Hockey: Danger of split recedes for uneasy elite clubs

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The Independent Online
By Bill Colwill

THE CHANCE of the elite clubs breaking away to form their own national league has receded following meetings this week between England's director of performance, Chris Spice, and the managers and coaches of the Premier League clubs. Nevertheless, there is still considerable unrest about the way the league restructuring has been handled.

The proposed changes concerned the reduction in the size of the league - 32 teams in two divisions of 10 and 12 in the bottom division - and the method for deciding the league championship and the entry into the European club championship - a play-off rather than first past the post, together with a number of games being played at the national centre at Milton Keynes. Additionally clubs were told that from the 2000-01 season all Premier League games must be played on water-based pitches.

The proposals, aimed at improving the quality of domestic hockey and hence the national squad's performances, were considered by Spice to be essential to success. Clubs argued that the reduction in the size of the leagues would reduce revenue and that abandoning the first-past-the- post principle would be detrimental.

In spite of these proposals being rejected at the annual meeting of the National League clubs the English Hockey Association decided to press ahead with the major restructuring which the clubs felt to be unnecessary and being enforced undemocratically. Matters were not improved when Spice made a statement that if the clubs did not agree to his proposals he would withdraw the top 30 players, pointing out that he had Lottery funding to do it.

A climbdown is unlikely although moving a number of games to Milton Keynes appears to have been put on the backburner. Indeed, one official welcomed the proposals providing the EHA can achieve the pounds 20m funding now being sought from the National Lottery to fund regional hockey academies and another 20 water-based pitches.

The threatened revolt may be over for the present, particularly if the Lottery funding materialises and there is international success. If not, the unrest may fester.