Keith Elliott at Large: Gear sold on the idea of hockey heaven

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The Independent Online
THE cricketer who wants to change the face of hockey has a Martin Luther King-like vision. As train passengers (always assuming any are left after privatisation) pass through Milton Keynes, they will look out of the window, hoping to glimpse a concrete cow, and see instead a futuristic sports complex.

The two pitches are hidden by all-seater stands, protected by what look like alien spacecraft parked atop huge coat-hangers. Around the periphery, companies like McDonalds, Argos and W H Smith ply their wares. And above it all (though not higher than the tallest tree, because that's one of the rules about development in Milton Keynes) floats a neon sign saying: The Independent National Hockey Stadium.

Or Ruddles, or BMW. Or Texaco. Mike Gear isn't too picky as long as it's a prestigious company with international connections. He would like one with local links (Volkswagen, Abbey National and Mercury spring to mind). Perhaps even the Gyosei Japanese School would be interested.

You have to admire Gear's optimism. At the moment, his dream is a scrubby, windswept field full of puddles. In the new town's grand plan, drawn up in the 1960s, this muddy meadow next to the railway station was destined to become the Milton Keynes Arena. That utopian dream almost became reality when Luton Football Club looked set to take over the site. The plan fell through, so in 1991 it was offered to hockey.

Since before the Second World War, hockey has dreamt of its own national stadium. First Richmond Park in Surrey was favoured. In the late 1970s, Chiswick, west London, was mooted. But that old show-stopper, money, always spoilt the party.

What will make Milton Keynes reality rather than reverie is that the local council, the Commission for New Towns, the Sports Aid Foundation and the Sports Council have all forked out (to the tune of pounds 8.5m). Hockey has to find only pounds 500,000. Trouble is, it hasn't got a penny, and that's where Gear comes in.

He started as a teacher, but was always interested in cricket, so in 1982 he wheedled his way into Lord's as cricket secretary. He did a pretty good job, too, popularising quick cricket and looking after the under-15 and under-17 national squads. When Durham decided to join the big boys, Gear led the way. As chief executive, his greatest coup was probably getting Botham on the books. And now he's hoping to perform a few miracles for hockey.

If you were at a hockey game last weekend, you would have fallen victim to one of his ideas. 'Every player was asked to donate pounds 1. We reckon that 100,000 adults play at weekends. Taking into account those who play both days, we should be able to raise pounds 220,000.'

Since he started as commercial manager four months ago, Gear has set up projects from buying a square yard of the pitch, merchandising, debenture seating and a national lottery to selling a third of the site for commercial development. With McDonalds already on board, he is hopeful of other big names.

'I am staggered that I haven't had a company on to me already wanting to grab this opportunity. We're talking about the best hockey stadium in the world. There is the potential to become a household name like Cornhill. It won't be like the Foster's Oval, which people still call The Oval. People will know it from the start by its sponsor's name,' he said.

Gear is confident the money will come through in time for the stadium's opening. Work starts next month and completion in 1995 will conveniently tie in with the England Women's Hockey Association centenary and the Champion's Trophy for the top six nations. Big-thinking Gear would like the Queen, who is president for the men and women's associations, to open the whole shebang.

Aged 48, he still plays club cricket but confesses that he hasn't picked up a hockey stick for years, and even then he wasn't any good. 'But I had done all I could do in cricket. I needed another challenge.' Raising the money may not really stretch his creativity. But when the time comes to fill those 15,000 seats, in Milton Keynes, on a wet Saturday, then we shall really see how good Gear is.