One door closes, another one opens | Tommy Alexander
The Great Britain hockey team, both men and women, has been through a turbulent time. With changes to coaching staff, mixed results and only four years after the Women secured gold at the Olympics, they’re now fighting for a qualifying place. The men, however, have improved since they failed to get out of the group stages at Rio 2016.
But why is the UK having such extreme results, and most importantly, why are our most talented players and coaches moving to mainland Europe?
We caught up with Tommy Alexander, who was told by former GB Men’s Head Coach, Bobby Crutchley, that he was “too small to play elite hockey,” yet he has taken the German hockey scene by storm. We wanted to know how Tommy has managed to be so successful in a country infamous for large goalies, and we’re fascinated by how they’ve not only accepted him, but also celebrate him.
After an outstanding outdoor and indoor performance for his German team, UHC Hamburg – where he set a Bundesliga record of conceding 0 from 53 corners in 19 games, and won keeper of the tournament with Scotland in the 2017 European Trophy. Tommy Alexander expresses that the rejection from the former GB head coach incentivised him to prove him wrong.
Where did your hockey career start?
“During my youth, I was a good football goalkeeper at school. When it came to the hockey season, it seemed a natural transition for me. Also the pads looked really cool too.”
It wasn’t plain sailing for Tommy even at a young age. Trials for England under 18s didn’t go to plan.
“I lost my place to a keeper that I was yet to meet throughout the 6 week long trials. During the trials I found out that the other goalie was playing at the same club as the selector. Of course he got the nod ahead of me.”
“I lost my place to a keeper that I was yet to
meet throughout the 6 week long trials.
During the trials I found out that the other
goalie was playing at the same club as the selector”
This sadly is perhaps something all too many players can identify with.
“My dads side of the family is Scottish, so I got put forward for a Scotland under 21 trial and I impressed the coaches enough to be a young keeper in the squad. Two years later we went on to win the junior European Trophy where I was first choice keeper.”
Where did you start your club career?
“I started my club hockey career at Reading Hockey Club when I was 18. I was learning from Nick Brothers who was one of the England & GB goalkeepers at the time. He was a world-class talent. After learning all I could from him, I made the tough but needed decision to go to the second league (conference league) and play for Indian Gymkana in Hounslow.
“This is where I really came into my own. I got all the pitch-time, was given space to make mistakes and learn from them, and most importantly, I felt really valued within the team. It was also really beneficial to play in a team that had a different culture and approach to hockey. It showed me alternative ways of playing.”
After two successful seasons at Indian Gym, Tommy got the call back from Reading HC to be their number 1 keeper. Another two very successful seasons at Reading lead to Tommy being asked to represent Scotland on the international stage again. Since Tommy’s involvement with Scotland, the team won the 2017 European Trophy to get promoted into European elite, and in 2018, Tommy was part of Team Scotland that came 6th – the highest Scotland have ever achieved.
The Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia, is a personal highlight in Tommy’s playing career. Unfortunately, 2019 wasn’t to see as much success for the Scottish team. A tough season saw Scotland finish 7th in the top European division, despite outstanding performances with a young and relatively inexperienced side. They narrowly missed out on survival due to goal difference and arguably questionable umpiring decisions.
You were previously outspoken about the education system’s involvement within hockey. Is your view still the same now you’re based in Germany?
“When schools and universities are the driving force behind national level selections, how else are selectors supposed to see the best talent coming through? This is where Germany, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands are superseding. Children don’t compete in their chosen sport with other schools, they compete – like their seniors – against other clubs.
“This is great for the sport because these young juniors are given the opportunity to look up to their 1st Team players, be continually inspired and hopefully keep playing into adulthood. Communities support their local club – just like we do when it comes to football, so why is hockey any different? After all, due to the time of year in which hockey is played, we are essentially competing with football to get spectators and TV slots.”
“When I returned home from Australia, I decided
there was very little left for me in the UK,
especially after being told I was too small”
When did you know you wanted to leave the UK?
“When I returned home from Australia, I decided there was very little left for me in the UK, especially after being told I was too small. Of course these are physical things I can’t change, and that’s tough to deal with. I was frustrated because the stats disapprove of what was being said, certainly at the Commonwealth Games.”
