Changes at Holcombe have put the Kent side in the frame for Men’s Premier Division contention, reports Rod Gilmour of The Hockey Paper.
Holcombe believe they have one of the strongest squads in their Men’s Premier Division history, as the Kent side continue to aim for a top two finish for the first time.
The Medway outfit have seen a raft of changes over the summer, with Barry Middleton coming in as player-coach after Julian Halls’ 12-year tenure ended. Meanwhile, Nick Bandurak combines his rising trajectory at international level with an all-encompassing role captaining the men’s 1s and coaching the women’s 1s.
Holcombe men have changed their style of play going forwards under Middleton, but already there is optimism for the season ahead after a win, loss and draw in their opening three games ahead of England Hockey’s match of the weekend against Reading on Saturday evening.
Middleton was rated as one of the fittest players throughout his international career, even in his mid-thirties before retiring in 2018. The fitness remains, there’s no doubt about that, but the challenge facing one of hockey’s greatest players is seeing firsthand the changing nature of the modern game with his player-coach role.
“I’m probably okay for a nearly 39-year-old but trying to chase some of the international players who are getting fitter and the dynamic nature of the game now, it is hard work,” he said.
“The game moves on. I stopped four years ago and it keeps getting more dynamic, the speed in which they play, the way they carry the ball, it just feels like the game is getting better.”
Middleton, who is also a coach with the Great Britain Hockey EDP and under-21s, is staying in the UK to be with Holcombe this weekend, with the GB junior men’s squad leaving for Malaysia ahead of the Sultan of Johor Cup.
“It’s pretty good fun so far,” he admitted. “There was freedom to do things in pre-season without the pressure of results. It is calm in some ways and some chaos with it. The challenges are how much to consider coaching and playing. That is still all to work out as you go along.”
Middleton has help in the form of GB and England international David Ames, Holcombe’s assistant coach who is currently sidelined with injury. “He is an absolute diamond working with Barry,” says Keith Martin, Holcombe’s team manager.
Further, they have also enlisted Giles Osbourne, for many years at Canterbury and Holcombe, as an assistant coach. Martin adds: “We have a really good new management system now, along with what we consider to be one of the strongest squads we’ve ever had in the Prem.”
On the field, the signing of Phil Roper has given Holcombe further star appeal, alongside Bandurak, fresh from his 11 goals at the Commonwealth Games. His form in Birmingham has carried over into the 2022/23 Men’s Premier Division season, scoring seven goals in nine games, including friendlies.
Middleton said: “It is brilliant for us. Everyone knows what Phil can bring. People also know the qualities of Banders and his skill set. They both are massive assets for us and it’s about finding a way of fitting them in and over the year that will evolve. We’ve got a really nice group at the moment that enjoy being together, work hard and with quality too.”
This includes Hayden Phillips, the Kiwi who has been at the club since the Rio Olympics, Jake Owen, Tom Russell and Scottish international Rob Field. “The attacking side is a group we want to express themselves,” added Middleton.
Holcombe have also welcomed back South African international Mo Mea, injured on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, while Chile international Jose Maldonado returned this week from the South American Games where La Roja lost to Argentina 3-1 at the weekend.
“We want to keep expanding the quality up there,” Middleton says of the current strength in the Premier Division. “It used to be three and now it’s up to eight.
“The league is hard early on to know who’s where. We were nearly bottom of the league after the first few games. But we played the top three teams and lost by the odd goal to each of them. We had played well yet we were at the bottom. So it’s where we are after the first four, five, six games and then you can see how it will shape out.”
Holcombe will be looking to reverse a 3-0 defeat to champions Old Georgians last weekend. “I think they recognised that was one of the toughest games they’ve had for a long time,” said Martin.
They last travelled to Reading in 2019 when the Berkshire side competed in the top flight. Holcombe came away with the points following a 3-2 victory while they have won three of their last five games at Sonning Lane.
“We really want to be in the top four this year and we have a squad strong enough to do that,” said Martin.
In Bandurak, they also have the scoring prowess to contend at the top. “Banders has done remarkably well since his call up to England/GB,” added Martin.
“He has really jumped in with both feet on everything. GB and England, captain of men’s 1s and coach of the women. We’ve tried to organise the fixtures so he can get to every women’s game and he is earning his salary at the moment!”
Saturday: Reading v Holcombe, 6:30pm
Stats supplied by Colin Pike of Hockey World News