The Top of the D meets: Matt Poulton.

For most people involved with a hockey club, things just happen. Often, players will not give much thought to anything outside of their role on the pitch and what the coach has asked them to do. In many ways, that is how it should be. But how does it all fall into place? A great deal of work is done behind the scenes by a series of unsung heroes. Matt Poulton is one such individual. The Top of the D spoke to the Reading Ladies’ 1st Team Manager at their Sonning Lane ground:

The Top of the D: How did you become the Reading First team manager?

Matt Poulton: I’ve always enjoyed the sport, so I wanted to put something back into it. I started working for England 
Hockey doing the Futures Cup and National Performance Centres. I was fortunate to be involved with the squad that won the Under 18s Futures Cup last year and ended up speaking to Simon [Letchford] that led to me taking over as Reading manger for the indoor last year. We got to the finals and I’ve never looked back.

TOTD: Do you still play?

MP: Yes. I play for the enemy. I play for Sonning. I could never play for Reading, as I’d get too much grief. I love playing for Sonning  but It’s a joy to be involved in such a professional outfit (Reading) with 25 quality players across the squad, so that’s why I’m happy to do both.

TOTD: Do you get much grief at Sonning for your involvement at Reading?

MP: Yes. Especially for wearing Reading kit to training. In actual fact, the relationship between Sonning and Reading is great. I can’t think of anywhere else where you have two clubs next door to each other that do so well. Reading has something like ten men’s teams and Sonning five. That’s not bad, is it? There’s a joint venture on the third pitch, which is a great example of how well the clubs work together. It’s a great place to be for hockey right now.

TOTD: What is the standard like?

MP: It’s MBBO Div 1, so pretty reasonable. Good social too.

TOTD: What are your main areas of responsibility as the manager?

MP: It depends on where we are that week. Reading obviously has a busy timetable and a busy year, so it’s non-stop.

For starters, the indoor takes a lot of planning and preparation. It’s not just about the tournament it’s about making sure we’re training well in advance as well. Then there are the away trips in the outdoor league; they always need to be planned in plenty of time. And of course this year we’ve got Europe to worry about too. Hopefully that’s something we’ll need to think about next year as well. It’s often a five-day commitment, almost like a full-time job alongside my actual job.

The funny thing is, the moment the game stops, my work starts again. Come Monday I’m speaking to umpires, liaising with the opposition, working with Simon on the squad. Then I’m up here Tuesdays and Wednesdays for video assessment and making sure the players are alright. On a match day it’s obviously my role to make sure the players know what they are doing so they don’t worry about logistics; they just worry about their hockey. During the game I run the substitutions and the team on the pitch, Simon calls the tactics then expects me to negotiate the team to fit around what he wants. It’s about 50 substitutions a game. It’s pretty full on.

TOTD: Do you ever advise him on the tactics?

MP: Of course I do, every second. He never listens to me, though.

TOTD: Does he take it in good humour?

MP: He’s a phenomenal coach. He’s absolutely out of this world. The girls respect him and everyone around the club respects him. Look at what he’s achieved: Ever since he’s come here, two-time indoor finalists, we won the league last year and qualified for Europe. He can take my advice in good humour, because he knows what he’s doing.

TOTD: What aspect is particularly impressive about his coaching?

MP: Well, if I had to pick one, I’d say the players he’s bringing through. Watch out for 16-year-old Livvy. She’s England U16s and now she’s playing National League. From my point of view, Simon deserves great credit for helping her to achieve that. It’s also one of the biggest honours I’ve had: subbing Helen Richardson for Livvy Paige. What an experience for a 16-year-old. She can say: “In my first National League game, I replaced a world all-star. I was only 16.” That’s brilliant for all of us.

TOTD: Do you have much input in the close season about which players the club might bring in?

