Pitching in for a bright future at Cambridge City Hockey Club
On the eve of a new England Hockey League season, we find out from Mark Brookes about a summer of change at the club.
There is a quiet revolution taking place tucked away at the far end of Wilberforce Road Sports Ground in Cambridge.
For the past six months, work has been undertaken to construct two new hockey pitches, taking the total to three.
That may not be earth shattering in the broader scheme of things, but in the hockey world and, particularly for Cambridge City, it is set to have far-reaching benefits.
It is easy to underestimate the size and scale of the sport in Cambridge, which is boosted by the number of private schools no doubt, and with City, Cambridge South and Cambridge Nomads all in healthy and booming positions.
But the new pitches at Wilberforce Road will bring all of City’s teams under one umbrella at one home, ending their nomadic existence.
It is far from just the pitches that are helping City develop, with so many other aspects changing – including the coaching staff and the creation of an academy – that it could make the summer of 2018 a watershed moment in their future.
Helping to spearhead the next step for City is Mark Brookes, as chairman.
A club stalwart of 28 years, he first joined the club when they were based on the grass pitches at Cambridge LTC and started off in the threes, becoming captain of the side and then setting up and skippering the veterans’ team for 10 years.
He has also seen the other end of the club, becoming heavily involved in the junior section when his sons joined them aged five, and he went on to be manager of the county juniors from under-11 to under-18 for a number of years.
So Brookes is well placed to assess the impact the new pitches will have for the club.
“We’ve been begging, stealing and borrowing pitches for the last 15 years,” he said. “We’ve used St John’s [College], the Stephen Perse Foundation, the Perse Upper School, the Leys, Wilberforce Road, Long Road – we’ve used frankly any pitches we can get hold of.
“It’s really been a big juggling act where to get all of our teams when they’re playing at home because we can potentially have eight or nine home games at one time, playing at a time which is acceptable to the league.
“It now means everybody will be playing at Wilberforce Road, at a sensible time, you can cross umpire, you can cross watch other teams and, also, from a Cambridge point of view, it’s also nice to see the university players there as well.”
When Brookes first became a member of City, they had four men’s and two ladies’ teams.
As they embark on a new season which sees the first teams in the England Hockey Leagues Conference East, and the rest in the East Hockey Leagues, they now have six men’s teams plus a veterans’ team, and six ladies’ teams.
The junior club sits outside of the main senior club, but the aim is to integrate the two during the next year and it is hoped that their numbers could double from 350 members to 700 in the next couple of seasons, giving the joint club more than 1,000 members in total.
“It has in the past been very much limited by pitch availability on a Sunday, because most junior hockey is on a Sunday morning,” said Brookes.
“In terms of adult teams, we can probably cope with another two or three, but the junior side we believe can now cope with more than doubling the existing membership.
“We’re also doing disability hockey through Flyerz and that will be running on a Sunday after the junior coaching. There is a lot of emphasis to make it hockey for everybody.
“We want to attract talent to get our first teams into the Premier League to start with, and then international playing, and we believe that is more than possible with the facilities we’ve got.
“But equally we want to attract anybody that wants to play hockey; veterans, disability, social.
“We maintain that anyone that wants to play hockey, we want to have them.”
With the juniors integrated into the main club, it would create a pathway from the age of five to 70 and that is just one of the targets.
A social hub is another main objective, where players young and old can interact before and after games without having to traverse Cambridge.
The facilities remain core to their ambitions though, and it has helped them set out two and five-year ambitions.
“The two-year vision is to get both first teams into the Premier Division,” said Brookes. “The men had a pretty good chance last year based on the first half of the year performance, but it didn’t carry on.
“One of the reasons we’ve brought a new coaching team in is either this season or next season to get the men’s first team into the Premier League.
“The ladies this year, I think have also got a good chance of getting there. Helen [Richardson-Walsh] has attracted people already, but we’ve also got a lot of talented England level juniors joining the club now.
“The five-year vision is really to have those teams towards the top of the Premier League and therefore getting into international competitions, like Surbiton have been doing most years.
“We’re also very successful indoors, and the ladies got promoted this year. We have aspirations that they will get into the top league indoors which also takes you into international matches.
“We’re looking to host more international events. We’ve never had a base around which we could, for instance, run a tournament to invite Dutch and German teams over.”
With such plans though, it has meant the internal structure of City has had to change.
Brookes has termed it the EAGER team – meaning Executive Advisory Group Encompassing Resources – and he is joined on it by finance director Rob Harris; past chairman Andy Richardson, representing the men’s playing section; president Tim Ireland; Paul Denny-Gouldson, a link to the juniors’ section; and Holly Sheahan and Steph Anderson, representing the ladies’ section.
The objective is simple in its concept, to oversee all club activities; while there are also separate playing, social, administration and marketing committees.
And with Gareth Andrew the new player-coach of the men’s team, Helen Richardson-Walsh assisting head coach Ross Hayward with the ladies’ team and Nick Thompson in charge of the academy, City would seem well set up on the pitch as well.