A highly entertaining summer of international hockey is now behind us, with England finishing fourth in the Eurohockey Championships. It is now time to focus on the domestic league. With the NOW: Pensions Men’s Premier League due to start this weekend, The Top of the D runs the rule over the teams contesting the top honours. First up, the top five teams from last season.
Last season The Bees were incredible. They had the league title sewn up in February and finished 11 points clear of second placed Surbiton. They continued their outstanding form in the play-offs, overcoming Reading in a shootout in the semi-finals before blitzing Surbiton in the final, 5-1. The Nottinghamshire side scored 82 goals in the 18 league games with Simon Egerton bagging 23 of those. With an extended run in the Euro Hockey League as well it is fair to say there was a lot to be proud of at Highfields. The summer however has seen quite a large turnover of players. Player-Coach Martin Jones has decided to take a sabbatical from playing, whilst Egerton, the league’s top scorer has decided to try his luck in Holland, joining HGC. Michael Hoare and Tim Lewis have moved south to ply their trade at Wimbledon and Reading respectively. For many sides, these departures would be catastrophic. Beeston however have good depth in their squad and have recruited well. Sam Ward returns from Loughborough Students to fill the goalscoring void, whilst Gareth Hall, the Scottish International and Johnny Ruiz both look to be useful signings. Beeston also still have their Great Britain contingent with George Pinner, Adam Dixon, Tim Whiteman, Ollie Willars, Ben Arnold and Harry Martin all still loyal to the Bees. With such quality in the ranks you can be confident they will still be one of the teams to beat.
Position Last Season: 1st (League phase) Champions (playoffs.)
Matt Taylor (Coach, Beeston Ladies.)
Sam Ward (Loughborough Students.)
Gareth Hall (Kelburne, Scotland.)
Johnny Ruiz (Surbiton.)
James Blackwell (Belper.)
Simon Egerton (HGC, Holland.)
Martin Jones (Sabbatical.)
Michael Hoare (Wimbledon.)
Alistair Wilson (Cambridge.)
Tim Lewis (Reading.)
Craig Boyne (Return to Australia.)
Player to Watch: Adam Dixon. Beeston’s captain was very unfortunate to miss out on the London 2012 squad for Great Britain. Since that disappointment, the Bees’ Star has been in phenomenal touch. Instrumental in both domestic and European campaigns last time out, Dixon seems to be in the form of his life, impressing for England under the new coach, Bobby Crutchley, and driving his team on to a great season. Expect more of the same from the 27-year-old in 2013/14.
Surbiton enjoyed a successful campaign last season. Second from bottom at Christmas, they went on an incredible run that saw them unbeaten in the second half of the season, finishing second in the league and winning the EH Cup. Their only defeat came in the Championship final where they were thumped by a rampant Beeston side. With their first European competition in 11 years to look forward to, the Sugden Road outfit will be raring to go. They have managed to keep the majority of their squad together, losing only Johnny Ruiz to Beeston. However they have added some quality with Alan Forsyth, a Scotland international with EHL experience coming in from Kelburne whilst Geoff McCabe and Michael Watt have returned to the British Isles from abroad. With James Tindall, top scorer for the team last season still in the ranks, Scotland star Chris Grassick looking a class act and Rob Moore and Matt Daly still around too, Surbiton have a formidable squad. If they can start the season as well as they finished last year, the sky could be the limit.
Position Last Season: 2nd (League phase.) Runners-up (Playoffs.)
Player to Watch:
Chris Grassick. The Scotland star is one of only two non-English players in the Great Britain training squad. He is a strong and energetic player who is able to get up and down the pitch and chip in with some important goals. The 22-year-old midfielder has an eye for a pass and will pull the strings for the array of attacking talent Surbiton have at their disposal.
Last season, on their return to the top flight, the Polo Farm side turned a lot of heads with their attacking style. They finished fourth in the playoffs after defeats to Surbiton and Reading. Canterbury scored 59 goals, the second highest in the league, however they conceded 57 goals, the third highest. They were also the only team to go the whole season without drawing a game. It is fair to say they have an entertaining, win or bust approach to their hockey, making them a dangerous proposition and an exciting team to watch. They have managed to maintain the bulk of their squad from last year, adding Wei Adams, goalkeeper Antoni Kindler, and Benjamin Messerli to strengthen their side. With Kwan Browne still a formidable force all over the pitch and striker Ross Gilham-Jones, newly added to the Great Britain Central Training Squad, spearheading the attack, Canterbury will be a good bet for the end of season playoffs and maybe a place in the EHL.
