Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

Surbiton Hockey Club: the next sporting dynasty?

Posted on 11 June 2018 by Ben Morse

It is very easy to crown a dynasty after it has come to an end. 

In the last 30 years we’ve seen sporting dynasties come and go, such as Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, Joe Montana’s San Fransisco 49ers and Irvin ‘Magic’ Johnson/Kobe Bryant’s LA Lakers. 

But over the last five years in leafy Surrey, Surbiton Hockey Club have been creating a dynasty of their own. 

With two men’s league championships in the last two seasons, and five women’s league championships in a row, Surbiton has become England’s premier hockey club. 

And Lewis Prosser, current men’s 1’s player and Wales Hockey captain, said of the atmosphere at the club: “It’s great. The kids are now coming to watch regularly which is what we want to see. I remember going to see Reading (Prosser’s hometown club) play when I was a youngster and you do get inspired by it and you want to play at that level. 

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“So hopefully those kids can see that. That’s what I think Zach (Wallace) and Conor (Williamson) grew up watching it so it’s great to see them come through the club system.”

Despite being the second oldest hockey club in the world, Surbiton’s success hasn’t really translated into trophies until the most recent run. 

On the men’s side of things, Surbiton have always been challenging with squads that regularly were filled with international stars, but Prosser believes they have more of a complete team now which has brought success along with it. 

He said: “We had a really talented group of players but I didn’t think we had the squad and squad depth. 

“Whereas when Mark Pearn and Matt Jones came in (May 2016), they were determined on getting in quality players. 

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“So in their first year, I think we had five or six brand new guys, all international players, come in which is obviously going to make a huge difference.”

But having international players in your squad is not a tactic unheard of in British hockey. So what is it about the set-up at Surbiton that makes them stand out from the rest and has given them the edge in these last few seasons? 

Despite not having the biggest site for a club, Surbiton have a huge number of members. They have focussed on developing their youth system so there is a constant stream of talent that is being used by the senior teams. 

I spoke to Jo Firth, the current Ladies 1’s (L1) liason and former L1 manager and captain, to find out about the organisation of the youth system at the club. 

Firth said: “It was important to get a director of coaching in and make sure that everyone was working off of the same page for the coaches development. 

“We have a development scheme for the coaches so every team has a designated coach which means that, because there has been a coaching manual written by the club, they are now coaching off of the same page.”

This coaching development plan was implemented by the current Director of Hockey, Brett Garrard – a former Surbiton player and England and Team GB’s most capped player – after he returned to the club in 2008. 

The colts system is now churning out national titles due to this high level of coaching and because all age groups are coached and play to the same philosophies and ideologies as the senior teams, it means that they are ready made to fill in when there is a space available. 

Firth said: “Our colts system supports that so when our GB players go off, we have a lot of under-18 girls playing at a top level. 

“They train with the L1’s once a week as well as their age group so we incorporate the best of the under-18 girls into our 1st XI squad and give them the opportunity to train with the Olympians and just see what it’s about which makes them want it even more. 

“When you’re training with three gold medalists it’s quite something!

“It just helps when Brett (Garrard) has five or six GB girls off for a period of time, he’s got a squad that he can pull in and they’re comfortable coming in and playing at that level.”

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And it’s not just on the women’s side where youth plays a key role. 

Prosser said of the importance of youth players to recent success: “It was evident even in Pearn’s first year. 

“I think there was a point where five of our lads were out so luckily we had very talented youngsters like Zach Wallace, who’s going to be outrageous when he’s older. He’s already got a trial with the GB guys and he’s just come out of school. 

“And you’ve got people like Adam Buckle, Morgan Males and Conor Williamson who are freaks as youngsters. They’re able to train at our level at 17 or 18-years-old whilst still doing exams at school and travelling an hour and a half to training. 

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“So every time the international guys go, which we’ve had this year with the Commonwealth Games preparation, they just come in and fill the gaps and they do a really good job of it. 

“This year we were really worried about the last two games of the year against East Grinstead and Beeston and they won the games 5-1 and 6-1.”

Whereas you may expect the title-winning teams to become separated from the rest of the club due to this success, the opposite is actually the case. 

