East Grinstead Hockey Club; Give it some stick!
By Roger Linn
Among the hundreds of sports clubs that thrive in Mid Sussex, one stands out with a truly awesome reputation:
East Grinstead Hockey Club.
With successes at county, national and international levels, its key players are among hockey’s superstars. The club is now highly respected in the sport, credible to sponsors local and national and is regarded as a model hockey club.
So how did all this happen? To find out, I interviewed Simon Longhurst, the club’s dynamic Chairman. Clearly an important aspect to Simon, the first point he made was that in spite of the club’s successes nationally and internationally, it is still very much a family affair. The elite players and teams are only the peak of a pyramid which is made up of some 500 playing members and no less than 19 teams. Not to mention the management, back-up staff, non-playing members and volunteers.
Founded back in 1897, it is fair to say that the momentum for the club’s growth is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Although the steady rise in its stature probably began in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it really took off. Simon reminded me that the club won both the national outdoor cup and the indoor championships for the first time in that decade. And as a consequence of Great Britain winning bronze at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, hockey itself received a massive boost in popularity.
This was followed by a stunning gold medal four years later at the Seoul Olympics, with a team which included East Grinstead’s own players Richard Leman and Ian Taylor. Sean Kerly, who scored a hat-trick in the semi-final, became a household name, and suddenly hockey became sexy.
Inspired by the game’s success on the world stage and the thought of playing alongside some of hockey’s Olympians, Simon, like many others, joined the club when he left university in the early 1990s.
During a club hockey tour to Barbados in 1997, Simon, Phillip Coote and a number of others realised that their ambitions were greater than simply to play for the club. This group saw the need to step up with senior members retiring and to rise to the challenge of taking the club in a new direction.
This new direction began to take effect towards the end of the “noughties” as the previous Chairman (James Leman) had successfully arrested the decline in men’s hockey. Professional coaching attracted some high calibre players, such as two-time Olympian Mark Pearn. The new leadership team began to realise that, in Simon’s words, “it wasn’t just about the men. It was about the men, the women, the kids, the families and sport for all. So we sat down and wrote a long-term strategy.” The ultimate goal? That they should be the best hockey club in their region of the world.
Central to the plan was the need to improve the processes by which the club ran, and further develop its links with local schools. They also identified the need to make the club more credible for sponsors, especially since supporting a 1st XI playing in Europe on the men’s side and an ambitious women’s 1st XI was proving to be a very expensive business. To that end, in 2012 the club invited representatives from Mid Sussex, West Sussex and East Grinstead councils to a presentation outlining their bid to become the first English club to host the prestigious Euro Hockey League competition. Louise Goldsmith (Leader of West Sussex County Council) at the time commented “EGHC is truly inspirational. The project meets several of the County’s key priorities; helping the local economy, healthy living, building strong communities, and volunteering.”
With the councils’ support, additional funds from Hockey England and their own contribution, the club was successful in its bid; twelve weeks after the London 2012 Olympic Games had finished, 12 of Europe’s top teams came to East Grinstead to battle through the opening rounds of the tournament. This year, the club hosted the indoor version of the competition and they are now, as Simon puts it, “very much part of the European fabric of hockey.”
The ‘halo’ effect of East Grinstead Hockey Club’s success at the highest levels has been hugely beneficial in attracting members from every section of the community – men and women, young and not so young, experienced players and newcomers to the sport. Sunday mornings can see as many as 200 youngsters being coached at the ground, with teams of children of both sexes from as young as eight years old. There is also a veterans’ side and ‘back to hockey’ coaching for men and women.
Today, hockey is the fastest growing team sport in the country and both England’s men’s and women’s teams are ranked fourth in the world. It is a dynamic, technically interesting and exciting sport simply packed with goals and incidents. Small wonder then that home games for East Grinstead’s men’s first team can attract up to 700 people to their Saint Hill ground. Here, according to the club’s Chairman, “you can watch people who’ve played hockey for Great Britain 230 times. You’ll see a thousand caps on the pitch at any moment, multiple Olympians and if you watch our girls, you’ll see the games’ rising stars, including a current England goalkeeper (Kirsty Mackay) and Sophie Bray, one of England’s dynamic forwards.”
Simon’s enthusiasm is infectious. With all the team on board, it is not difficult to imagine that East Grinstead Hockey Club will continue to be a force in world hockey for years to come.
East Grinstead Hockey Club
Saint Hill Road, East Grinstead, West Sussex RH19 4JU