By Tommy Alexander (Scotland & Reading HC)
It’s really important when reading this article that people understand that I’m not saying it’s “Hockey or Education” and I’m not suggesting that students should not play University sport.
What I am saying however, is that Universities playing in the National League is wrong.
I’m not going to critique the league structure today; that discussion is to be had later. However, understanding how the league system works is crucial to fully comprehend the issue in the title.
The National League is split into four leagues; the Premier League is the top league and covers the whole country with three Regional Leagues below. They are recognised as the North, East and West Conferences which are supposed to be of similar standards, or at least that was the theory behind it.
Personally, I feel that I have a good knowledge of conference hockey as I spent two very happy seasons playing conference league at Indian Gymkanha.
My first season was in the East Conference against teams such as Wimbledon, Holcombe, Richmond and Cambridge. The clubs are predominantly London-based. It was a strong league and therefore I was able to mature as a player and it helped me and many others greatly to make that step up into the Premier League.
My second season at Indian Gymkanha was in the West Conference due to Brighton HC being promoted to the East Conference. Indian Gymkanha was geographically the most west side in the East conference and we were forced to move. Quite frankly, I was shocked by the range of quality within the West conference.
If we look at this seasons’ performances and rankings, Bath Buccaneers and Cardiff & Met would have been able to compete comfortably in the East Conference, but the other contending teams in the West Conference are of a seriously lower standard.
If we look at Durham University, who are in the North Conference, they had a 100% success rate in the league, winning 18 out of 18 games; a great achievement by any standard. However, during this years’ Promotional Play-Offs, Durham University lost convincingly to the East Conference Champions, whilst only scraping a draw against the West (Sevenoaks and Bath Buccaneers) and then losing to Premier league side, Canterbury; showing how truly weak the North Conference is.
Realistically, by looking at the Play-Offs results, and having spent time playing Conference hockey it is evident that the Conference Leagues are in fact not of similar standards, but rather the East is the second division, West is the third and North is the fourth division.
But why is this important?
All the Universities in the Men’s Leagues, including Loughborough (who managed to gain a deplorable one point in their season in the top flight), are either in the Third or Fourth division, with the exception of Brooklands Manchester who struggled and only just survived in the the Premier Division.
Durham University’s squad included: Rhys Smith, who had been a regular starter for East Grinstead;. Jack Waller, who left Premier League champions Wimbledon (one of the best juniors in the UK) and Jack Turner, who joined after having a very good season at Richmond. These players were either playing in the Premier League or East Conference (Second Division), learning from and playing alongside experienced and quality club and senior international players; playing hockey at a much faster speed with access to a wider range of skills.
Sadly, for now and over the next three seasons, they will be playing at a much lower standard.
Let’s put this into perspective; this is the equivalent of a footballer such as Marcus Rashford, one of Manchester United’s most talented junior players having two fantastic seasons in the Premier League, and then leaving to play for Hereford FC – this would simply never happen.
I can’t fully blame the Universities for their lack of care for player development when results in BUCS are placed higher than that of an individuals player development. Aspirations of premier league hockey or becoming a senior international hockey player suffer or are at least delayed for years in hope of a BUCS Gold and the monetary reward that comes with it for the University.
Lets compare how England U21 Men and Germany U21 Men results have been in the Junior World Cups (Germany have never had Universities as domestic club sides).
England World Cup 1993 5th/12 (Head coach) Jon Royce (Teddington)
Germany World Cup 1993 1st/12
England World Cup 1997 4th/12 (Head coach) Jon Royce (Surbiton)
Germany World Cup 1997 3rd/12
England World Cup 2001 4th/16 (Head coach) Danny Kerry (Southgate)
Germany World Cup 2001 3rd/16
England World Cup 2005 9th/16 (David Ralph, Loughborough)
Germany World Cup 2005 6th/16
England World Cup 2009 16th/16 (David Ralph, Loughborough)
Germany World Cup 2009 1st/16
England World Cup 2013 14th/16th (Jon Bleby, Loughborough)
Germany World Cup 2013 1st/16
England World Cup 2016 8th/16 (Jon Bleby, Loughborough)
Germany World Cup 2016 3rd/16th
If we look at 1999 – 2004 seasons, the league structure consisted of 3 National Leagues (Div 1, Div 2 and Div 3) of 12 teams each, consisting of 1 university side making 3% of the league.