Part of a first team players contract with Surbiton requires them to do a certain amount of coaching at the club, which obviously increases participation and the quality of youth hockey. 

Some players also coach at local schools, like Prosser who coaches during the week at Kingston Grammar School. 

He said: “You also have all the first team players who coach which is a good thing about Surbiton. 

“Most other clubs pay fares and Surbiton basically will give you accommodation but you have to give something back to the club which normally ends up in coaching. 

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“And coaching the juniors obviously increases their standard and the club. And with the kids being coached by internationals, it encourages them to come and do that and great for the families to do that.”

With this integrated atmosphere between the international superstars and the youngsters, it’s no wonder it is such an appealing place for parents to get their children playing sport.  

Prosser said: “The fact that we’ve got 1500 members now means you’re going to know someone and because hockey is such a social sport, that’s why most people play it. 

“Obviously not the performance guys but everyone below it plays because they enjoy it and the social afterwards is great and you get to do it with a load of mates.”

A vital part of maintaining this club spirit is making sure that when the kids leave for university, they are able to return to the club and still feel like part of the family. 

Firth said: “We’ve also made some really good links with universities. If colts go off, they want to come back. We’re in communication with them for the whole time that they’re at university. And when they’re not at university they come back for our socials. 

“So they can come back as 24 year olds and if they’ve been to universities that have been playing national league, then clearly they’ve got a chance of getting back into the 1st XI.”

And I asked Annie Tutty, – as someone who has grown up at the club – about what makes her come back to play for Surbiton. 

She said: “I made a lot of good friends at the club, which would be a main reason why I would return after 3 years at uni. 

“As a club they have always had my back and I’m sure I speak on behalf of many others when saying that. Regardless of the hockey I would want to return to those who have supported me throughout the years.

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“For graduates, the club allows you to continue to play seriously or play more for fun. I think the latter is key to get more graduates back, which I believe they are improving on and promoting more.”

As an acknowledgement of the rise of Surbiton Hockey Club, they were named as the hosts of the 2018 EuroHockey Club Champions Cup which, although the L1’s didn’t do as well as they had hoped, provided an excellent platform for Surbiton to showcase their togetherness and family spirit. 

Prosser said of the experience: “The Euro’s were just another level. 

“I’m a big social media geek so I was Instagramming a lot and people were asking me if we were in Europe because of how amazing the set-up was. 

“It shows what clubs in England can do if given the right things. For example, during the finals for the hockey league that happened in Lee Valley, you couldn’t fill one half of the seating for a Premier League final, whereas we had a huge number of people at the club for the Euro’s.”

Despite this success and the plans that Surbiton have in place to maintain it, they could be set to lose it all if England Hockey’s plans to create their ‘Pro League’ goes through. 

This tournament, with a proposed start date of January 2019, will see all GB players competing in it as part of Team GB, leaving Surbiton – and many other league clubs – with glaring holes. 

And Prosser is not a fan: “They’ve got the centralised program which a lot of people, including myself, don’t agree with. 

“We want to see more emphasis put on the club like if you look at the Dutch league or the German league, the leagues are the biggest part of their international set-up. Their players play in the league and then they come to train. 

“They don’t do it the other way round, like it is here which causes friction with clubs because the clubs are paying either some of the salary or providing accommodation and if the player isn’t allowed to play for the club, it just becomes a bit complex. 

“As soon as they start sorting that bit out, I think hockey and club hockey in England with grow massively. But until the centralised program gets found out, I don’t think anything’s going to change.”

And Firth echoes Prosser’s thoughts: “The way that England Hockey are moving forward on the Pro League and the single system poses questions about club hockey and how important is it. 

“But we feel that we’ve got a really good set-up at Surbiton and that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. At the moment I think we’ve got eight GB squad players which is going to prove very difficult when they go off for the Pro League if they’re all selected obviously. 

“I think we’re probably one of the national league clubs that has the most GB players in it’s squad so clearly it’s going to impact us more than most.”

So, during this summer when you’re reading about the possibility of Juventus going for their eighth Serie A title in a row or the Golden State Warriors going for their fourth ring in five years, just remember that down in peaceful Surrey, Surbiton are creating their own dynasty. 

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