With the latest edition of the England Hockey County Championships being held over the weekend, there’s one overriding thought process that has come to the fore over the past couple of days;
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the competition is not what it used to be.
As with any competition; if the exposure, prestige and quality of organisation doesn’t remain of the highest order, the quality of the tournament itself will not do so either.
Now, just to ensure that we’re all on the same page here, this is by no means a Simon-Orchard-Esque piece that incites fervently passionate claims that it is simply an unfair rant against those that help facilitate an opportunity to play the game.
In truth, it is simply a passing observation on the state of a once-revered tournament that has sadly dwindled to a lower tier competition of minimal comparative importance.
There was a time, not too long ago, when the County Championships were a big deal.
The competition was littered with International and Premier League players, the top umpires in the country officiated the games and the prestige that accompanied success bred a competitive edge and rivalry that lifted the holistic experience of the Championship itself.
The obvious answer here is that the landscape of International hockey has changed. Whilst that is abundantly clear for all to see, there is still an opportunity to entice the best players in the country to represent their Counties.
In its simplest terms, the County Championships are England’s version of the Australian State Championships. Those with a heritage and loyalty to their County or State of origin come together to determine which is the best.
While our Southern Hemisphere counterparts can live-stream their games with full inclusion of their senior International players, there is yet to be a tweet from England Hockey regarding any of the divisions that competed over the weekend in our domestic equivalent.
That’s by no means meant as a dig at our governing body, it simply shows the comparative value of the two tournaments.
If the competition had always been perceived in the manner it does now then its’ current predicament would not even be worthy of comment. However, a tournament of once great value and importance to clubs and players alike has now dwindled into a non-important weekend across the country where the overriding principle is on the social element.
Just to be clear, there is absolutely no problem with this at all. This concept is one which, more so to Hockey than most, makes our sport so great. The angle here is that it is sad to see a once prestigious tournament be reduced to its likes.
As soon as the best players aren’t allowed or don’t have the desire/incentive to play, the quality drops, naturally. As the quality drops, the value of the tournament drops. As the value drops, the coverage drops. Suddenly, the downward spiral is in full effect and the whole Championships becomes an add-on for the Hockey Calendar in England at the end of the season rather than a prestigious competition that players and Counties can work towards in the Summer.
Am I suggesting that all the Centralised players be released to join their home counties? Absolutely not.
A re-formatting of the calendar as a whole would provide an opportunity for players to make themselves available and I’m sure that most will be able to appreciate that in the current climate, that is a monumental effort.
In its’ current format however, 4 full games in 2 days is outrageous and only contributes to the decreased quality of hockey throughout the competition. While it contributes to a good opportunity for social activities on the Saturday night, anyone who legitimately comments on the quality of hockey on the Sunday with any degree of enthusiasm is sadly mistaken.
While the players largely accept the tournament for what it is, the TD’s and organisation still cling to the elite competition that it once was. With this Championships’ A Division beginning with the Umpires being told to “not accept anything from anyone, just send them off”, the stage was set for a plethora of cards to reign down on a group of players playing over 4.5 hours of competitive hockey.
Tiredness mixed with evident frustration and often incredulity across a supposedly social weekend as it has now become, is not always the best combination.
If the players have seemingly accepted it as such, then the organisers and officiating parties must do the same.
As with any competition, prospect, object or individual; to increase its value is to increase the marketability of the product.
With the product being the competition itself, greater exposure and coverage of the teams, players, organisation, events and matches will only lead to a greater desire of the players themselves to participate.
As better players commit, more will follow.
Higher levels of umpires being assigned will lead to a greater quality of games.
A better appreciation from TD’s and organisational parties as an entity and the players and squads have a great experience.
A greater digital presence across the Championships creates a more inviting proposition to prospective players and suddenly, the Tournament reverses the spiral and has every prospect of going from strength to strength.
It’s by no means a quick-fix, nor even necessary should the consensus be that the County Championships is not desired to be the elite competition it once was. It’s merely a passing observation on the sad decline, from a performance perspective, that this Championship once was.
Image Credit: England Hockey