In the 2005/2006 the league structure changed to 4 divisions of 10 teams each. The 2 bottom leagues were split into the North Division & South Division which pushed an additional 3 universities sides into the leagues.
In just over 10 years, nearly 20% of the national league teams are now made up of University sides.
Since the leagues have become more regionalised and allowed the boom of University sides, the junior national teams have suffered dramatically.
Take a look at the woman’s national leagues. Despite following the same league changes the women have only increased University sides from 3% to 7%, keeping junior international results very similar. Ranging between 4th-8th position over a 20-year period as opposed to the men who have ranged between 3rd and 16th over the same time period; not ever getting better than 8th since the rise of universities becoming club sides in 2005.
How can you seriously compete against the likes of Holland, Germany & Belgium when all of their junior internationals are playing in the top division of their country.
Junior players are massively important in upping the standard of the National League. At the moment it’s very rare to see 18-21 year olds playing in the Premier League or East Conference (division 2) which has the unwanted effect of lowering club hockey at the top end.
Let’s look at the rise and fall of Cannock hockey club.
Cannock hockey club, based in the Midlands near Birmingham, has a rich history of winning domestic titles and performing well in Europe. The club was at its best in the mid-90s to the early-00s. It has a good junior section which has produced many junior internationals. It was a hub for inspiring University students (18-21 year olds) to join because it has the luxury of both Birmingham and Loughborough close by, filtering their players into Cannock where they could learn, train and be inspired from the senior international hockey players they had.
A prime example of that is Barry Middleton; current GB Captain and 4-time Olympian who was a Loughborough student but played for Cannock HC. On the topic of world class players; Maddie Hinch, the worlds best female goalkeeper is another example of separating University and club. Maddie went to Loughborough University, but played for Leicester HC.
The rise of Birmingham University as a club and Loughborough Students has drawn the youngsters away from Premier League hockey but has had the negative effect of filtering students into the West Conference (third divison) and North Conference (fourth divison) of hockey.
I fear for Beeston HC which had an excellent model of filtering students from Nottingham University and Nottingham Trent into a top quality Premier League side. With Nottingham University now reaching the North Conference, it prevents these young talented players from playing Premier League hockey but instead playing in the fourth tier of English hockey. I can only see junior development getting worse thanks to University hockey diluting the talent pool.
In spite of this, it would be naive of me not to talk about Birmingham University on the ladies side.
As they have been in the premier league for a number of seasons now. It’s far more common for young girls around the age of 14 or 15 to step up to first team hockey. So potentially Birmingham University students have already had up to four seasons of Premier League hockey under their belt which is a huge amount of experience.
Birmingham University on the ladies side have many non-students in the squad, for example Tina Evans (Welsh international), Bex Condie and Vanessa Hawkins making it more like a traditional ‘club’ which is an improvement but will never be as effective as being a club.
Why you may ask? It’s simple.
University sides don’t have junior or vets sections which the majority of National League clubs can offer. It’s a vital part of grassroots hockey for juniors to be in to learn again from the best and see the level to aspire to. National league clubs keep the talent pool larger.
The UK has become more and more London-centric every year. It’s vital that any students that do go to the Midlands and the North, to study/work, keep filtering into national league clubs in the area to replace the increasingly young professionals moving down South. Without students feeding National League sides, the harm to player development and the wealth of talented hockey players being identified from the Midlands above will diminish.
It’s one thing to moan and point out issues within any system and not have answers like Russell Brand and the last election.
So is there a solution? Of course there is.
The governing bodies could place restrictions on Universities getting into National Leagues? The key is that Universities should filter their students into close-by National League clubs, which is doable and sustainable.
Lets look at these ‘Hockey Universities’ and the closest national league clubs:
University of Birmingham (men) can filter players into Cannock or Beeston.
University of Birmingham (ladies) can filter players into Leicester or Beeston
University of Bristol (men) can filter players into Bath or Firebrands
University of Bristol (ladies) can filter players into Clifton or Firebrands
Durham Uni (men & ladies) is slightly more tricky but the answer would be to push the students to Durham Hockey club and using the students to push them up the league
University of Exeter (men) can filter players into Isca
University of Exeter (ladies) have linked with Isca calling themselves Isca University. Personally rather keep them separate but the students still play for Isca on the weekend.
Loughborough Students (male & female) can filter players into Beeston, Cannock and Leicester.
It is most certainly doable and easy enough to fix.
The hard part is admitting the problem and being brave enough to make changes!
Images: Perspective Photos