A National League Hockey Club, part of Holcombeians Sports Club

Ollie Payne: We back ourselves to qualify for EHL again, but focus is on Phase Three

By Lucas Ball

Holcombe are looking for back-to-back wins as Phase Two of the Premier Division comes to an end on Saturday evening, with Holcs away to Southgate (6pm).

Following that, Barry Middleton’s side will play three more fixtures in Phase Three – two of those at home – against Old Georgians, Hampstead & Westminster and one of Beeston, Oxted and East Grinstead, with the top-two in each pool qualifying for League Finals weekend, where Holcs qualified for the Euro Hockey League (EHL) last season by beating Surbiton in their semi-final.

Holcombe had lost their first three Phase Two matches, missing key players Nick Bandurak, Phil Roper and Hayden Phillips at different stages, and have now secured a fourth-placed finish for the second consecutive year after beating Hampstead & Westminster, who are fifth.

It was two fast starts in the opening two quarters that secured the points, Alex Pendle scoring inside three minutes on his birthday before Tom Russell scored just 15 seconds into the second period.

Goalkeeper Ollie Payne has kept four clean sheets so far this campaign, forming a key part of the overall defensive unit which has the second-best record in the division, their 20 goals conceded in 15 matches only bettered by Wimbledon’s 17.

Payne said: “It had a bit of everything, didn’t it? [Saturday’s win]

“The first half was good, we looked like the team that we hope to be every week and then we had to dig in after a couple of injuries.

“It was certainly needed, the vibe with the team has been brilliant throughout but there’s nothing quite like winning and putting our hard work into getting some results.

“It’s something we’ve spoken about a lot, starting quickly.

“OGs, quite a lot of times when we’ve played against them, have started fast against us and on Thursday night, we spoke a lot about it and didn’t get off to a good start so it was nice that we learnt from that and really applied what the coaches have been saying in the intervals.

“We started fast and it was basically the reason that we won.

“It’s been fine, we weren’t beating ourselves up about the recent results, it’s been about the performances and actually we’ve been creating chances, we could be tighter defensively but the lads know that and it’s something that I’m always going to be thinking anyway.

“It was just nice to get the win that some of our performances have deserved, definitely in terms of scoring and getting some goals on the board and the defence then bails us out when we do go up.

“It’s definitely something for us to be positive about, it’s a bit of an interesting one with the league format, it’s only the second year of it happening but we’re playing the top sides in the country, there’s going to be more losses than what we’re used to before Christmas.

“It’s certainly something that we don’t need to worry too much about.

“When you’re missing the quality that we’re missing, it’s going to hurt you naturally but it’s not something that we’re putting the results down to.

“Actually, I think every side other than Wimbledon have got quite a lot of injuries, every side’s going through exactly the same thing which has made it a bit more of a level-playing field again.”

“We will now be thinking about the following phase, no doubt about it.

“We’ll take Saturday seriously but it will be about what do we need to work on, what do we need to look at, what areas do we need to get experience in before the three massive games that we’ve got after that to hopefully get to the semi-finals.

“We’ve got that experience in our group, we’ve done it, we came fourth last year and qualified for the EHL, we can do it again but we need to learn very quickly in the next two weeks to get there.

“They’re [Southgate] a young side, they’re a good side with some good individuals and a good coach.

“We played them close to the start of the season so they were probably less experienced at the level and made some errors that they won’t make this time, they’ll be a better side and they’ve got some good threats.

“That’s not to say that we’re putting them too much on a pedestal but we certainly have to respect what they bring.

“We have to have a look at where we’re at as a side and what we’re looking to build towards and with some players missing, it’s a brilliant opportunity – like it has been in the last few weeks – for players to step up and be counted against a very good side and a very energetic side, I think that’s what we’ll expect.”

Last year’s semi-final victory came at Surbiton’s home, Sugden Road, in front of a strong home crowd, securing European hockey for which Holcs travelled to Barcelona in October. They were beaten in the KO8 by hosts Real Club de Polo de Barcelona, but Payne believes his side have the quality to get back to Europe’s premier club competition.

Holcs also had to face a vociferous home crowd in Barcelona, so are no strangers to the kind of atmosphere they could be facing in upcoming matches.

“With the quality in our side, we’re always going to back ourselves but I don’t think there’s too much point in looking too far ahead.

“Barcelona was a brilliant experience, very frustrating that we left a little bit out there.

“We’ll be focusing on Phase Three, getting through that and then hopefully doing something similar at the semi-finals.

“The most important thing is Phase Three, we have to respect Hampstead & Westminster, Old Georgians and whoever else it will be, it will be a really tough group to be in so we need to do well there.”

As well as hoping for a strong end to the season with Holcombe, it could also be a busy summer for Payne as Great Britain prepare for home Pro League fixtures ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

The former Durham University goalkeeper has a combined 66 international caps for England and GB having broken into the senior set-up ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

At 24, Payne could be heading to his second Games in Paris where Paul Revington’s side harbour serious hopes of medalling.

He added: “I’ll hopefully be involved in the summer, just got to keep working hard, keep improving and keep growing with the side.

“Preparation is coming along well, it’s been a positive few weeks since Oman, we certainly needed some training time after spending a lot of time in hotel rooms in the last few months, playing a lot of games.

“With that, it’s about trying to peak and stay at that peak whereas now we can build a little bit more which has been important.

“Preparation has been good, it’s been a physical lot so that’s probably why there have been more injuries from the lads in and around the programme, but that’s just because we’re getting to a level that we need to be at to achieve our goals in the summer, it’s just unfortunate.

“I’ve got a bit of a sore body but can’t complain too much given I’m not really doing the running!

“The home Pro League games are always a highlight of the summer, it’s so nice to play in front of friends, family, people from the club here, it’s brilliant.

“When the sun’s out, Lee Valley is a great place to play at – when it’s a bit windier, not so much. Hopefully the sun’s out and people can enjoy themselves.

“I think using the word habit is bang on, it’s certainly something we’ve spoken about, making winning and medalling a habit, we’re wanting to go one further now.

“We’ve got over the line in terms of that first knockout game, we’ve got the confidence that we can beat teams ranked lower than us, not to say that we’re taking that for granted but we know we can score goals and beat teams, we’ve got that confidence.

“We know that we can compete with anyone ranked higher than us, too, so now it’s just a case of it all coming together for one tournament. It’ll be very difficult.

“The Pro League’s always quite a hard one to judge but this year you can see that teams are firing and the Pro League will be a much better indicator than the last few.

“That’s not taking away from our achievements last year in the Pro League but we’ve got to get up a gear if we want to be where we want to be on that podium.”

Updates of Saturday’s match will be provided across Holcombe’s social media channels, as will fixture details for Phase Three when confirmed.

Image: Eva Gilbert