There would be times interviewing Barry Middleton over the years where you would find him, or will him even, to be in an adrenaline moment. You knew when to sound him out for that diamond line. Still pumped from a winning match, Middleton would give you some tub-thumping, Three Lions-style quote or other. And, boy, these moments were good.
Three come to mind. The first came in Delhi at the 2010 Commonwealth Games when he spoke of facing up to a baying 20,000 crowd against India in the semi-finals. Then, in a hotel in The Hague before England’s match-up with Holland in the World Cup semi-final, he gave a battled-hardened interview on laying it out on the line, a la Terry Butcher and the blood-soaked headband era.
The most recent came in Bhubaneswar at the 2018 World Cup as England held on for a superb first victory over Argentina in 20 years to reach the semi-finals.
This was Middleton time. But as he came through to the interview area, it was clear he was in pain. He had felt the full impact of a thunderous 100 mph drag-flick from Gonzalo Peillat. Brushing off the discomfort, he was clutching his hand and visibly shaking as the adrenaline kicked in as he was able to speak of this instant World Cup classic. “You’ve got to do the little things people don’t notice,” he said. “You have to do the dirty stuff. That’s what wins you the bigger games, not the fancy stuff.”
Off the pitch, Middleton would have stellar words to say about any of the clubs he played for in his career. Which is why he received a multitude of plaudits from across the globe when news hit that his international days had come to an end. He admits that the manic few days following his retirement news was the first time he opened the memory bank on his career, which took in the likes of Doncaster, Cannock, HGC, Club An Der Alster, East Grinstead and current club Holcombe.
“I’ve always said when you’re in it, you don’t look back,” he tells The Hockey Paper. “I said once in an interview that when I finished I want to be remembered as someone who has enjoyed what I’ve done and brought happiness to people. It made me think that what I did was the right way. I think I’ve achieved what I’ve set out to do.”
The World Cup in India was ultimately his last hurrah – there will be no fifth Olympics – as he put one final, pugnacious effort into playing for England. He then returned home for two days before travelling to New Zealand to join wife Beckie, where the couple were player-coaches at Somerville HC in Auckland.
“There were times where I lost it and forgot it. That might be where the burn out came about as you are in it so much. With the last few years as you approach the end of your career, you fall in love with it again and you’re not going to do it forever. I really got that right but realised it was still just a game and you play better when you’re enjoying yourself.”
As he replied to messages following an international career which spanned 15 years, Middleton was finally able to think about the connections and memories he had forged in the game. “A lot of them aren’t the ones where you won or lost or did something crazy on the pitch,” he admits. “They were the times with team-mates or going away and the people I met across the world. That’s what hockey gives in so many ways. It’s so social and it’s a way of making friends.”
Middleton finished 21 caps shy of Teun de Nooijer’s world record 453. “He knew you had to leave him. That’s the reason why I stopped as you’re not allowed to go past Teun. He’s the hero.” A joke, of course. “It was always something that was spoken about,” he adds. “It would have been an amazing thing to get there but it was never about that for me. The amount of games I played was pretty good but it wouldn’t have changed anything to go past Teun and do 20 or 30 more. But you might see people go past it soon with the amount of hockey being played these days.”
Middleton made three FIH World All Star Team XIs and a large part of his longevity was down to having a relatively injury-free career. He broke his knuckle two years ago and had to take six weeks off over Christmas, broke his toe in 2010 and was out for six weeks and then his shoulder during the build-up to Rio. In all? He missed one tournament and was fit for every other.
“Everyone who is in elite sport finds themselves in pain most days of the year in some way,” he admits. “You drag yourself out of bed to get to a session somehow or people play with injuries and you look back and it doesn’t look normal when you think about what some of the guys are doing with their bodies. If you got scanned or X-rayed, you would probably have doctors telling them they shouldn’t be playing.”
Middleton says that the training regime prior to the 2018 World Cup ultimately laid the foundations for his decision. He says: “I had the hard training phase leading up to it and the days where my body was hurting. To drag yourself out of bed to train at 35 was getting harder. That was where I could make the decision rather than being emotional and at the World Cup. I gave everything I had in that phase and I didn’t think I could make that personal commitment again.”
Middleton has seen it and done it across the globe. But he doesn’t have any concerns over hockey’s future, more a hope that the sport can move forward with everyone’s best interests at heart. “It’s embracing the sport to keep hockey moving with Hockey One and the Pro League. My hope is that people can collaborate and realise that when you start new things they’re not perfect but done for the right reason and to make the best for each other.
“It needs to combine with the leagues in Europe and the club structure is a massive thing and this shouldn’t get forgotten. It’s where we get players from and the better we can make our club structure in England, the better for our international hockey.”
Middleton was back playing club hockey this season. Naturally, he holds a deep passion for it. He says he wants crowds watching and the club product not to be viewed as a secondary thought. “We are behind the European clubs and it’s about having the facilities and to make it an event people want to come to,” he adds. “The more we can embrace that and get people watching, the better.” Let’s hope his vision holds.
The only tournament England has won for a long time. It gets bigger and bigger the more you think of what we did there. With that group of players we are able to share something so special.
London 2012 Olympics
London was a home tournament and what I saw that do for the country and the sport was amazing. It was the first time I saw hockey get that much excitement and it’s kicked on from there.
2014 World Cup
The Hague was like a home tournament for me as I spent the main part of my hockey career at HGC. We thought nothing could outdo London but The Hague just took it up a notch.
This originally featured in a previous Hockey Paper edition. We are publishing print articles online during lockdown to give non-subscribers a taste of what we deliver in print.
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