Tuesday, June 18, 2024

England Hockey season preview: club exposure, GMS promise and remembering Grace

The sport opens the 2023/24 season this weekend at elite level, while hockey tackles a higher profile and remembers the life of Grace Kumar

The English season kicks off this weekend when the men’s and women’s Premier Division clubs begin their campaigns ahead of the National League openers and other Area counties next week. September is certainly upon us.

The Finals Weekend will once again form the culmination of the league season, this time in an all-important Olympic year. That’s if both GB sides can progress from tough Paris Olympic qualifiers in January, which start days after the inaugural Hockey 5s World Cup in Oman, a competition England will not feature in.

Many of the England men who forged a brilliant silver at the EuroHockey Championships last month will be vying for GB berths. Most will be on view in the 2023/24 men’s Premier Division, which continues, mystifyingly, to be without a title sponsor as Vitality continues its association with the women’s game.

England women returned from Germany once again without a EuroHockey medal, the GB women’s success in Rio seven years ago remaining the sole success. Much was promised on the back of Olympic gold, but hockey (barring a well-attended London World Cup in 2018) continues to be sidelined from a raised profile and has remained largely static.

All barring the England Hockey honours’ board after East Grinstead memorably ended Surbiton’s 10-year tenure as women’s title champions last season.

Yet, paltry domestic attendances remain, while the EuroHockey was available behind a paywall in the UK. Meanwhile, women’s sport TV viewing time in the UK was up 28% on the back of England women’s run to the football World Cup final.

Back on the domestic front, the move by England Hockey to schedule men’s Premier Division matches on a Saturday is a sound one. This increases more double headers, the potential for bigger crowds and, one hopes, more club members to be able to watch the 1s. 

Crowds have been well attended over Pro League but paltry at domestic level PIC: GB HOCKEY

This will even include a one-off Thursday night lights when Old Georgians — with Ashley Jackson installed as player/coach and Brett Garrard moving across to the women’s game as the club goes for a hat-trick of titles — travel to Holcombe on Sep 28, with the men’s champions in Euro Hockey League action a week later.

Meanwhile, the chance for club players to match their own statistics with the game’s elite still remains an unknown. The shiny new era of head to heads, historical data and playing stats for the grass roots game, promised by England Hockey with its stuttering GMS system, is still yet to bear fruits, although this season could see its emergence for the first time. 

Not for the first time did we see a strange story emerge in May of a breakaway league mooted. Backers of the new concept claimed to have a headline sponsor, coverage on a digital sports channel and some clubs behind it, while the whole story seemed to be nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Indeed, THP spent time contacting clubs, most of whom seemed to be in the dark.

The hope is that collaboration between England Hockey and clubs continues to be forged. The Premier Division is woefully under-reported but more can be done with regional media (from local BBC down) to highlight the elite end, while it remains for clubs to ramp up its social media and promote weekend matches. This takes time and money, which this amateur sport isn’t largely flush with.

Hockey also continues to be in danger from 3G surfaces, while not a month goes by without a grassroots club putting out news in local media that it needs to raise up to £500,000 for a new pitch, an eye-watering sum. If your club is under threat from councils or even closure, please get in touch with us. And that includes any news, features or stories you think we should be publishing, including how England Hockey’s Talent System is faring

Is the sport seeing a decline in participation? HC PIC: Supplied

We also await figures later this season of Sport England’s Active Lives survey, which gives an indication of participation (In 2021, we reported that levels had been in decline since 2016). Increasingly in the modern era, sports are finding ways to keep players in their game and hockey is no different. The questions are whether clubs are folding lower teams through lack of players, or even facing merging with local sides to keep the sport alive. 

This season will also be a poignant one in memory of Southgate’s Grace O’Malley-Kumar, the sport tragically having lost a talented player in the Nottingham attacks in June and emotional tributes to the 19-year-old being paid.

Grace O’Malley-Kumar, pictured in 2019, was a talent across sports PIC: Facebook/Bancroft’s School

“It was her endearing and beautiful personality which made us all love her so very much,” Grace’s team-mate Sofia Martin, an eye-catching signing for Hampstead & Westminster this season, said in July.

“Her energy was infectious and her tenacious nature on the pitch never failed to be present through every session.”

Her words centred around news that a fund has been set up to create an official Grace O’Malley-Kumar Foundation “to ensure that Grace’s name leaves a legacy.”

To date, over £36,000 has been donated.

Total Hockey

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