would score.”
Paumen is still only 31 and her retirement, coupled with two agonising defeats to England and GB, leaves many unanswered questions. Namely, has twice coming second to Kate Richardson-Walsh and Co proved too much to carry on?
Hinch says: “Yes, it’s definitely something that she doesn’t want to remember too much. It’s been a tough year for her, but then again she has been such a valuable person to that team. Without her or her leadership would they have been in those finals in the first place? Probably not.
“She’s still incredibly impactful for them and will be a big loss. If she reflects back on the last 12 months, it has been a disappointing time for her. They seem to be always there but they haven’t won a final for quite some time now.
“They can’t seem to get over that hurdle and the Olympics and the Europeans would have been tough to take, especially against us twice and in the same fashion. They probably over think a few things when they play us.”
Still, the Dutch are hardly likely to start becoming early tournament casualties, as Hinch has witnessed first hand this season. “The reason the Dutch are as good as they are and why they are dominating the hockey scene is because the club system is so strong. Being out there and seeing the setup and how it’s done every day, has made me realise how much we need to do back here to be on a level playing field.
“It’s difficult though. The number one factor is that there is no school sport. They finish at 3pm and are released to go into club training. Here, you play your hockey in schools and the club system means that there are less members.
“Where we are, there are waiting lists to come in with thousands of kids. Sophie [Bray] has nine pitches Kampong and I have five. The only reason they have that is that they have the sponsors backing them and the money behind them to build those facilities. Could we do that now? Probably not.”
Last week, Hinch and her team-mates were feted once more at the GB Hockey Ball at Tower Bridge. Organised in the aftermath of the Rio gold, the night was as much about raising money for England Hockey’s new charity, Hockey Futures, as it was finding more blue chip sponsors ahead of the sport’s next leap.
Hinch is adamant that the next few years will be “a hell of a journey to go on” for England Hockey as world hockey chiefs implement a new international structure in 2019 and the national governing body looks to entice broadcasters to showcase the English domestic league.
“Fundamentally it’s about clubs getting financial backing from sponsors who want to support the sport,” adds Hinch. “Off that, can they get a couple more pitches down? Can they build a stand and can we get the crowds in? We’re definitely behind but if it’s ever going to change, it is now.”
To find out more about Maddie Hinch’s upcoming projects, go to www.redbull.com.
This article originally appeared in The Hockey Paper on Wednesday 14th December 2016.