How does the UK differ when it comes to the national team?
“Because of the Centralised System in the UK, out of the hundreds of talented, up and coming players, only 30 people are selected in a four-year period. They train solely for one tournament: the Olympics (which is the only tournament in hockey where GB is represented). This not only disregards players who are peaking at different stages and performing, or even underperforming at different times, this system effectively holds a gap in these players CV’s – what happens if you don’t get selected for the Olympics? After all, only 18 players get selected. How do you explain this minimum four year gap to any future employers?”
Tommy recognised that if he were to stay in the UK, he’d have to give up hockey to pursue a full-time career or find another way to get paid to play – Germany;
“I was offered the opportunity to play for one of the most successful clubs in Europe, which has been home to many phenomenal, great names in hockey history: UHC Hamburg.”
How are clubs different from the UK compared to the continent?
“The European leagues are a very different set up to those in the UK; the club scene thrives on being semi-professional. In stark comparison to the UK’s dwindling clubs who are continuing to struggle on the European stage. Take Surbiton Ladies for example, who have consecutively won the premier league four years in a row. In that time, they’ve also set a record of unbeaten games, yet when they’re faced with their European counterparts, they can’t even make it through the qualifiers – surely that tells you something?”
“What happens if you don’t get selected for
the Olympics? After all, only 18 players get selected”
How does the quality of player compare?
Tommy believes that the top players in the UK can most certainly compete with the top German players, but there’s a major difference when it comes to the bottom end players; “German fringe and bench players are just so much better. This is because in the UK, Universities compete in the national league, which takes all those players away from top clubs. The guys and girls that should be filling the bottom end of the top teams, aren’t even playing in the premier league – they’re playing in division two, three or even fourth tier leagues.”
“The UK in theory, should be the best place to go abroad to play – the language barrier is open. In Germany, it’s actually very difficult not speaking german, so we should be attracting players from all over the Commonwealth, and those young players who want to improve their English.”
How is life outside of hockey?
“When it comes to life outside of hockey, European teams take more care in their players and their well-being. For a lot of players, hockey is not just their hobby, it’s their life. The opportunity is there because clubs can pay their players, help with accommodation and search for other employment or coaching.
“Your club is your home and support system. Whether players commit fully or have a job alongside, everyone is a semi-pro athlete and treat the commitment to training and the team as one. In the UK you’re either amateur or one of 30 people for four years who receive funding from GB hockey. There is no middle ground.”
“Your club is your home and support system. Whether
players commit fully or have a job alongside,
everyone is a semi-pro athlete and treat the
commitment to training and the team as one”
“Clubs can support their players because they’re wealthier and have the means to, this is because they link with sports like Tennis or Polo, rather than cricket.
“It’s great to see all members of the family being a part of their clubs, their parents can be playing in the over 50s, their grandparents playing tennis on the weekend, and their siblings in the youth teams.
“There’s usually a gym and a pool on site too, with a bar serving delicious food, great drinks and is a place to meet with friends and celebrate each other’s passion. There’s a real gap in the UK market for this.”
What’s next for Tommy?
Since relocating to Germany, Tommy has been able to perform his best, be well respected, appreciated and adored by his club. He doesn’t see his career on the field ending any time soon, as he continues to look forward to the upcoming field and indoor season with UHC, and an indoor tournament with Scotland. His hopes to represent Great Britain in the Olympics is still not out of sight with the new management coming in. Hopefully they will see his undeniable success in one of the world’s toughest leagues and being an outstanding player on the international stage with Scotland.
We expect to see Tommy playing in another Commonwealth Games, EuroHockey Club Champions Cup and win the German League! In preparation for life after hockey, Tommy has set up a Goalkeeping Education Camp & Coaching company with his goalkeeping mentor, Jimi Lewis (A former GB Olympic goalkeeper and current German goalkeeper coach), and three time German Olympic Goalkeeper, Yvi Frank!
To watch Tommy in action, catch his games on https://www.youtube.com/user/UHCHamburgTV each weekend throughout both the indoor and outdoor season. You can also follow Tommy on Instagram: @tommyialexander where you can stay updated on all his upcoming fixtures, results and highlights.