A National League Hockey Club, part of Holcombeians Sports Club

Barry Middleton: Holcombe fully-focused on Old Georgians clash

By Lucas Ball

Barry Middleton says Holcombe are fully-focused on Saturday’s clash with Premier Division champions and Euro Hockey League (EHL) bronze medallists Old Georgians as his side bid to qualify for League Finals weekend.

At this stage last season, Holcs had already secured qualification with two wins out of two in Phase Three but after losing their opening Phase Three match 1-0 to Hampstead & Westminster, Middleton’s men still need a win to guarantee a spot at this year’s end-of-season showcase to have a chance at a first title for Holcombe and another season of European hockey.

It would be Holcombe’s first victory over Old Georgians since 2020.

That loss was followed up by a 5-2 win over Beeston, who Holcombe also beat 10-0 in Phase One, with captain Nick Bandurak scoring twice on his first appearance since November as Holcs moved up to second in the Pool A standings.

A draw or even a loss could also see Holcombe qualify if Hampstead & Westminster fail to beat Beeston.

Middleton said: “It does a feel a long time ago, it was nice to get back to winning ways – we spoke a lot after the Hampstead game [a 1-0 loss] and said the performance hadn’t been too bad, the result was very disappointing but that there was still a lot to play for, for the rest of the season.

“So, to go out against Beeston and show what we’ve been doing all year was really good and people’s reaction since has been brilliant through the two weeks of training and in that game.

“It was nice to put a bit of a marker down there and boost the goal difference, winning by a few which helps heading into the weekend coming.

“We’ve always known what Beeston are about, they’ve generally always been a tough team to play against, they showed that last year in games we played against them and the same through this phase.

“I think they’ve gone back to a bit of their essence and you know what you’re getting with them, second half of the season they’ve been really strong and they’ve got some really good players, key players for them.

“Crofty [Henry Croft] as a goal scorer and a corner threat, particularly, it gives you so much to play off.

“I thought we did really well and controlled that threat quite well, we put ourselves out there on them and didn’t let them get lots of chances or give many corners away.”

“It’s always helpful – I think generally, we know with people who score goals, whoever it is, corner-flickers, goal scorers, they’re the ones you find hardest to replace.

“Banders [Nick Bandurak] for any team he’s in as the focal point, you’ll lose so much when he’s not there.

“We’ve managed through a bit of the season without him but naturally, in the games where it’s really tight, he’s one that can make a difference for us and he did it again against Beeston, scoring in the first five minutes, the first chance that comes, it changes how the game feels for everybody

“I think it’s not something we talk about too much as a group, history against teams – we know that can change all the time.

“We look at our performances through the year against certain teams.

“We’ll try to focus on what we’ll do a lot – we know that, over time, things can happen but on any given day, we truly believe we can match any team in the league and that’s what we’ve got to do again this weekend.

“We’re nowhere close to looking at play-offs yet.

The simple thing is, the maths works out nicely on a win, we’re qualified. 

“There’s lots of permutations below that but, for us, that’s the simple stat that in some ways makes it quite easy to know what we’re focusing on.”

Old Georgians, whose player-coach is former Holcombe man Ashley Jackson, are coming into this match following three games in five days over the Easter weekend at the EHL in Amsterdam, where they became just the third English team to ever medal since the EHL’s conception in the 2007/08 season after Reading in 2010/11 and Surbiton in 2022.

Both Holcs and OGs played in the KO16 in Barcelona in October, with Jackson’s side progressing to the FINAL8 and Middleton’s narrowly beaten by hosts Real Club de Polo in a tight encounter. 

The FINAL8 was also shown on TNT Sports in the United Kingdom, with opportunities to see club hockey on mainstream TV channels extremely limited. 

“We want to see English teams doing well, I know a lot of their guys so I’m really happy for them.

“We want to be there as well, we had the chance this year and obviously didn’t make it through but again, I think it shows that there is a real strength in this league, the top teams are really good, we’ve been trying to say this for a few years.

“The international guys are showing that at international level, too, how strong they are at the moment and that’s pushing the standard through the league when you see what they’re doing week in, week out.

“The guys we’ve got with us, but with the other teams as well, they’re incredible with what they’re doing at the moment but hopefully, it’s a bit of recognition for where English hockey is at the moment.

“What we want to do is we want to challenge that ourselves, push it further, we want two teams doing well so we can start to get three teams in like the other top European nations are doing.

“Not for me, no – I think with games it’s are you in recovery or in rhythm?

“Actually, through the season it’s quite nice playing games, getting the most intensity.

“Not playing games sometimes can feel like people are fresh but actually you’re out of rhythm, you’re out of the matchplay, so I don’t think it changes anything.

“They’ve had enough time off between, they’ll have trained anyway.

“We’ve all played double-headers through the seasons, I don’t think it’s going to be an issue at all for them with the players they’ve got, I know a lot of them, I know how fit they are so it’s just a normal game, there’s no advantages there.

“That’s we want [on TNT Sport’s coverage of the Euro Hockey League], the more we can get it out there, get it seen – we know how good the sport is, how special it is, the skills that are in it.

“We just want people to be able to see that and enjoy it.

“I think it’s going in the right direction [with clubs streaming too], I really like what clubs are doing, what people are pushing.

“One club starts to do it and then someone else does, it follows on.

“Fingers crossed at the moment, everything does seem to be going the right way and we’re trying to get more and more out there.

“It’ll take time obviously, people know this, so we don’t need to get too upset if we’re not there in six months’ time or a year but as long as we’re doing the right things that can push along the way, then the sport’s in a good place.”

It could be a busy summer for some of Holcombe’s internationals with a number of players harbouring serious hopes of going to the Olympic Games in Paris – including four Great Britain players in Ollie Payne, David Ames, Phil Roper and Bandurak.

“We all want the guys that are here to be part of that, I’m pretty confident they will be, I know how good they are.

“I would always have them in my team but I know all of the guys who will be going to Paris as well and honestly, I’m so excited for all of them to get a chance again, it’s amazing what it does.

“With an Olympics coming around, there’s always a different feel to it, you can sense that within the group and it’s even better when you know it’s a team that has a chance of doing something.

“I think that’s the nice thing at the moment, you know this is a group of guys that I’m hoping are on the cusp of really tipping over the edge of really making something special happen in the next five, 10 years for England and Great Britain Hockey.”

While recruitment and plans for next season are firmly on the agenda, Middleton – having become a father for the first time earlier in 2024 – is also looking forward to a break from hockey in the off-season. 

He added: “I’m probably thinking about it 24 hours a day and no hours a day would be my answer [recruitment].

“It’s a constant thing but then also everyone knows that this Phase Three part is so important and building to play-offs, it just comes around so quick so at the moment, it’s all about Saturday and then fingers crossed, we’ll have a week to prepare for two more games next weekend as well.

“We won’t have too much time off.

“When you say balancing, I don’t think I’ve balanced – it’s been hard work with everything, trying to still play, coach and do everything fully during it.

“I probably regretted that for a couple of weeks but things are starting to settle down and we’re absolutely loving it, life is good at the moment.

“I think I’m looking forward to a little bit of a rest from hockey as well in a couple of weeks’ time.”

Saturday’s match starts at 6pm at St. George’s College, Weybridge, with updates set to be provided across Holcombe’s social media channels. 

Image: Martin Waight