By Lucas Ball
Barry Middleton is excited by his side’s chances this season in the Men’s Premier Division, particularly amidst the hype of new signing Phil Roper and the new Premier Division structure brought in for 2022/23.
Holcombe finished in the top-six of Phase One last season, eventually finishing fifth following the conclusion of Phase Two but have been billed as potential title-challengers this season alongside the likes of reigning champions Old Georgians, Surbiton, Wimbledon and this weekend’s opponents Hampstead & Westminster.
Middleton’s side have strengthened with the additions of Roper, Rhodri Furlong and Sam Taylor, with David Ames also returning to the club as Assistant Coach.
“Preparation was good over the summer. We had a nice pre-season – it was the same as ever with a little bit of in and out and chopping and changing a bit but actually, I think we managed to get enough time on what we wanted to do and I feel like the group are in a nice place and got a lot of time together, which is a big thing in pre-season to get the group enjoying being around each other.
“Last week’s game was a great game to start us off and get us straight into the intensity of what it’s going to be about this year. The result was sort of positive, I’m always wanting more – performance-wise, though, we were quite happy with the things that we tried to do and how they paid off but hopefully over the year there’s still a lot more to come from us. We’ve got a lot to learn still.
“We’ll have to wait to see how it plays out – it’s very similar to last year in terms of going through most of the season. I’ve always liked the idea of a play-off at the end of the year, it brings some big games and excitement so the changes definitely give it that. The structure looks like it answers some of the questions that clubs were asking at the end of last year around making every game matter and there being no dead rubbers towards the end of the season – you’ll always struggle to never have any of those.
“I like with hockey that we’re always trying things. If it works, then brilliant. If it doesn’t, then we’ll look at what the next option is. I’m quite excited by it – that’s probably a little biased thinking about where we are as a team, as a club that it could be quite a nice way for us to enter into that phase after Christmas and hopefully give us some really exciting games.
“I think it’s brilliant that clubs will be able to host the play-offs. Clubs have shown that they can do things from putting on European games and tournaments. I hope it’ll bring a good atmosphere for those big games and creating an event, a spectacle for those clubs. I played in Holland for a few years and the play-offs out there were hosted at the clubs. I always remember loving playing at home for a play-off game as part of a best-of-three series. I remember the clubs through those weeks of the play-offs were always absolutely buzzing so it was great fun.
“It’s massively exciting to bring in a player like Phil Roper and to see him link up with Nick Bandurak. In terms of looking at how you want to play, it helps when you have players like that in there. I’ve known Phil for years – through playing with him obviously and then in the last few years watching him after I retired. I think he’s grown massively in the last three or four years and is genuinely world-class. The challenge for us is to show that and take a lead on showing people how good he is. The buzz around him both in the club and the team shows how good everybody knows he is already.”
“We’re not putting too much pressure on David Ames playing, he’s in as assistant coach. His job is to get fit for the World Cup and help England get to where they can in that, that’s his first role from his side and from my side. He’s going to add massive value on the coaching side and already has.”
Holcombe kicked off their season with a 2-2 draw against Surbiton, Roper netting in front of the home crowd on his debut with Tom Russell also on the scoresheet with an excellent deflection from Haydden Phillips’ strike.
This weekend, they take on Hampstead & Westminster who, like Holcombe, are heading into this seaason with a new coaching set-up – something which Middleton believes could lead to an interesting encounter under the lights on Saturday evening.
“I was happy with most of the game [vs. Surbiton], not all of it, but largely how we tried to do things that we spoke about in pre-season when the pressure was on properly, especially in terms of on the ball and actually trying to play hockey and have a bit of a go against a good team. That was promising to see, the guys taking it on and in defence, it’s interesting to see the change in both teams from a pre-season game to a proper game with the intensity going up. I was really happy with how switched on we were in defence.
“It’ll be a good test against Hampstead. They’ve been a good team for a number of years – they have some very good players, a very strong corner and a real threat in attack. The challenge for them is that they’ve also got a new coach in this year so we’re learning how the play and what changes they’ve made compared to playing them last year when we knew it would be tough but have a stronger idea of how they would play. Both teams will be trying to work each other out early on so it’ll be interesting to see how the game goes through the four quarters as to whether people have to change things tactically a bit or work each other out as well.”
Long-serving captain Ali Bray departed at the end of last season, with Nick Bandurak appointed as captain and Rob Field appointed vice-captain in the off-season.
Middleton explained: “A big part of making Nick captain and Rob vice-captain as well is that they’re a big part of the club and the team. They’ve been here a long time – with the group we’ve got at the moment, they’re people that we want to show the values of what it means to be at Holcombe and be loyal. There’s other things on top of that, of course – they’re good hockey players, they know the game and when they speak, people listen. I want them to show the new guys that come in how much we care about Holcombe and how much of a team we are. We’re definitely big on being part of the group – it’s not just about being a good hockey player, you have to fit into our team as well and I think they give us good people to look up to.”
England and Great Britain’s most-capped player has also implemented changes to the style of play over the course of his tenure so far, explaining how a coach’s ideology can only be fuelled so much by their own ideas, but has to be adapted depending on the players at their disposal.
“I think a lot of it is based around the players you have. Obviously, you have an ideology of sorts as a coach but you also have to have the players to do what you want, or you have to adapt to fit their way so I think your style is always evolving. Our style at the moment is certainly fit around the qualities that I believe we have in our squad. We definitely want to be a team that can be on the front-foot and have the ball, and not just chase the ball a lot of the time but that could change through different teams we play against and how they play, and over time. It’s certainly something that I think can evolve ever year, every six months, every two years – whatever time frame. At the moment, we’ve tried to find the best balance we can with the group of players we have while trying to bring out their individual qualities and give them a bit of freedom within that.”
Middleton’s team also won the inaugural Y1 Champs over the August bank holiday weekend at Sugden Road following a 2-1 final victory over Wimbledon. Bandurak netted the decisive goal with less than five minutes to play – it was in the powerplay, turning the game on its head from Wimbledon leading 1-0 to Holcombe leading 2-1 in one moment.
That victory ensured a £2,500 cash prize following a gruelling weekend of fixtures in sweltering conditions.
Middleton commented: “It was hard work [the Y1 Champs]. It was tough and I think a few teams found it tough, especially early on in pre-season with numbers. That’ll be one thing that they’ll look at, the amount of time playing.
“In terms of an event, I thought it was brilliant – it helped that it was 30 degrees over the whole weekend and everyone could really enjoy being at a hockey club. I thought it was great to see lots of people enjoying hockey, seeing it as quite exciting and being in quite a relaxed environment but teams still taking it seriously and there being something on the hockey. It was a great idea and hopefully we keep it going in the next few years and keep making it better and better.
“I hated the powerplay rule at first then when we scored with it I loved it. Because it was pre-season, I gave no thought to it at all really – that’s why I hated it a little bit because it made no difference to what we were trying to do and the process. We knew there was no point trying to come up with ideas for that when in the league it’s not happening. We quickly decided to put it at the end as that’s probably when it’ll have the most impact if you need it and it worked out.”