Position Last Season: 3rd (League Phase.) 4th (Playoffs.)
Wei Adams (Royal Pingouin, Belgium.)
Antoni Kindler (West Vancouver, Canada.)
Benjamin Messerli (Rotweiss Wettingen, Switzerland.)
Ben Cowling (Havant.)
Player to Watch: Michael Farrer. The Canterbury captain might not be a household name, but for those who have seen his side play, the 28-year-old is a vital cog in the machine. A driving force and a player you rarely see make a mistake, the skipper also finished as his team’s top scorer last season, with 13 goals. Ten of those were from penalty corners, meaning in tight games, Farrer’s set piece accuracy can make the difference between winning and losing (Canterbury don’t deal in draws, after all!)
Reading produced a strong second half of the season in 2012/13 to secure their place in the play-offs. They won four of their six post-Christmas matches, losing just once to storm into the end of season showpiece with some style. The ‘Ding also knocked out Dutch giants Rotterdam in the KO16 stage of the EHL, succumbing in the next round to eventual beaten finalists, KHC Dragons.
In their playoff semi-final they ran Beeston close, losing on shootout before thumping a tired looking Canterbury 4-0 to take third place and secure European qualification yet again.
Reading have a talented squad with good depth. Their Great Britain contingent consists of Dan Shingles (a summer signing from Southgate), Nick Catlin, James Bailey, Tom Carson, Darren Cheesman and Simon Mantell. A list like that makes them a quality side in anyone’s book. That’s before you even mention the combative Ireland Captain, John Jackson and former GB stars Richard Mantell and Jonty Clarke. Reading are always there or thereabouts when it matters and with the class they have in their ranks, expect them to be in the mix at the end of the season once again.
Position Last Season: 4th (League Phase.) 3rd (Playoffs.)
Dan Shingles (Southgate.)
John Jackson (Braxgata, Belgium.)
Tim Lewis (Beeston.)
Nick Catlin (Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles.)
Gary Noble (Richmond.)
Jamie Legg (Richmond.)
Huw Jones (Oxted.)
Craig Peel (HCKZ, Netherlands.)
Players to Watch:
Tom Carson. The former Exeter University star enjoyed a successful first season at Sonning Lane, culminating in a call up to the Great Britain Central Training Squad. The 23-year-old forward has scored nine goals in 22 international appearances and netted seven times in domestic action for the ‘Ding last season. His first touch and control is exceptional and he has a calmness in front of goal that can’t be taught. As well as all of these skills Carson is developing a more than useful drag flick for penalty corners. Expect the young Reading striker to go from strength to strength in 2013/14.
For one of the traditional big hitters in the NOW:Pensions Men’s League, last season turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. A side used to being in the finals and one of the successful English teams were dumped out of the EHL by domestic rivals Beeston and forced to watch the domestic playoffs from afar as Reading snatched the last spot by virtue of a superior goal difference. A lengthy injury list at one time or another robbed Grinstead of the services of, amongst others, Ashley Jackson, Iain Lewers and Mark Gleghorne. Three such quality players would be a big miss in any side. With an influx of players over the summer including a trio from Loughborough Students (David Condon, Simon Faulkner and Andy Bull) the Saint Hill side will be looking to bounce back and re-claim a place in the EHL.
Position Last Season: 5th.
Andy Bull (All Loughborough Students.)
Ross Stott (Grove Menzieshill, Scotland.)
Joe Sterlini (Southgate.)
Ricky Fraser (Brighton)
Mark Luns (Rotterdam, Netherlands.)
Rick Gay (Southgate.)
Player to Watch: If he is able to put his injury woes behind him, naturally, Ashley Jackson will be the key man for the Sussex side. However, the arrival of David Condon promises to be an exciting signing for EG. The 22-year-old midfielder had a good Eurohockey Championships for England and is developing into a terrific player. Comfortable on the ball, strong, a good range of passing and an increasing ability to score goals should see the former Loughborough Students man become a fan favourite at Grinstead.
That covers last year’s top five teams, the rest of the league, including the two promoted sides, Wimbledon and Sheffield Hallam will be previewed tomorrow.