Published in print before lockdown, columnist Todd Williams says narrowing of top domestic clubs is detrimental to the game
So, let’s get straight to the point: Premier League hockey in England is broken. It is failing clubs, players and coaches all around the country.
There, I’ve said it. But, first, a quick disclaimer. None of what I’ve written here should be taken personally by any player, coach or club official. Nor am I taking a swipe at clubs with money, their recruitment ethics or player movement. Yes, these are problems, but they are only by-products of an inherently flawed model.
I would also add that I’ve been told that England Hockey are proposing significant changes aimed at bolstering clubs at the top levels of the domestic game. Well, that’s certainly good and overdue news.
However, there’s not going to be any improvement unless the first point of action is to grasp the huge nettle growing at Bisham Abbey that gives us the diminishing and lop-sided men’s and women’s competitions that we have today.
Again though, it’s time for another disclaimer. This isn’t a criticism of the national programme, the coaches or players. I’m simply saying that you are never going to have a fair, functional and genuinely national league if you don’t recognise that that all those players living in Marlow didn’t actually grow up there.
Now, I know the enormity of that point and the logistical and scheduling issues it raises. But on the other hand, the current craziness of the top tier of players effectively being limited to playing for clubs no further than 75 miles away from Bisham Abbey has to be fixed before it is too late.
The high-profile relegation of Bowdon in the women’s league shows us yet again how the “Bisham Effect” is sending more of the clubs that have produced, and continue to produce, international players into the wilderness.
Now is the time for England Hockey to concede that international players actually come from schools and clubs all around the country and are not made on some production line at Bisham Abbey. The recent inclusion of Jacob Draper, Rupert Shipperley and Leah Wilkinson into the Tokyo training squads surely proves that point.
The current madness isn’t isolated to the north and there are many important hockey areas around the country that are now treated as distant outposts, while they ironically continue to produce a significant proportion of the current crop of top players.
You only have to look at the league tables from the season I came over here (1998), to see the true extent of what has done to the hockey landscape. Back then, the likes of Cannock, Canterbury, Old Loughtonians and Guildford were household hockey names in the men’s top division, while Ipswich, Olton, Sutton Coldfield and Leicester were women’s powerhouses.
The lure of players to London is nothing new and there’s always been a big proportion of top players coming out of university and moving to the capital as their next step for employment. The “Bisham Effect” has added a whole other level to this which clubs too far away have no chance to counter.
Just suppose that Bowdon had as much cash or even more than the clubs under an hour away from Marlow. How many players from the current national squad would likely fancy the 340-mile round trip to and from training twice a week? And even if you do have the players, as Beeston men did a few years ago, you’ll never see them for training, which completely undermines the investment.
In football the way around that is to recruit from the rest of the world. But that’s easy when you’ve got piles of cash and sympathetic import player regulations.
It’s hardly a fair alternative, though, for clubs not sufficiently close enough to Bisham to have to absorb the cost of flights and accommodation in order to get foreign players good enough to compete with the clubs who can afford the top domestic players that are conveniently made to live on their doorstep.
The net result of all of this is that the two Premier Leagues are dominated by the small pool of players who are either currently training at Bisham or have done.
It can’t be a coincidence that in both leagues it’s the teams with the most of these players at the top and the teams with the fewest are at the bottom.
And again, without anything against any club, coach or player, it’s hardly the sign of a flourishing league when, in the men’s competition, six-time champions Reading are relegated on the final day by Old Georgians who, in their first Premier League season, had seven former Reading players in their line-up.
As ever in our sport, the answer is not an easy one. That said, it’s still no excuse to turn a blind eye to the current situation or palm it off as an unfortunate side-effect of needing to focus on the higher priority of the international game.
So please England Hockey, stop gazing at the stars and start finally recognising that you are biting the many club hands that feed you.
You deserve enormous credit for your portable pitch innovation which can take the international game around the country. But that’s not going to be much good if there aren’t any top clubs and players in those areas to watch it.
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