Like all the teams taking part in the Odisha Men’s Hockey World League Final in Bhubaneswar, India, England is in the middle of a re-building process. But for Barry Middleton, longest serving member of any Great Britain or England men’s team, this is just par for the course.
As it should be. Middleton has been through four Olympic cycles and has been part of the national set-up since he was 16. He made his full senior debut at the age of 18 and now, at the age of 33, he is relishing more challenges.
"Starting again after an Olympics is always tough but exciting at the same time. The new guys coming in bring a freshness and that is good but the tough bit is trying to get the individuals and the team as a whole the necessary experience at international level. We are trying to get that experience in quickly and that is a hard ask. It is a huge step from club hockey or U21 hockey."
The next few months bring a trio of tough challenges to the new look England side. First, they will be competing against the best sides in the world at the Odisha Hockey World League Final. An event that is perfect as “it is a chance for us to see how we measure up against the others.” Then it is the Commonwealth Games in Australia in April followed by the Odisha Men’s Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar, India.
Middleton freely admits that he had some doubts about his future following on from the Rio Olympics. Great Britain’s dismal performance saw them knocked out in the pool stages. “Rio was a hard time,” he says. “Not just for me but for all of us. I took it as a lesson to learn from. I had to ask myself : ‘What am I in it for?’ I might have lost sight of that a little.”
Thankfully for England and Great Britain, the man who has played for his country more than 390 times, many of those occasions as captain, is back, refreshed and fully motivated.
"I play hockey because I love what I do. It is so important to keep that in mind and not be just thinking 'I must win medals'".
Assessing the top teams who will be playing in Bhubaneswar, Middleton says that Australia and Germany are about where England currently sit in terms of rebuilding. The Netherlands and Belgium are further along that stage as they had less changes after the 2016 Games. The current world number one team Argentina will have to make some changes, "within the next two to three years" as their players reach retirement. For Middleton, a big player at the Hockey World League Final will be the host nation: "They play very differently in their home country to the way they perform in Europe, and their crowds are something else, the players lift their game for those passionate fans."
A bronze medal at the EuroHockey Championships was important for the new team’s confidence levels, but as England prepares to head to India for the Hockey World League Final, the former captain says the players now have to make another giant step forwards.
‘We are taking another step along the learning phases and another big step forward by competing at a world level. The Euros are obviously a very high standard, and it was important that we won our final match there, but out in India we will be taking on the best in the world."
For Middleton, the Hockey World League is an event that has just got stronger and there are new teams emerging from the Hockey World League system. He points to Belgium and Argentina as two obvious examples of teams that have benefited from the format, adding that in Gonzalo Peillat, Argentina have a player who can turn a match with his drag flick penalty corners alone.
So will the next few months be Middleton’s swan-song? “It is a year-by-year thing,” he replies. “Physically I am lucky, I’ve not had major injuries. I am a little, light person so my joints are okay. I have looked after myself pretty well and I try to keep fit and in good shape.
“Mentally, I just love it. When I stop enjoying it, then I will look for something else. I think it is easier when you get near the end of your career to accept that things will be changing. You learn hockey is not around for ever and you say ‘right I will enjoy it while I can.’ When you are younger you get very wrapped up in it.”
While Middleton’s fitness levels might be right up there with his younger teammates, he does admit that there are times when the changing room banter leaves him flummoxed. “I have no idea what they are talking about most of the time,” he laughs. “I just assume they are laughing at me.”