Hockey: 'Big brother' wields his stick for great result

Team GB star Niall Stott is part of a unique experiment that has introduced London youngsters to a new sport

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The Independent Online

Vinnie, 12, was conspicuously unimpressed when they told him he was going to be taught hockey by the Olympic-bound GB Men's squad. He had the distinct impression that hockey was boring and the Olympics was some rarified event that would only mess up the traffic where he lives in Newham. As for the players: "We thought they'd be stuck-up and snobby because they're rich," he said.

Vinnie, now 13, has a different perspective. He's hanging off the railings outside a Community Centre in Stratford, impatiently waiting for the GB team bus to arrive. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is about to be performed to declare open a brand new multi-sport club in the East End – The Fre Flyers – that began a year ago amid high-grade mutual scepticism. If the children were suspicious of the players and each other, the athletes similarly disposed. "They're scared shitless," said GB's head coach, Jason Lee, at the time. (Smiling, because it was half his idea.)

"But we found out we were wrong," said Vinnie. "The players are more like our friends and big brothers now. We've bonded."

His particular hero and friend is Niall Stott, 31, the only Scot in the squad with over 200 international caps and a tattoo of a bulldog on his chest. They are, at first sight, an unlikely combination but the friendship was cemented over (an illegal injection of) chicken nuggets and chips at a youth tournament in Holland. "I felt really bad about this starving kid because he hadn't eaten anything for three days. So we sneaked him off," said Stott. "He took a shine to me for some reason and was always coming up to find me. I don't really know why."

It may be entirely a coincidence but of all the members of the GB hockey squad, many of whom came through the affluent public school system, Stott has a background most similar to those of the Fre Flyers themselves. He grew up in Dundee, the elder of two boys, his whole life revolving around a dilapidated old ice skating rink on a dual carriageway up the road. His mum used to push him up there in a pram long before he could walk because his cousin played ice hockey for the Dundee Rockets. It became his second home.

"After games, my cousin Craig used to carry me on to the ice and skate around holding me. It would always be freezing cold. I remember that. So I'd have my pyjamas and my sleep socks on under my clothes, spend all day there, either watching or skating, then go home, take my clothes off and go straight to bed. That was my life."

He never met, nor knew, nor spoke about this father. "I did everything with my mum. I guess you could say she was a brave woman. Certainly very helpful, but I expect most mums are that. I probably wasn't that much trouble because I didn't want to do anything other than be at the rink. She knew where I was and either she or my auntie or my gran would be sitting there somewhere looking out for us.

"There wasn't a lot else to do. In the summer they melted the ice and we went round the concrete floor on roller blades instead. It was very unglamorous, big nets behind the goal instead of perspex and little wooden seats which made you sore if you sat on them for five minutes, let alone three hours."

Financially, life was a struggle. His family lived in a two-bedroom, first floor flat. "I didn't have a computer or a games console or anything like that. But then I never wanted one. My life was sport. Up until the age of 19 I wanted to be an ice hockey player but then I was picked by GB hockey to play at the Athens Olympics and things changed. When I realised that being an Olympian wasn't an impossible dream, I set that as my goal."

In Athens, he played every match and GB finished ninth. In Beijing, he endured a sporting hell. "I was first reserve. I didn't play. 'Disappointing', as a word, doesn't begin to cover it. Every time someone in the team got a knock, you were like: 'Well, how bad is it?' I was hoping someone got injured. It was horrible. I thought I'd retire after that. I'd had enough. But then I thought I could be part of a tiny number of Britons who have played Olympic hockey in their home country. I still love the sport and I feel I can contribute. Why walk away? It would feel like giving up."

If honest, the organisers of the Fre Flyers thought many of the children corralled into the arrangement would find excuses to give up. Tower Hamlets and Newham youngsters see themselves as rivals not friends on the same side. "Postcode Wars" have real consequences in this part of London. They all know of children their age shot dead for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But after the first training session, they all turned up for the second one. After the second one, they all went camping at Bisham Abbey, the GB hockey training base. They loved it.

The experiment was due to end last year after a tournament in Holland. But the Fre Flyers scored a goal and the GB hockey squad, seasoned veterans of World Cups, Commonwealth and Olympic Games, celebrated on the side of the pitch like uninhibited 12-year-olds. By popular demand the arrangement continues and now another sport, thanks to the cooperation of The Tennis Foundation, has been included in the mix.

The aim is to create an on-going multi-sports club at Eton Manor, the Olympic site, by 2014, eventually catering for up to 25,000 London children. All from 30 pioneering Fre Flyers and their initially-terrified "big brothers".

"Vinnie doesn't really remind me of me," said Stott. "I didn't have to worry about crossing into different postcodes in Dundee. My life was all about sport. Their lives have been about survival."

The Fre Flyers are backed by GB Hockey, The Tennis Foundation, Community Links, Tower Hamlets Youth Sport Foundation, East London Business Alliance, Laureus and LandAid