Roll on the good times

Alan Hubbard sees England rise to the occasion at the world roller hockey championships in Kent

It is surprising what you can dig up in the Garden of England. A few weeks ago, in a squidgy field just outside Maidstone, we discovered that whippet racing is alive and yelping down South. And last week, anyone travelling just a few miles further along the M20, then turning left up Bluebell Hill towards Chatham, would have unearthed another little nugget. The world roller hockey championships.

It is surprising what you can dig up in the Garden of England. A few weeks ago, in a squidgy field just outside Maidstone, we discovered that whippet racing is alive and yelping down South. And last week, anyone travelling just a few miles further along the M20, then turning left up Bluebell Hill towards Chatham, would have unearthed another little nugget. The world roller hockey championships.

Not that anyone has really noticed, but a game that we invented when Victorian gents and their ladies trundled along on roller skates in their plus fours and crinolines has been packing them in (well, most of the 545 seats were filled nightly) at the new £22m leisure centre at Buckmore Park, which used to house Kent scouts but for the past six days has been reverberating to the sound of squeals on wheels.

The championships, held for the first time in England, should have been at the Millennium Dome, but the organisers got so fed up with the dithering of those in charge of the Docklands disaster area that they switched to a venue nearer the sport's ancestral home of Herne Bay. Now Herne Bay isn't exactly the Monte Carlo of the Kent Riviera, but it can claim to be a veritable roller hockey hotbed. They used to play it on the end of the pier, and actually housed the European championships three-quarters of a century ago, but when the pier collapsed they built a splendid new arena to accommodate the town's three clubs, all of whom have resisted the temptation to call themselves the Bay City Rollers.

Alas, when the rink was finished they discovered it was a fraction too small for international events, which is why teams from 15 nations have been contesting Group B of the world championships on a maple-sprung rink a few miles inland at Buckmore Park.

The other section of the championships, Group A, will be held in Buenos Aires next year. That's when the big boys, most of them professional and nearly all Latinos, come out to play, and it says much for the progressive state of the game here that England's achievement last week in reaching the final of Group B has qualified them for the senior world league.

As domestic triumphs go, it hasn't exactly been heralded with fanfares equivalent to those still ringing in our ears after recent Olympian exploits and conquests on the rugby and cricket fields. No matter. England from now on will be mixing it with the likes of Argentina, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Brazil, where the leagues are professional, with players earning up to £60,000 a year plus perks, and using purpose-built rinks attached to football clubs: Barcelona's, for instance, is part of the Nou Camp.

Barcelona are the top-ranked club in the roller hockey world. Herne Bay United are 139th, but ask their captain, Phil McVey, a 28-year-old insurance broker, what it is like to be a minor sports celebrity and you'll get a slightly sniffy retort. "Minor sport? Not in Herne Bay, it isn't. It's the only game in town."

Certainly they were giving the sport big licks at Buckmore Park, Klaxons, ensigns, a cheerleading MC wrapped in a Union Jacket and groups of lads aged five and upwards, many of whom play the game at junior level, seeking the autographs of not only McVey and Co but stick-wielding maestros from Colombia, Holland, South Korea, New Zealand, Japan, Uruguay, India and assorted other nations.

The sport resembles ice hockey on wheels and can be equally as boisterous and exciting - and sometimes just as dangerous when a missile, harder and slightly bigger than a cricket ball,whizzes towards your unprotected head at 90mph. Only goalkeepers use headguards.

England's eight players (only four plus the goalkeeper can be on the rink at the same time) include a doctor of philosophy, a student of philology, a 3D image conceptualist and two sons of the National Roller Hockey Association president, Keith Allen, who persuaded a couple of businessmen to help underwrite the £65,000 cost of the championships.

In common with certain other sports, the impressively skilled England side attribute much of their success to their foreign coach, though Carlos Amaral, originally from Portugal but now working as a production engineer for a healthcare company in Letchworth, is unpaid, like his team. It has cost the England players about £200 each, plus time off work, to compete in these championships, and they will have to pay their own way to Argentina.

There are 1,300 registered players and 40 clubs in England and Wales. Roller hockey used to have a Sports Council grant of £18,000 a year, but that is no more. "We get bits and bobs," says one of the association's vice-presidents, Gail Whattingham, a mother of five from Farnham, Surrey, who has the thankless task of trying to drum up publicity. "But when you talk about real amateur sport, this is it .At least as far as this country is concerned."

Ah, but what about the presence of TV cameras at Buckmore Park? Surely that's worth a few bob? Er, no, actually. The organisers shelled out £28,000 to a production company to film the championships so that they can be seen on Sky in the New Year. Sky haven't paid a bean.

Like a few other unheralded activities which have rarely get a sniff of the oxygen of publicity, roller hockey is surprisingly good, both to watch and, apparently, to play. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Olympic president, obviously thought so, because not only did he parade it as a demonstration sport in his home-town Games in Barcelona but he played it as a student and wrote a column in a newspaper under the pseudonym "Stick". Charlie Chaplin also turned out for a celebrity team in Manchester in 1917.

Roller hockey was the only sporting contact we had with Argentina during the Falklands War. England played them in the 1982 world championships in Lisbon at the height of the conflict. No hands were shaken, no banners exchanged. That was the deal. Argentina won 8-0. "You have just won a war," declared the Argentine ambassador to his team.

That was the last, and about only, time roller hockey hit the headlines here. Meanwhile, the 34th world championships have been deemed a great success for England in all sorts of ways, not least in spreading a little slap-happiness.

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