Two pieces on Mark Hager’s appointment have now been written by The Times, the only UK national newspaper – which signed up Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh as columnists for the 2018 World Cup – to provide any coverage on the news of Great Britain’s decision to appoint the Australian as successor to Danny Kerry.
However, with headlines such as ‘Britain hired ‘bully’ coach’, and, on Friday, ”Bully’ coach warnings were ignored‘, it has hardly been a positive start to the highly-rated Hager’s tenure, in terms of media coverage.
Given that UK Sport has funded GB hockey men’s and women’s teams to the tune of £17.1m towards the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the issue has rightly been highlighted, which came to light in the aftermath of the women’s World Cup and not reported in the UK broadsheets when he was still coach of the Black Sticks.
Given also the controversies which have engulfed some British Olympic sports since the Rio Olympics – and the raft of articles written in New Zealand highlighting the alleged volatile environment in NZ hockey and accusations of ‘bully tactics’ – The Times‘ headlines were certainly forthright.
It remains to be seen what the media attention will be for GB Hockey if the soon-to-be-released review findings yield further negative material.
What the paper didn’t note in its latest report, however, was that apart from the 11 Kiwi players who raised concerns over ‘bully tactics’, there were seven players who backed Hager in an open letter, printed in a year which also saw several other controversies surface within elite New Zealand sport.
But at least the recent coverage has surfaced early in his role and the Australian can focus on the task ahead – and put to bed the sour ending to his otherwise successful career with the Kiwis, which gleaned Commonwealth gold last year (after beating England on the way) and a rankings rise throughout his time in charge.
It is also important to note Sally Munday’s assertion of Hager as “a good man, a family man of strong values and morals and that is a big part of his credibility as an outstanding hockey coach.”
So, let’s hope the UK national media can start to offer space on matters on the field and paint a picture of the emerging characters who will be bidding for an Olympic defence. Yes, Olympic champions and still – along with the likes of another British superstar, Adam Peaty – woefully under-represented in the sports pages on a regular basis.
Not that GB women have had much to shout about since Rio. They have yet to win a tournament, have had high-profile players sidelined by lengthy injuries and seen a leading player, Sophie Bray, even retire from international duties.
Meanwhile, GB men have started apace in 2019 – while there are characters emerging, notably in Rhys Smith, who is carving out some excellent hockey tricks on social media, suggesting that it’s not all hard graft and international focus at Bisham Abbey.
Clearly all hasn’t been rosy in camp since England were ousted from their home World Cup by the Dutch last summer and uncertainty over a full-time coach since. Character is what GB women needs now, once Hager works out his future template and sees the players he has at his disposal in the coming months.
With so many new faces in the GB team (the latest coming in the form of rising player Lizzie Neal) and several Rio stars still on the sidelines, it is set to be a fascinating year ahead in both tactical play – Hager was a revered forward during his playing days – and who emerges as candidates for Tokyo squad berths.
The home FIH Pro League encounters and looming EuroHockey Championships will see to that.