Not so jolly hockey

Stepping off the tube to cross the platform and wait for a connecting train to take me to Wembley arena last Sunday, I suddenly got hit by a wall of wet. An horrendous downpour had begun and I was in the way. It was my own fault as I had negated to wrap up in head to toe waterproofs for the January journey five steps across the semi-covered platform. It was around this time that I was overcome with a huge sense of gratitude that I was on my way to watch Indoor hockey and not the more popular outdoor version.

(My last expedition to spectate a hockey match I was equipped with thermals, hood, hat, another hood, coat, gloves, boots and umbrella. I also packed a flask of coffee and a handful of Quality Streets. This was Boxing Day, but trust me, the procedure has been perfected and replicated throughout the entire outdoor season, bar the Quality streets that I was lucky to get a hold of even on Boxing Day).

Anyway, by the time I was making my return trip having watched all four matches of the Super Sixes (national Indoor finals), I was thinking differently. I was thinking give me pissing rain and sand in my socks and proper outdoor hockey; this Indoor lark will never catch on.

Hockey isn’t played in bad weather. Rain, hail, sleet and snow doesn’t necessarily stop the game (anyone who has ever been to Raphoe knows there wouldn’t be a season if this was the case). Frost stops play. If a pitch is frozen, the game can’t go ahead because it is too dangerous so in England a scheduled break is enforced around the Christmas period to try to eliminate a backlog of fixtures needing to be arranged as a result of postponements.  To keep fitness levels from fading faster than Frosty the snowman many teams allow themselves to come indoors. With a smaller pitch and just six players instead of eleven, the game transpires very differently. It can be fast, it can be end-to-end and it can be a goal-scorers dream. Alternatively, it can be manic, it can be haphazard and it can be demoralising.

The Maxifuel Super Sixes finals at Wembley in front of about 5,000 supporters, is the accumulation of a short domestic season that has the tremendous incentive of playing in a grand arena with the bonus of being televised on Sky Sport.

The day consisted of the men’s semi’s, the women’s final and lastly, the men’s final.

Thirty goals were scored in the first two matches with East Grinstead finding the net a dozen times against Beeston. This set up a place in the final against Reading who managed nine in their semi win over Canterbury. East Grinstead dominated the final winning 7-1 and securing the title of National champions for the fifth consecutive year. With so many goals being scored there was quality on display. The game is designed to be fast paced with sideboards in place to keep the ball in play for longer. Ultimately players get tired so the goalkeeper has added importance. East Grinstead had an international specialist GK between their posts who conceded just five over the two games. They also had a team of goal scorers, which is something you need in Indoor. Each individual should know how to put chances away, nineteen goals shows this was the case.

Reading was in the final of the ladies section too, pitted against Sutton Coldfield who provided a brilliant subplot to the event. They last reached this stage of the competition 24 years ago and one of the game’s genuine stars played in both fixtures. Four-time Olympian and Barcelona Bronze medallist Jane Sixsmith; a household name the last time GB achieved a podium finish in the Olympics. Sixsmith continued to add to the record books by scoring her team’s second goal.

However this wasn’t enough to get hold of the trophy as on the day the difference between the two sides was current England and Great Britain sensation Helen Richardson who scored three of Readings four goals reminding everyone that see is one of the most gifted players of her generation.

Unfortunately, throughout the day there was little excitement in the air despite a whole host of well-known players turning out, old rivalries reignited and crowd entertainment during the intervals. There was a sense of inevitably once the matches got underway. In each fixture (excluding a brief few minutes of the women’s final when Sutton Coldfield levelled the scoring) there was no doubt which side was going to win. Indoor is not outdoor with a roof on, it is a different game. Specialist players display tight skills that they can perform in less space than it takes to swing a cat, but they are few and far between. This is because the season is short so players focus on the long form of the game. Despite goals galore, a London venue and hired in razzmatazz to impress Sky, I came to the conclusion that Indoor is much more fun to play than to spectate. Although much of this joy is giddy relief that you don’t have to spend an hour and a half in the driving rain straining to see beyond the end of your nose. Indoor is fun because it isn’t outdoor, because it is a novelty. Well played to each of the teams involved in the Super Sixes as well as England Hockey for producing a slick event. But it just isn’t hockey.

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Girls on top

It is often said that sport can teach us valuable lessons. This is true, but there are limits, something so familiar in sport. We have to decide we want to learn, which given the amount of time people spend in blissful ignorance is not a given state. We also need to take a look and see which message is trying to weasel its way into the narrow section of grey matter labeled “Useful stuff”. Last Tuesday was the opening day of the Investec London Cup, an international invitational hockey tournament run by the England Hockey Board (EHB). By the time the final came around on Sunday, played out between the Netherlands and Australia I learnt that women’s sport can be as good as men’s. Considering that three of the top four sides in the world were showing off their extensive range of skills the standard should have been high, and it was. This isn’t always enough for some people, but these people are caught up with what is ‘supposed’ to be, they fail to see what is actually in front of them. England are supposed to be among the favorite’s in every major international football competition, tail-enders are supposed dismissed easily in Test cricket, northern hemisphere rugby teams are supposed to lose when they go Down under and men are supposed to be better than women at sport. The achievements of some of the players representing their country are difficult to dismiss. South African Pietie Coetzee for example, is the all-time leading goal scorer in international hockey while Dutch captain Maartje Paumen is the current World player of the year. The gap between the top nations in this sport and the next four or five has definitely narrowed since the Beijing Olympics. A skillful, entertaining South African side proved this when they held the Netherlands to a 2-2 draw in the semis, missing out on a place in the final after a penalty shoot-out. Despite being staged on a weekend that a=saw several other major sporting events going on (including Euro 2012, Canadian Grand Prix, Roland Garros tennis and Test cricket for example) the stands were filled will vocal, enthusiastic supporters who all knew of course, well before I had caught on, that women’s sport is good. Not just good for girls, or a good effort, or good because in 2012 all sport is good. But good. And getting better.