DURHAM'S TOUR OF AMERICA YIELDS GREAT CONTRASTS

By Al Mattei
Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

Durham University is tucked away in the northeast of England, a few kilometers from the border with Scotland. In 2005, its women's hockey first team came to the United States for a six-game series against an assortment of university sides.

Durham showed itself to be a formidable opponent, taking a highly-regarded University of Maryland team, destined to win the 2005 NCAA Division I title, deep into the second half before succumbing 2-1.

"We'd be in the top 12 of university teams," head coach Gavin Featherstone admits, "but not even in top 50 women's teams when it comes to the rest of England."

This kind of comparison is not only valid in terms of English hockey, but measurable. That's because the English Hockey League grafts college teams directly into its infrastructure. It's as if the field hockey teams in the NCAA were able to play their way into a tiered American league structure that included the likes of the Boston Minutewomen, Team Za, Red Rose, Holland Tunnel, Malvern, and the New York Islanders.

"The clubs dominate things," Featherstone says. "Now, the university competition is not as intense as it is in the United States. Of all 18- or 19-year olds that go and play hockey, something like 7 in 10 will go and play club hockey and not university hockey."

There are also a number of English players testing the waters in the United States. Susie Rowe, for instance, was on the Maryland side hosting Durham.

Rowe would have had some interesting choices had she decided to remain in England, as she would have been playing mid-week matches with her university in the regional conference, and would have been wearing the kit of second-division side Loughborough for weekend matches.

"If you have a young international, she would indeed play for two teams over the course of the week," Featherstone says. "But at Durham, we don't allow that; we don't think you can have two religions. We play both Wednesday and Saturday."

Rowe, however, found herself in a top university side in coming to Maryland. Although the quality of the Durham side is comparable to an American college like Maryland, the relative positions the teams occupy in their developmental tracks is much different. Structurally, Rowe's choice to play for Maryland is similar to an English soccer player moving from a lowly regional side like Yeovil to play for, say, Manchester United.

"I'm astounded by everything: the facilities, the support staff, the coaches, the expertise -- it's amazing," Rowe says. "I was apprehensive coming here; I didn't know field hockey had such quality as it has here. With the facilities, the support, and the funding, I think England really need to take a step back and think. Field hockey is a minor, minor sport here. But the fans we get, the funding, and the television coverage, are amazing."

Featherstone has seen a lot of hockey in the English-speaking world, having coached the 1984 United States men's national team as well as playing and coaching in his native United Kingdom. As such, he has a keen eye for comparison as well as contrast as to what has been going on.

For, in the summer of 2005, the women's teams of both nations participated in the Champions' Challenge, a competition amongst countries ranked roughly 6th through 12th in the world, the winner of which switches places with the lowest-ranked Champions Trophy finisher of that year to complete the fields for the competition the next year.

But given the participation in the United Kingdom and the United States, the feeling is that something is deathly wrong. The United States finished fifth in the tournament, and England fourth.

"America is eccentric, frankly," Featherstone says. "How many nations stop playing hockey at 23? The physical and mental maturity of men and women begin after the age of 23. The standards are quite high at the university level (in the United States), but 85 percent of players won't touch a hockey stick once they get to 23. How can you expect to compete on the international level favorably when you're playing 25- to 30-year-olds -- Germans, Argentinians, Dutch? Angles, experience, decision-making -- there's no substitute for it. There are some great young athletes here who would develop into excellent players, but they end their development at Phase I. It's a tragedy, as far as I can see."

England has its own problems. Featherstone estimates that there there are about a million teen or pre-teen female players who compete each and every weekend, and he estimates that England has the most artificial turf pitches in the world -- more than 2,700. But that level of participation and funding on the part of England Hockey has not yielded top-class results.

"We've spent over 14 million, or $21 million, in the last five years," he says. "And we hired people who were not who they said that they were. Unfortunately we've not looked within the British Isles for the experience that we need."

England's club system neatly fits in most stakeholders in the country into one united league, but the entire infrastructure is on shaky ground -- literally. The English Hockey Association almost ceased as a legal entity in 2003 thanks to mounting debt. Its national hockey stadium at Milton Keynes was given over to a professional soccer team.

"We spent all of the money," Featherstone says. "And we went nowhere."

The parallels between England and the United States are not easy to spot. Whilst the finances of United States Field Hockey Association has not gone the way of England Hockey, there have been punishing funding cuts after failures in 2000 and 2004 Olympic qualifying.

And while the participation level of field hockey in England is much higher than in the United States, English girls and women have just started experiencing the large kaleidoscope of choices that American females have had for decades.

"Women have tipped the boat more broadly in their interest in sport -- rugby Union, football, cricket," Featherstone says. "We've got a world-class cricket team, and are well in advance in rugby and soccer -- somewhat to the detriment of hockey in recent years. But we can come back; we've got the 2012 Olympics coming to London. I'm looking forward to that."

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