One of the things that has struck me about the new-look England squad during the early days of the current cycle is the feel-good factor around the group. There seems to be a buzz, a happiness and an excitement which is mirrored by their efforts on the field. Phil Roper, one of Bobby Crutchley’s three captains, seems to be the embodiment of that when we meet for our interview in glorious sunshine at the picturesque Bisham Abbey. Relaxed, bouncy, smiling and almost carefree, Roper who has played some of the best hockey of his career in the past six months is clearly in a good place right now.
“I’m very excited about the Euros” he beams. “We’re all pretty excited. We’ve had a solid start to the cycle this past seven months. We’ve had some success and some good performances, we’ve played some exciting hockey. Hopefully we can do that again in the coming weeks.”
I ask the captain about the current mood in the squad which he describes as “a group of good mates playing hockey” adding: “It’s definitely a positive when you have players who enjoy playing together and spending time together. We try to bounce off each other on and off the pitch to get into the right frame of mind and we have a good spirit right now which is coming across on the field.”
The “group of mates” feeling is perhaps most apt for Roper, a Sheffield Hallam graduate who now finds himself lining up alongside two of his best friends from their university days in fellow Hallam alumni David Goodfield and Brendan Creed.
“It is a bit of a uni old boys group I guess. I’ve got to put up with Gooders and Brendan for a bit longer but I can deal with that!”
“They both came in the trial period and did unbelievably well. Watching them improve this past six months has been great. They both express themselves in different ways. Watching Gooders beat players is always exciting. Brendan has been excellent so far, too. He’s got a wide range of skills which helps. His range of passing is phenomenal. They’ve both been great but they will improve and get even better for us with time.”
Roper missed out on selection for the Rio Olympics, a disappointment that seems to have spurred him on since. He enjoyed a breakout season in the Euro Hockey League with Wimbledon, producing some superb displays as well as turning heads on the international scene. The No15 has become a pivotal player for England and one of the team’s captains. He insists however, he has a way to go to before he is satisfied:
“Being injury free helps but I’ve learnt a lot since I’ve been in the central programme and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons from my failures. I’ve really focused on what I need to do to be better. I’ve learned not to worry what people think and to go out and play with freedom. That’s really come into my mind in the last year and hopefully that shows on the pitch.”
“I don’t think I’m a main player. Every player takes responsibility to make a positive impact on the team. We have a flat hierarchy and I’m really enjoying myself. I don’t think I played to my full potential the last four years but I’m cracking on now and hopefully I’m getting close to it.”
With Roper and the rest of the squad improving all the time, the final question has the Skipper weighing up his team’s chances in the EuroHockey Championships:
“I’m confident but I’m not underestimating anyone. We know what Ireland did to us a couple of years ago. Every side in the competition will pose problems and threats but we believe we can beat anyone out there.”
“Can we win a gold medal? Why not? We will take it one game at a time but any player going there saying they aren’t thinking about medals might not be telling the truth! We’re no different.”