Why are England’s best playing in Hockey’s second division?

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Imagine Charlton Athletic signing Wayne Rooney or Chris Robshaw moving to Moseley.

Far-fetched it may seem, but in domestic hockey, one second-tier club is splashing the cash on the country’s very best players.

In 2013, England captain Barry Middleton signed for Holcombe, one of a number of internationals to drop out of the Premier Division to play at a small club in Kent.

The club’s spending model has drawn criticism but is investing in what remains a largely amateur sport a positive or creating an unfair playing field?

“We had to do something to give us a boost,” explains David South, Holcombe’s millionaire chairman who has personally bankrolled the club.

“Our aim is to sustain teams from our own resources but you will never do it. Every club has to have some outside players.

Holcombe chairman David South

“Our vision is not just Premier. We aim to be a top four club trying to get into Europe. You have to set your sights very high.”

Those outside players have included the likes of Middleton, Nick Caitlin and George Pinner, who moved from English champion Beeston in 2014, with Maddie Hinch, Laura Unsworth and Sam Quek amongst the women joining.

Having received accusations that they had moved for money, Middleton denies that was the primary factor.

“It was a decision based on hockey as well as everything else,” Middleton says.

“We have a team that can push to going up. It was not to play in the Conference for the last ten years of my career.

“I was sold by David selling the club and the future of it.”

Even if the players were motivated by financial incentives, can they be blamed for supplementing their income?

Centrally contracted internationals reportedly earn no more than £20,000 a year and many do coaching or public speaking on the side.

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“If the England central contracts were more, I think the players would stay at Bisham Abbey and find other ways to keep themselves busy,” says journalist Rod Gilmour.

“It is not enough to survive on a year. You cannot blame them.

“The underlying problem is that other clubs are now becoming jealous through the fact Holcombe have a lot of money.”

Gilmour adds: “It has caused considerable fractions within the hockey fraternity.”

South is a wealthy businessman, founder and chairman of Faithdean plc, a building construction management firm that turns over around £60m per year. Yet despite being at the club for 49 years, of which 37 have been spent as chairman, he has had to rebuff scornful views from around the country since their spending strategy changed.

“I’m cautious to use the word jealous,” he continues. “Perhaps that is what it was.”

“We have not done that to rub people’s noses in it but to get one player of Barry’s profile makes a huge difference.

“Once we established the English structure was not concerned about them not playing in the Premier and that it would not affect their international chances, a few others came.”

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Surely England Hockey would want their best players at the highest level?

Sally Munday, Chief Executive of England Hockey, believes individuals are responsible for pursuing interests outside the central programme.

“The players put in a huge amount physically and emotionally,” she says. “They make difficult choices to enable them to fulfil a dream of going to the Olympics.

“If they choose to play their club hockey in the Conference, that’s their choice.

“The important thing is getting the right balance domestically and nationally that allows them to enjoy their hockey and perform at their best.”

Holcombe’s strategy is certainly working. Their ladies first team won consecutive promotions in 2013 and 2014, narrowly missing out on the Premier Division playoffs this year.

2015 has seen the men’s side go through the regular season unbeaten, winning 17 of 18 matches, scoring 110 goals in the process.

Though not the only club to pay players, Holcombe look set to mix it with the traditional powerhouses of the domestic game.

“We are all to a certain extent in a hand to mouth model,” says Simon Longhurst, chairman of East Grinstead, who have finished in the top two in six of the last seven Premier Division seasons.

IMG_6853“We do have to work hard every month, every year.

“I’m a believer that we should put skin into the game and take responsibility in our own destiny,” he adds.

Whilst there is disparity in finances and competitiveness between clubs in the Premier Division, there are fears that Holcombe’s approach is unsustainable. Will the money disappear if the club fails to achieve its lofty goals?

“It’s not win or bust,” says South.

“Our level of outside players is disproportionate. That is unsustainable unless I or someone equivalent to me is here to pick up the bill.

“We have to do it from our own resources. We need to drop away a paid player and replace them with our own so we get back to a sustainable proportion.

So is what Holcombe are doing actually bad for hockey? Do they show the success that can be gained by investing in what remains a largely amateur sport?

“I don’t criticise Holcombe or their chairman,” Munday concludes. “He’s got a dream and the more investment we can get is good for the sport.”