Club vs. Country

No matter which sport you are talking about, at some stage the age old row of club vs. country will rear its head. Hockey is no different. Should players prioritise their international ambitions over their domestic club’s aspirations? With a full International Hockey Federation (FIH) calendar running alongside the domestic schedule and with players building up to the Olympic Games in London, the issue has never been more pertinent. What are the effects on domestic clubs and their players of this hectic schedule of playing and training?

The powers that be, in charge of Great Britain Hockey have adopted a system whereby the players in the international squads are away from their clubs for long periods of time, whilst the domestic season carries on without them. Why have they opted for this system, though? David Faulkner, Performance Director, explains:

“Back in 2006, both men and women competed in the Commonwealth Games. It was agreed to postpone domestic hockey until all the international players were available for their clubs. Straight after the Commonwealths in March, both sides went to their World Cup qualifiers throughout April. The domestic season resumed after this, in May and was played throughout May and June, before the World Cup itself began in August. It was a punishing schedule for players used to finishing their domestic campaign in March/April. It resulted in a lot of player burn-out.”

As Faulkner rightly states, neither men’s nor women’s sides performed as they would have hoped at the World Cup, finishing 5th and 7th respectively, whilst player fatigue contributed to a less competitive standard, with some of the traditional powerhouses in the league, (East Grinstead, Loughborough, Reading and Surbiton) finishing a long way off champions Cannock. Some players also began to pick up injuries. In short, it was an experience from which no one benefited.

With this in mind, part of Faulkner’s role within the England and Great Britain set-up is to ensure that potential conflicts are resolved as quickly – and as mutually beneficially – as possible. There are a number of changes that have been implemented, the main points being as follows:

  • The Domestic hockey calendar runs as normal, regardless of international fixtures.
  • Once the FIH calendar is released, England and Great Britain work out a programme of availability for players likely to be involved with the international squads. This is shared with the clubs during a series of Premier League Forums.
  • These Premier League Forums are also a chance for clubs and the central boards to discuss any other issues that arise, allowing these to be dealt with accordingly.
  • England Hockey agreed with the clubs that teams would be able to register more players (30) for National League hockey. This ensures that clubs still have enough players available regardless of international commitments.
  • They also introduced the end of season play-offs. The top five teams in the league contest these. All international players are made available for training and games for the play-offs. This ensures that teams are at full strength and means that fans, media and sponsors get to see the top players in action for their club sides.
  • Athletes involved in the international squads are given an individual programme of technical and fitness work. It is however, up to them how much or how little they train and play for their domestic club. England and GB make recommendations, but do not explicitly forbid them from competing domestically.

As Faulkner correctly points out “these lessons came out of the problems from 2006. It was decided that clubs and the central board needed to work together to find a scenario that best suits everyone.”

Perhaps the most eye-catching of the above points is that the responsibility for their well being and determining their playing and training schedule falls to the players themselves. Faulkner explained that the players sign a code of conduct that covers their roles and responsibilities, but that they trust the players to do the right thing and to be sensible with the amount they play. While refreshingly putting the onus on the player, and allowing clubs to use their best players as they see fit, equally there could well be situations where players will want to play every game – and kid themselves they can do so.

At present, both men and women’s international squads do three pitch/technical sessions a week and two gym sessions. They are then free to choose whether or not to train with their clubs. Faulkner admits that many players in the international squads rarely, if ever, do so. Obviously this is not an ideal situation, but it is also one that is not forced upon the clubs, and one they are fully aware of at the start of each season.

Looking at the latest Great Britain men’s squad that competed in the recent Champions Trophy in New Zealand, the breakdown of players from each club makes for interesting reading:

East Grinstead had seven players in the squad. Beeston and Reading both had three representatives, Surbiton 2 and Wimbledon, Cannock and Old Loughtonians 1 each.

That means that these clubs played at least 2 domestic fixtures without their strongest players available. Faulkner estimates that these players will miss around 8-10 league games a season due to international commitments. Coupled with the rarity of training with their clubs it does, on the face of it, mean these players are an infrequent presence for their teams and makes the decisions of the clubs – particularly East Grinstead – to sign these players look strange. It is especially surprising given that the policy of transparency England and Great Britain adopt in outlining their player programmes as soon as they have the FIH calendar. In other words, all clubs are fully aware of player availability when they sign them.

It could be argued that the quality these players bring when available is worth missing out on them when they are on international duty.  With the spotlight on sports in the lead-up to this year’s Olympics, an East Grinstead side comprising Ashley Jackson, Glenn Kirkham, Barry Middleton, Mark Pearn and all the other household names is worth a few extra bums on seats, a few extra column inches and ultimately a few extra sponsors’ pounds in the coffers.

It is still a fairly big risk. What the clubs losing many players to international games seem to be counting on is either their fringe players being sufficiently talented to maintain their position at the top or that they will be able to get enough points on the board that a slump in form will not damage their play-off chances regardless of how much they struggle without their stars.

Both of these have their pros and cons. The absence of the international stars, coupled with the restrictions on overseas players (only one allowed per squad) means that young players get a chance to experience top-level domestic hockey and improve their game. This can only benefit the national side in the long run, as they are able to pick from experienced, talented, homegrown players. In Holland, Spain and Germany this is not the case, as there are no restrictions on overseas players. Whilst that leads to a galaxy of world stars playing in those leagues, it can make it tough for young players to break through. However, the British approach can also mean a number of below-par players are allowed a chance at the highest levels, diluting the quality of the hockey played, and thus reducing the standard overall.

The second point is an even bigger risk: It is akin to running the first half of a marathon as fast as you can, in the hope that you get enough of a lead that no matter how tired you are in the second half you can still win. I suppose the trick is for clubs to assemble a squad, rather than a first eleven, capable of challenging at the top.

As it happens, East Grinstead and Reading have managed to win their games without their star players, whilst Beeston have lost both, Surbiton have won one and lost one. It will be interesting to see if the pattern continues over the second half of the season.

So what conclusions can we draw from all of this?

Well, first and foremost, England and Great Britain’s central boards do an excellent job of communicating with the clubs. Whereas in football, the clubs and countries butt heads and end up with players pulling out of international squads on flimsy pretexts, in hockey, both have acknowledged the situation and decided to work together.

In this vein of transparency, no club should be surprised when a player cannot play for them, as their availability was known from the start. With that in mind, it is perhaps surprising that clubs are willing to sign so many players knowing they may only play a handful of times for them. That has to be classed as a risky policy that puts great pressure on the fringe players and could just as easily go wrong as right.

Faulkner and his colleagues are trying to move the international side in the right direction, allowing the players as much support as possible as they look to improve England and Great Britain’s standing on the world stage. If those players can pick up some domestic honours on the way, then that is a bonus. Is it ideal? Probably not. Then again, perhaps we should wait and ask the players when they are polishing their Olympic medals.

My thanks to David Faulkner and Lawrence West for their time and patience in supplying much of the information for this article.

 

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