By Rod Gilmour
This weekend Beeston and Surbiton will play a crucial top-of-the-table men’s Premier Division clash, with a Europe berth up for grabs and play-off spots still very much alive.
The season finale could not be much closer. Beeston will open their doors for free on Sunday and expect a bumper crowd for the visit of a side which lies two points behind the top-placed Nottingham club and, with many internationals missing due to the Commonwealth Games, there could be further twists in the final placings.
Yet optimism for a riveting finale does not sweep fully across England where this weekend’s permutations follow a week where the very future of domestic hockey has been decided by England Hockey’s board.
And in a season which also saw Beeston call a meeting with England’s top clubs to propose a ‘breakaway’ league – which was subsequently voted down nine to one – chairman Graham Griffiths says Sunday’s clash will be bitter sweet.
“This is the last National League as we know it and in a way it’s so sad,” proclaimed Griffiths.
The reason for Griffith’s unsatisfactory outlook stems from England Hockey’s consultation survey ‘Bridging the Gap’ (between international and domestic hockey) on the future structure of the domestic league.
An updated proposal in September then hinted at a two-phase league, with the Pro League – world hockey’s new annual global tournament which will feature GB men and women in action from January to June – at the forefront of the changes.
Griffiths said: “The truth is we have to get on with it. The international calendar is growing and that is going to make it difficult for clubs at the top.”
With the likelihood being that no top flight English clubs will be able to field any GB internationals in the first six months of the year, it is set to leave domestic clubs with a conundrum from January and when the league is revamped from 2019/20.
Griffiths, who hopes to bring his proposed changes back to the table one day, says that instead of fielding star players like Sam Ward and Mark Gleghorne, they would look to Spain, Poland and other under-21 internationals from across the globe to fill the gaps.
“The clubs are going to question whether they might have internationals at all,” he added.
Beeston joined forces with HC Rotterdam in a club development partnership last year, but Griffiths believes that the Dutch model would remain different from England’s domestic set up. By that he means that continental clubs would likely continue to be served by their international players.
Meanwhile England Hockey’s two-phase league proposal would also see:
– Clubs play in a National League between Jan and April / May. This will qualify teams for a ‘best v best’ competition between Sep-Dec.
– International players available to play for clubs in the ‘best v best’ competition (outside of international commitments).
Sally Munday, England Hockey’s chief executive, said: “The reality means that the players will spend a significant amount of time outside of the country in the January to April period and on long haul trips. It will be extremely challenging for players to play in that period.
“Our domestic league is not compatible with what will come in with the international season from 2018/19. Our proposals were trying to make us have the best of both worlds.”
One of Beeston’s constitutions in its proposed new league was one without University sides – all barring current Premier Division side Brooklands Manchester University HC.
“A club which is operated by the legal entity of a University, a University Student’s Union or Athletic Union shall be ineligible to become members of the company, or take part in the league,” the article of associations proclaimed.
England Hockey noted that it was “surprised” at Beeston proposals. But Griffiths’s vision was “to develop a University programme on a Wednesday as a kind of Super League. It’s not performance hockey at the moment.”
One University source admitted that the format was “flawed” while University of Nottingham’s director of sport Dan Tilley said: “We support England Hockey’s aspirations to raise the bar with domestic hockey, something we as institutions are also trying to do.
“Our understanding is that there is no intention by England Hockey to exclude universities from the restructuring of the leagues.”