Exclusive: England hockey legend Maddie Hinch on 'why we have to change the structure of our game'
As England and Great Britain's hockey goalkeeper, Maddie Hinch has made many great saves in her career - now she's calling for the biggest save of all, the future of the sport in this country.
And for that to happen, the 30 year-old, nicknamed 'Mad Dog' for her extraordinary skill and bravery in defending her goal, believes things have to change.
In an exclusive interview with NewsChain, she talks about club structure, school sport and funding. And having spent three years playing in the Netherlands, the number one nation in the world, she has a simple message for the game's organisers here: 'Let's go Dutch'.
The Netherlands have won the Olympics and the World Cup title eight times, becoming the most successful female hockey team in history. Hinch, who played for club side SCHC in Utrecht, describes her experience there as 'phenomenal'.
She said: “It’s their club system over there, they’ve just got such a long history of a consistently strong set-up. It is bringing in consistent talent and because it's so strong it attracts the best players in the world to play in that league.
“[The clubs] have the financial backing which brings in those players, because you can earn good money and play club hockey.”
While Hinch played for one of the smaller clubs in the Netherland's, she said there was always a "never-ending waiting lists" for younger girls. The country's top club Den Bosh has nine hockey pitches.
And in an apparent contradiction, she pointed out why the absence of school sport was actually a positive.
“One thing that they are blessed with is that they don’t actually have school sports so all their school kids who go into the club system are very young.
“They’ve just done it so well for so long that the talent they are bringing through is consistent. They are coaching the right things from the right ages and so when they have a cycle and their top players start to retire they’ve got so many more stars emerging.
“[By attracting top international players] it gets the youngsters playing against the best from a young age. So it's a difficult thing to match but that is why they are the world number one.”
Hinch believes that England needs to replicate the Dutch system but knows it’s unrealistic.
“There are lots of factors that make it impossible to do it exactly the same as them but there are things we definitely could be changing.
“For example, here you need to travel if you want the league to be all over the UK. Those [Dutch] players complain about a two-hour journey. They are like ‘oh my goodness we must go overnight’ and I was saying to them I used to travel two hours just to train.
“Everything is so much more accessible [in the Netherlands] which makes the league tighter. This means that the Dutch players will spread out across different clubs which makes the whole league stronger.
“Whereas here, we are centralised (at Bisham Abbey) so people want to play for the local clubs because we don’t want to be travelling. So naturally all the best players play south which is making one or two teams dominate, making the league not strong enough.”
England Hockey has recently spoken about turning domestic clubs professional, but it is proving harder than it seems.
Hinch fears it is taking too long: “We have to change it if I’m being brutally honest and clubs do need to get on board. Otherwise we are just going to be continuing to talk about this for years and years and we are going to keep getting the same problem post-Olympic cycles [gold in 2016, bronze in 2012].
“It’s because this team has talent but its taking too long to get ready for its next Olympics. And actually this up and down rollercoaster of performances, I believe is a big result of what we are doing in the club system.”
Hinch points out that while international fixtures are streamed by some TV channels, there is no coverage of the domestic leagues.
“The problem is you can kind of see why TV’s don’t get behind us because there are four or five people watching a club game.
“We have to start from the beginning and change the structure and we have to make more awareness around the clubs' sport, so that the kids can follow who their stars are and who their heroes are, who they are playing for, when the games are being played and they can then follow the team throughout the season.
“It all comes to a grand final which you would expect to be televised but the TV wants to see full stands and until we do that the TV isn’t going to come in.”
Hinch speaks with passion, but also realism. She knows that change is a challenge, but that it must happen. “Otherwise, we will be talking about this now and still in ten years' time as the Dutch and the Belgium leagues all continue to grow."
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And you get the impression Maddie 'Mad Dog' Hinch is not going to sit back and let that happen.