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Hockey gets ready for Europe

(As published in the Red & White supplement April issue)

Gibraltar’s hockey players prepare for their European campaigns next month. Both Grammarians and Eagles will be competing in Euro Hockey competitions. Eagles make a return after a period out of the European scene. Grammarians for their part will be looking at mounting another challenge for promotion in Prague.
The two local clubs enter their European competitions after a season which has seen big changes in both teams. Also at a time when hockey has been given a boost with the prospect of hosting an international national team tournament in Gibraltar this summer.
The prospect of playing for the national side has seen players competing to be among those selected adding to the competitive level across the league.
Grammarians has seen players making a return to the field at the same time as seeing some of their younger players step up to the challenge and competing for their place on the field to showcase their progress.
Eagles, now under the watchful eye of former Gibraltar International Stephen Valarino has seen the team restructure adding to the excitement on the field as they now present a further challenge to Grammarians dominance.
A mix of young and old has seen Eagles become a well-disciplined side offering fast paced displays.
The emergence of some of their younger players, now establishing themselves as prominent members on the field, has brought about new life into the oranges future.
Recruitment towards the Europeans has seen both Grammarians and Eagles reinforce their squads ahead of June.
Grammarians will be playing in Prague for the Euro hockey Challenge II while Eagles will be heading to Malta to play in the Euro hockey Challenge IV.
Both teams now enter into a month of intense training. Players will be looking to keep away from injury while also increasing their preparations in the lead up to their campaigns.
We had a chance to speak to two prominent members of the clubs to find out more about their views for this season’s campaigns.

We speak to Stephen Valarino, coach of Eagles HC...
This being the first season back after some years away from European competitions how ready do you feel your team is?
“After a break of nearly three years I was approached to again become the leader of the team as there was a definite hunger from players to return to Euro competitions. The fact that the players had got together, had expressed a desire to train seriously and participate in Euro competitions for me was the first and definite step towards being ready for the challenge ahead. At the beginning of the season the team was far from ready and we had a lot of ‘in-house cleaning’ to do. I set two clear goals for the team this year: (a) restructure the club and (b) participate in EHF competitions and I have to admit that the whole squad has worked their hearts out over the last few months and I know 100% they will do Gibraltar proud when they travel to Malta in June 2019.

Eagles are presently on a transition period in which many youngsters are coming to the forefront. First of all do you feel these youngsters are ready for the strong competition they will be meeting in European competitions?
We have two batches of youngsters travelling with us. A group of 18 to 21-year olds who have been playing top hockey in the UK and who will no doubt complement the team. We also have several U16 players who have been training and playing locally with the team. As regards this second group, even if they do not make it into the final eighteen-man squad we will definitely take at least two of them with us as guests just for the experience. They will learn a lot over the four-day tournament, even if they are not playing, just by listening and watching. The experience that some of our older players bring to the team will also benefit these youngster’s development.

Will you be using some of the very young players some of whom are still under 16?
As mentioned it will be quite difficult for any of our U16’s to get into the final squad due to their young age and inexperience, their safety is also a prime concern for me. Nevertheless, and as a reward for their efforts, I will be taking a few of them with the squad just to get a feel of the seriousness of this type of competition.

Some of the players you have recruited have been away from domestic league and playing in the UK. How confident do you feel that they will integrate well into what is becoming an established squad?
We have five players currently in the UK and they will definitely form part of our 18-man squad travelling to Malta. They have all been in Gibraltar several times over the last few months, training and playing with the team, and they have settled in tremendously well. I had slight concerns about these players ‘fitting in’ but after seeing them with the rest of the squad I am now sure that they will only serve to make our team stronger and more competitive.

Yourself as the head coach have seen a lot in terms of European hockey, now making your return at a crucial moment for Eagles how important is it for you that Eagles are again heading into European competitions as you are this year?
We all know that hockey’s claim to fame over the years had been quality rather than quantity and I believe it is essential for Eagles and the other top local hockey teams to continue to participate in European club competitions. Not only does this give the players an incentive to continue to train and work hard during a very monotonous local season but it also gives the players an invaluable experience which they then capitalise on when they play for the National side. Gibraltar hockey has achieved outstanding results for many years now, both at Club and National level, and the sport should be supported, not for the number of its participants, but for its continued success at representing Gibraltar abroad. Eagles will be travelling to Malta this coming June 2019 and we are definitely going for gold.

