As the dust settles on the Women’s Champions Trophy that concluded on Sunday, all eyes focus on the Men’s World Cup which began in Bhubaneswar, India, on November 28.
Great Britain’s women, heroes of Rio 2016, could manage only one win in China, finishing just ahead of Japan in fifth. Now it is up to England’s men to perform on the world stage.
Paul Barber knows what it takes at the very top of the game. Vice-captain of the famous Olympic gold medal-winning Great Britain side at Seoul 1988, he also boasts a World Cup runners-up medal with England from the 1986 tournament in London.
He expects the usual names to be in and around the later stages of the tournament as it heads towards its conclusion in mid-December.
He said: “Australia are always there or thereabouts – they’ve got to be amongst the favourites. Then there is a pack of sides to consider, such as Olympic champions Argentina, and Germany, Holland, and Belgium.”
Champions at the last two World Cups in 2010 and 2014, Australia are recognised by many in the game as favourites for a third consecutive win. The Kookaburras are the top-ranked side in the world and are chasing a record-equalling fourth World Cup victory. Their 2010 triumph also came on Indian soil, a factor which Barber expects to play a significant role at the tournament.
He said: “I think India, with the conditions and with the crowd behind them, would be in a strong position. India is one of the best places to play hockey, because the crowds are fanatical and they adore all of the hockey players. But at times, it can be quite debilitating.
“You need to keep yourself healthy – I once came back from a tour of India with dysentery, and one of our guys nearly died over there from dehydration.”
Interestingly, there have been reports from India that the England squad have refused to eat at their hotel and have a dedicated kitchen set up with their own chefs.
Paul Barber won Olympic gold with Great Britain at the Seoul games in 1988.
Regardless of the environmental factors, Barber considers head coach Danny Kerry’s side – who are ranked seventh in the world and line up in Pool B alongside Australia, Ireland and China – as outsiders for the competition.
“You always talk about sides like Australia, Holland, Germany, and then England and Great Britain are just slightly below that. But who knows? England are in a half-decent pool, which they should come second in, and then they would play the third-place team from Pool A (containing Argentina, New Zealand, Spain and France). Once you get to the quarter-finals, it’s all to play for.”
Kerry’s 18-man squad represents a mixture of youth and experience, with the majority of players – including teenager Zach Wallace – having never been to a World Cup. Complimenting the exuberance in the side are veterans Adam Dixon and Barry Middleton who will compete in their third and fourth World Cups, respectively. Barber thinks the blend of youth and experience is important, as is the strength of England’s defence.
He said: “The thing we always majored on was that the spine of the team had good experience and then you can blood a few younger guys.
“You’ve got to build from the back and then anything on top of that is a bonus. If you can keep them down to one, or nil, you’ve always got a good opportunity of scoring goals yourselves, particularly with penalty corners these days. I think England have recognised that now.”
The World Cup represents Kerry’s first major tournament at the head of the men’s team after leaving the women’s programme where he had been in charge for 13 years. Despite enjoying multiple successes – including Olympic gold – Barber didn’t agree with his appointment in August.
“It just seems to be a bit of a closed shop,” he said. “If they thought that [former coach] Bobby Crutchley wasn’t doing a good enough job, then look further afield.
“Perhaps we should’ve brought in a different sort of coach to lead it, particularly with England men’s hockey, because they’ve not quite been there.”
Barber didn’t agree with the appointment of Danny Kerry as Head Coach of the men’s team.
Barber believes that the insular nature of England Hockey stretches to the lack of engagement with ex-players over the years, including at this year’s 30th anniversary match that celebrated the 1988 Seoul Olympics triumph.
He said: “We had a lot to offer, but we weren’t encouraged. A few guys have stayed around – Russell Garcia is now Kerry’s right hand man – but they didn’t make it easy for ex-players.
“Thirty years since we won the [Olympic] gold medal is quite a milestone, but it was as though everything’s moved on. If it had been another sport there would’ve been a big song and dance about it.”
Having competed in all three of the most prestigious hockey competitions, Barber still regards the Olympic Games as the pinnacle of the sport.
“Hockey has been in the Olympics since 1908, so it is steeped in history. The World Cup comes second, and then the Champions Trophy,” he said.
“But one of the best times was in 1986 when we had the World Cup in London, because it was a really big event – there were sell-out crowds, it was on BBC prime time, and there were actually ticket touts on the gate for the semi-final and the final. That was unheard of in hockey.”
While the upcoming Men’s World Cup will be shown live on BT Sport – as was the Women’s Champions Trophy – Barber admits that the lack of mainstream media attention in hockey is frustrating.
He said: “I think the media grabs on to the Olympics because everybody knows about it. If ever there was a time to really push hockey into the limelight it was after 1988 but that didn’t happen because we didn’t have the right people running the sport. The girls winning in Rio was another opportunity but it hasn’t really generated a big interest.
Barber thinks that there was a missed opportunity to increase hockey’s popularity after the GB Women won gold at Rio 2016.
“It is strange that hockey is one of the largest participant sports in the country, but popularity wise it’s not high up on the agenda. It just has to compete with so many popular sports.”
The 2018 Women’s Champions Trophy was the last of its kind as both the men’s and women’s tournaments will be replaced by a Pro League in 2019, with the International Hockey Federation bidding to increase the excitement and exposure of the sport. Barber isn’t convinced by the decision, particularly following India’s withdrawal from the competition last year.
He said: “To me, it’s just bonkers. Tournaments are the pinnacle, because you can set your sights on it and it’s a totally different environment. You’re with a team, not jetting off somewhere just to play a one-off game in the middle of nowhere.
“India would be one of the places you would love to go and play. I just don’t understand the need or why it’s happening. It just seems crazy to me.”
Whether the Pro League is successful remains to be seen. For now, attention is firmly on the World Cup and whether the England squad can upset the odds and emulate the heroes of Barber’s era.
England begin their World Cup campaign against China on Friday (November 30), 13:30 GMT.