Hockey: Whitaker ready for uphill: Bill Colwill considers a crucial year ahead for England and Great Britain

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The Independent Online
THERE is no doubt that 1994 will be a year of crucial importance to English hockey on and off the field.

The greatest responsibility is on the national coach, David Whitaker, and the team's manager, David Whittle. Whitaker's aim for the year is simple enough: 'To return England to one of the top four countries in the world.' To achieve this by the World Cup in Sydney in December will be difficult.

'We can only succeed with support and co-operation,' Whitaker said yesterday. 'We are talking with the National League committee to try and arrange for next season's league programme to be such that it will give our players the best possible preparation for the World Cup. Hockey needs success if it is to build on the achievements in the mid-Eighties.'

For the then newly appointed management team, 1993 was something of a honeymoon period as they sorted out their plans and assessed the potential of more than 30 players in a string of one-off international games and many others in exacting conditions in the Under-21 World Cup.

The new year's serious business starts for Whitaker and Whittle on Thursday in Barcelona where Great Britain play in a Four Nations invitation tournament against Spain, India and Belgium. The year's work will end at the World Cup where a gold medal for England would give Britain automatic qualification for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In between, there is much work to be done.

After Barcelona England go to the European Indoor Cup in Bonn at the end of the month, then Britain again set off to Lahore in March for the elite Champions Trophy - involving the top six teams in the world - and then England will take over until the World Cup.

One of the problems facing the management in this build-up to Sydney is, clearly, availability. Great Britain is, realistically, unlikely to call on many non-English players. So the demand on the time of these amateur sportsmen is tremendous.

Already two of England's most senior players, the Olympians Jon Potter and Rob Hill, have made themselves unavailable for Britain. Others have opted out of the European Indoor Cup, despite the fact that Whitaker considers it vital in the development of all-round, world-class players. Others, it is rumoured, are likely to follow. There is also the ongoing club v country conflict which is causing friction in some quarters.

Off the field, the Hockey Association president, Phil Appleyard, who masterminded the highly successful 1986 World Cup event at Willesden where England took the silver medal, and has held the reins with fortitude and resourcefulness since 1985, has indicated that he will not be seeking re-election at the March annual meeting. Building will start on the imaginative, custom-built, hockey stadium at Milton Keynes, the first in the United Kingdom, and the initial three year sponsorship of the PizzaExpress National League will come to an end.

Each of these events will have significant repercussions on the game. Yet there can be little doubt that a greater impact will be felt if Whitaker and Whittle can create a match-winning combination on the field. Whitaker is well aware of the responsibility.

'It will need a lot of goodwill. I plan to build good relations with the clubs,' he said. 'I recognise in the squad the desire and commitment to succeed. I believe we can do it.'