We speak to Shane Ramagge, President and Captain of Grammarians HC
In recent seasons you have just missed out on opportunities at the final moment. This year you will be competing in the Challenge II against teams which you have met before. How ready do you feel your team is to take it that step further?
The team is working harder than ever. Missing out on promotion the last two seasons in similar fashion was very hard and you can tell the players are eager to make amends this time. We have the experience at this level and we know what it takes. 2017 Gibraltar we were 2-1 up with just 32 seconds on the clock, when we gave away a short corner, which the Portuguese scored and we lost the shootout. Last year was slightly different as we played a very strong Welsh team, which we probably didn’t expect to be leading at half time by 3-1. With a quarter left we were winning 4-2 and it was with about 5 minutes left when they scored the 3rd, and then 4th with 7 seconds to go, then losing shootouts again. That’s hockey, it’s all about goals and you cannot lose concentration for a single second. We have no time to feel sorry for ourselves so it’s all about being positive and working harder than ever.

Grammarians have presently been on a transition period in which many youngsters are now claiming first team places whilst having other players return. Do you feel these youngsters are now ready to take Grammarians that step further?
I have no doubt that our young players are more than capable of performing at the expected level, however, as every year, there are some that cannot participate in the European cup due to clashes with exams during tournament days. There are also others who are away at University and unable to attend. These players are full of energy and skill which makes it good for the management, and senior players. We are lucky to have a good group of kids coming through. As soon as we see they are physically ready for the challenge, these players train fully with the first team, and this helps their development massively. We also have a group of hardworking coaches who dedicate a lot of time to all the players. There are some senior players considering retirement soon, however they might have to hang on for a bit as some more young ones will be going to UK in September for their studies.
Competition in Gibraltar still continues to be between yourself and Eagles limiting your exposure competitively. Do you think this has limited you?
Yes indeed. This year we have had Eagles participate in local leagues again after a few years out. This is good for us as we can play local matches, and also for the national side as there are more players locally playing regularly, which increases the competition. In previous years when we have not had much local competition we have had to play away from home in nearby Spain, which has been great for us as we have been able to measure ourselves against very strong opposition from the Spanish second division.

How do you hope you will do this season in your tournament?
This year I’m feeling positive. I’m hoping to bring back a winners medal and promotion to the Challenge 1 level. There is a group of players training every day, doing 7am gym sessions, lunch hour training amongst other things in order to get into the best possible shape. This has also helped the collective fitness and performance of the team. For the last few years we have changed our coaching and how we approach the games and trainings too. Traditionally Gibraltar teams were all about hard work but little tactic/game plan. We’ve taken it to another level by implementing game plans and giving much more “textbook coaching” by creating scenarios in training and increasing intensity amongst other things. All our matches are recorded and then analysed by our management team and players are then shown clips of some good play and some not so good where there is room for improvement. We have also been working with Graham Mansell-Grace (Panda) for a few years and he brings something different to the team. He works with Loughborough University which is one of the top and most professional in the UK and also works with England Hockey, EuroHockey and FIH and some top coaches there as a mentor and educator, so there is no doubt he has a lot to offer. Our first team coach, my brother Carl has also done his coaching courses and last year obtained the EHF top coaching Level 1 course In Breda (Netherlands) so this can give you an idea of where we are aiming for. We want to keep improving and will always look for new ways to do so.

There is stronger competition for places with players bidding also for the national team due to this year’s competition, do you think this will aid you?
The national side has a major tournament coming up this summer and it’s been quite a while since we hosted such an important tournament. It’s brilliant for us to be able to show our friends and families what we do and how hard we work and at the level we can perform. Competition is tough and only the strongest 18 players will make the final squad. This is a good thing as this will keep players pushing really hard in training in order to prove to the management team they are up for it. Let’s hope we can achieve something big. Let’s not forget hockey has been competing at this level for decades now.