By Lucas Ball
England and Great Britain [GB] goalkeeper Ollie Payne is excited about Holcombe’s chances ahead of their crucial Premier Division double-header weekend against Reading and Old Georgians, with the women’s team also in action twice at Holcombe Park against both the University of Birmingham and the University of Nottingham.
Payne is also excited about the changes to the league structure brought in this season and hopes Barry Middleton’s side will be a part of the league finals weekend, which will be hosted by Surbiton at the start of April.
“I’m looking forward to getting down there and seeing some familiar faces again, I enjoy these Saturday night games in London – they’re good fun and offer something different, the one at Surbiton’s probably always the biggest crowd – but playing at home is good fun, we always get a good crowd and there’s always smiling and friendly faces that you can have a good chat and a laugh with so it’s always good fun.
“The relationship [between the two first teams] has taken a step forward this year compared to last year, both first teams seem to be trying to stick around a lot more after games, trying to push the Saturday games a lot more to allow for a whole club day. I’ve certainly noticed a difference in club atmosphere when we’ve been playing having the girls there and then the familiar faces and the ultras almost there every week so it’s been a brilliant vibe.
“It’s never going to be all perfect and you’ve got to weigh things up, in terms of Phase One. This Phase Two stuff is brilliant, though, because this time last year we were in the top six, could’t get top two [for Europe] and couldn’t go down, so there was nothing to play for, we were just playing for pride.
“This change is brilliant, the game against Surbiton meant loads, as did the one against Wimbledon to try to get higher placing for the groups in Phase Three. That outweighs the Phase One stuff, which was a slog. Some results towards the end of it showed, it was a long stretch of games but we’ll take that to have the Phase Two stuff and the group games [Phase Three] will be amazing, hopefully we’ll get a good crowd down at Holcombe if we get any home games and I’m sure other clubs will be hoping for the same.
“The league finals weekend, then, will be a really positive step forward. It’s my third season in the Premier Division now and this has definitely been the best structure so far, for me.
“It’s really exciting [that play-offs will be back at a club venue]. We played Surbiton last weekend and it was a brilliant atmosphere there, I’m sure they’ll put a couple more stands in there and it’ll be brilliant. That’s what we need for the game. I’ve seen on Twitter that it’s arranged on the same day as the last games of the season for a lot of people – I’m sure there’s a reason for that, it’s not ideal but hopefully it’s a central location to the south that people can get there from their games and make an effort to be there.
“It’s not absolutely perfect but it’s a step in the right direction and something that, as a squad, we’re really excited about, hopefully we can get there and be competing there.
“As of next week, we’ll know about our group for Phase Three. In terms of this weekend, Reading are a good side, we had a really good game against them earlier in the season. They’ve got a good press and a few really good individuals, they’re well-organised. It’s going to be a difficult game but now with our side as it is, we’re wanting a win. We go into every game wanting to win, feeling confident.
“Old Georgians are a very good side, they don’t concede many and they always find ways to score. They’ve got good corner threat and good forwards who can always come up with a goal, so that’s always going to be a really tough fixture. The nice thing about playing top of the league is that it is a little bit of a free shot because they’re beating everyone.
“As long as they keep doing that, where we are at the moment it is a free shot. Equally, in the last two years, the games at Holcombe Park have been completely different to the games at their place so hopefully we can have a really competitive game with them and just take it right to the end and see what happens.
“The outcome will always be the main priority but, particularly in that Old Georgians game, we’ll be thinking about the fact that we are playing the best team in the country so how do we look, how do we set up, what went well. We’ll always be looking at how we can get better from that.
“We’ve got a really nice mix of youth and experience. Barry [Middleton] and Amesy [David Ames] running the ship, there’s nothing I can say that hasn’t been said about them, they’re absolutely brilliant. It’s great coming away from training just enjoying what we’re doing. The experienced guys at the top help, too – Phil [Roper] will chime in when he needs to and leads by example, same with Bandy [Nick Bandurak], he’ll be banging in goals like he always does and offering value.