MP: We have a management team who handles that. Steve Bayer and Simon work with a leadership group from the players. That includes players like Chantal (De Bruijn.) They all work to ensure we get the right people. We get approached a lot so it’s not easy. This year we’ve got two Australians through the Australian Hockey Board. We found them work and they both play in the first team. I do have a hand in that type of stuff, so it’s nice when it goes right. This year we also brought in Leah Wilkinson who’s come in and fitted in brilliantly. She’s a Welsh international and is top class. That’s three very good additions to an already very good squad. Close season is very much a team effort.

TOTD: Do you have a favourite player in the squad?

MP: Each week is different. You look at the squad and realise we’re so lucky. When you see that we have Beth (Storry) in goal you know she’ll deal with everything. She doesn’t make mistakes. Then you know Kate Walsh or Sam Quek will always perform. If that wasn’t enough you have the power of Laura (Bartlett), Hels (Helen Richardson) that can do pretty much anything, and then of course Alex (Danson) who will just pop up out of nowhere with a goal.

That said. Take the internationals out and look at the top ten scorers in this league: Becky Halle and Liana Smith are there. Liana was in the 1As last year now she’s scored 7 goals in the premier league. Everyone surprises you; we have world-class players and really great ones when they aren’t around. It’s hard to pick a favourite out of such a quality squad.

TOTD: How do you see things progressing for Reading over the next few years?

MP: I think all hockey in this country is dependent on what happens at the Olympics. Let’s not stick our heads in the sand, if the men and women win medals, the chances are their funding will go up for the central programme. Obviously that in turn means because of its proximity to Bisham, Reading becomes a very attractive club for the top players. Post 2012 some players will retire but that means new players have the chance to come and join the club. I think we’re the only club, that’s had both men’s and women’s teams competing in Europe. That’s testament to the club and that’s what we want to continue.

TOTD: Is Europe a big goal for you guys? Is that something you are desperate to win? 

MP: At the beginning of the season when we set out what we want to achieve we joked and said we wanted to win everything.

If you look at each competition, in the indoor we had a totally different squad from last year; some players had never played it before. Within six weeks Simon had moulded them into indoor players who played indoor hockey indoor rather than outdoor hockey indoor if you see what I mean? Look at what we achieved. [Narrowly losing the final to Leicester.]

Now we’ve qualified for the play offs outdoor and have a real chance of retaining the title. This is fantastic.

I don’t think our chances in Europe are as strong as they would have been last year because we don’t have the GB players. Then again it gives some players a phenomenal opportunity to play hockey on a grand stage. Europe next year is probably a bigger goal because we’ll have our full squad available. Then, we can show everyone what we are capable of. This year is more about having fun, enjoying it and learning from it.

TOTD: Where do you see yourself in hockey terms in the next few years?

MP: Who knows? I mean, ten years time, I’d love an England job, but from my perspective I’d say Reading is as close to a professional outfit as you can get in this country. That’s down to the players, the infrastructure and the facilities. There’s no money in Reading, we haven’t got a big sponsor, we’re looking for one, obviously, but we rely on other things. I hope I get to stay part of the management team and I hope we’re still successful.

TOTD: Finally, if you could choose between gold for GB men and women at the Olympics, or a clean sweep for Reading HC at home and abroad, (men and women) what would you choose?

MP: Tricky. Obviously the Olympics are a big thing, and will increase hockey’s profile. For someone of my age with young kids, I recognise that if hockey does well at the Olympics it’ll bring more players to the sport, which is great for generations to come. Reading with its facilities is a great place for kids to play hockey, there are so many colts playing here on Saturdays and Sundays so to develop that would be brilliant. Having said all that, if I don’t say Reading I’ll get in a lot of trouble. So we’ll go with that. It would make Letch happy and my life easier.

The Top of the D would like to thank Matt Poulton for his time and effort in supplying the answers for this interview.

About thetopofthed

Columnist for The Hockey Paper and the man behind The Top of the D. Writer, podcaster, goalkeeper and BBC Sport man. Used to work for Great Britain Hockey and have covered the sport at every major tournament.
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