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English hockey continues to lose club lustre for international bluster

Hockey needs to look at ways of bolstering club attendances – and fast

By The Hockey Paper | editorial | online special

Later this month, the Terrassa Division of Honor men’s and women’s teams will convene at a hotel an hour outside Barcelona. A presentation ceremony will take place to highlight the importance of hockey in this hotbed region and acting as a link between sport and the Catalan city.

No such luck in the English game. The domestic scene kicks off on Saturday with the men’s and Investec women’s Premier Division pushing back throughout the day with another hugely lacklustre build-up, which has done little to whet the appetite for the coming months in what, for the women’s game, is an important milestone.

This season marks the 30th anniversary of the women’s national league. It will be a landmark moment for Bowdon Hightown on their travels to University of Birmingham, having been part of the league (first as Hightown) since its inception. And for Clifton too – barring one season outside the top flight – who joined the likes of Leicester, Slough, Ealing and Orpington for the inaugural Typhoo women’s national league in 1989/90.

But the season will once again start as a vastly secondary act to the international game. Consider the below excerpt from the Sunday Times‘ Rebecca Myers a few weeks ago:

“The women’s game in England is lucky: it has been gifted the holy trinity of a World Cup, an Olympics, and a home Euros – three years’ worth of momentum. It is hard to imagine a more fertile ground for growth.”

The writer was referring to football, of course, and how the Women’s Super League was set to be bolstered following this summer’s World Cup.

But did it ring any hockey bells? In 2015, England Hockey hosted the Euros, in 2016, the GB women won Olympic gold and, then, the 2018 World Cup came to London. The club game hasn’t seen any significant increases as a product on the back of this three-fold bonus. So what does that tell you how the domestic game is viewed in England?

Such is the rate that clubs lose their international players, that when the dates were announced for Great Britain’s Olympic qualifiers, it would have been safe to assume that another round of domestic fixtures was being devalued due to central programme commitments.

GB Hockey successfully requested to host the Tokyo 2020 play-off games on November 2 and 3. But nowhere in the news was it relayed that these crucial dates also fall on a blank weekend, with a nod to the Premier Division that no top flight games were being played.

And so the club game plods instead of plunders on for another season, either side of this early November weekend feast which will be heavily marketed by GB Hockey as Chile women and Malaysia men prepare to visit Lee Valley in seven weeks time.

And yet, at club level, there is so much to tell across the men’s and women’s games. How there seem to be more teenagers playing top level hockey than ever before. How some clubs will deal with the long travel times in rejigged leagues. The stories of amateurs continually paying their way to play the game they love. How the four quarters ruling will affect the grass roots game. And that’s just for starters.

One look at the Premier Division transfers reveal that it has also been another busy summer. These have been but a footnote ahead of another long season, barring Top of the D’s excellent brace of previews.

The Hockey Paper has done its best to keep enthusiasts updated over the last month or so with the latest moves, while Surbiton’s excellent press officer Colin Pike has tried to make headway in recent days with England Hockey’s player registration system to give a more authoritative take on final player movements.

High web traffic of our Ins and Outs suggests that there is a clamour for season interests, though club attendances suggest otherwise. As much as England Hockey must do more to address the imbalance, clubs must also look to ways in bringing more to the table to make the league a sponsor-friendly, entertaining product. That’s on the basis that England Hockey is indeed keen to professionalise the domestic game.

Since launching #WatchYour1s, we have seen a huge uptake of interest from clubs across the UK eager to be a part of our campaign. For all the positives, there has also been interesting debate on the validity of the campaign. For one, how drawn out pitch times and sporadic match times make it difficult for the 1s to be a focal point of clubs.

In an enlightening chat with Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh in Antwerp last month for the 30th anniversary special in our latest print issue, this issue was tackled succinctly by the golden pairing.

The Hockey Paper (cut)

As Helen states:

“There’s certainly a disconnect between the juniors and the first team. This is something we can take from the Dutch, the juniors have grown up looking at the 1s and there isn’t that same inspiration here. Coming at it from the grassroots is absolutely fundamental to the success of the national league.”

This week there has also been dissatisfaction at the lack of any kind of pre-season love from the national governing body. But are all these dissenters present at club games every weekend? Couple up with Helen’s vision of juniors watching the senior game, then we might just see some flourishing attendances.

For now, netball, cricket and football have all seen surges in domestic interest on the back of World Cups in recent seasons. Meanwhile club hockey continues to lag. The domestic game needs attention, from clubs and the guardians of the game. For now, enjoy the season. And, remember, do Watch Your 1s.

Have your say below or email newsdesk@thehockeypaper.co.uk

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