“We’ve also got the younger lads who play a massive role in our team as well. When you’re coming to train after a long day, these younger lads that are so keen to train and be there, make such a difference by bringing energy and all of that. It really is a nice balance throughout the side, I’m really enjoying being part of the squad and hopefully will for years to come.”
Payne is also excited about opportunities to grow the game, believing that clubs need to take action as well as being led by England Hockey’s influence.
“It’s always a bit of chicken and egg. There’s a lot of stuff around England Hockey at the moment and, rightly, people are vocal about what they think can be improved but I think more responsibility needs to be put on clubs. I think we do a great job and we’re really trying hard to get social media stuff across and all of that, but clubs need to take more of an ownership on promoting their own teams because that’s what they should be proud of. Players will happily get involved with that. It’s a player’s responsibility to behave well when they play, be a good club member, stick around after games and contribute towards the club. If we can get that going, hopefully we can inspire some juniors through either coaching or them spectating.
“The league system will be the league system, it might change – they have improved the relationships with coaches now so that’s getting better but essentially, it’s never going to be perfect given the grip the Pro League has on the calendar. There will be frustrations but, ultimately, it’s up to clubs to really take ownership on promoting the game themselves and it’s something that I think we do well as a club but there’s also ways we can do more and that’s such an exciting place to be in.
“Match days are much better since I first got here and a lot has improved but, like I said, there’s always ways we can get better.”
England and Great Britain’s recent performances also stir up feelings of pride for Payne, while recognising that there is room for improvement. England looked to be heading to the last-four of the World Cup before conceding twice late on to Germany and losing in the shoot-out, but Paul Revington’s first few months in charge have been incredibly positive and Payne is looking forward to the upcoming FIH Pro League games, including a number of home fixtures against a variety of teams, including Belgium and India.
“The whole World Cup was amazing. We were very fortunate to play in that new stadium, in front of the home crowd – when we were playing India it was unbelievable, the atmosphere is something that I probably won’t experience again unless we play against India in Rourkela again. The whole World Cup was brilliant, England Hockey did very well with hotels and food, that sort of thing, so all of the bits that can make a difference when you go away all went swimmingly and that meant we were in a really good spot as a squad. The outcome was a shame but in terms of the tournament as a whole, it was brilliant.
“We’re proud of it [our defensive work] because a lot went on behind the scenes. We were coming away from games in the summer and the last couple of years that I’ve been a part of it thinking a lot of the goals that we’d been conceding, we really felt we could have done something about. Credit to the coaches – all four and the goalkeeping coach – on putting plans in place and understanding goals we were conceding from a stats base. They created defensive plans from there, it was really interesting and then it’s ultimately down to the lads to defend it so that then the shots I get are low percentage shot-to-scoring ratio.”
“He hasn’t changed too much and that’s a sign of a good coach, he wasn’t too proud to come in and not change everything just for the sake of it. He’s taken a lot of good – there was a lot of good – from the program before with Danny [Kerry] and then Zak [Jones] took over and was absolutely brilliant. He hasn’t changed loads but he has a relentless attitude to high-intensity hockey so it was a bit of a shock to the system for everyone and he really pushed us. He does it in a good way, though, and his man management skills are very good as well so he’s not doing it and then being completely cold with you, he’s very personable while we’re understanding that the reason he’s pushing us is because he knows that we can get up to that next level. It’s not like there’s a secret ingredient, you’ve got to work hard and we just had to train at a high intensity day in, day out to try to compete with the best.
“We’re really looking forward to the home games. It’ll be amazing to go to New Zealand and Australia but it’s a shame in terms of the calendar where our league will finish sooner than it should be really. We had an amazing experience out in Argentina. I’m hoping, if selection goes well, that the New Zealand experience will be amazing. The home games at Lee Valley last summer were brilliant, they put on a really good show and allowed loads of mates to come to watch which was so good. It was certainly something that I missed in my first year-and-a-half with it being behind closed doors.
“It’s been really nice [to have a group of Holcombe players in the international squad]. When I first came in, Nick [Bandurak] wasn’t part of the squad then so it was just me but it’s been great to have more Holcombe lads in and around the GB squad and just to have the whole squad a bit more spread out, it’s been really good and made the league so much more competitive.”