West Hampstead have benefited from Olympic effect as they target promotion

The West Hampstead team ahead of Saturdays opening fixture against Winchester at Whitefield School.

The West Hampstead team ahead of Saturdays opening fixture against Winchester at Whitefield School. Pic: Paolo Minoli - Credit: Archant

Centre forward Tom Bullock has been at West Hampstead since 2008, but this season feels different and there is a palpable sense of excitement and ambition.

Based at Whitefield School on Claremont Road, West Hampstead play in Southern Premier Division Two – the fourth tier of the national pyramid.

There is now a growing feeling that it is time to take a step up, and the summer has been a busy one, including the appointment of a new coach, Sam Djavit, and a new captain in Phil Young.

“I think the key thing is we’ve just tried to professionalise it a little bit,” former skipper Bullock told Ham&High Sport. “We’ve always had a very good, solid squad which over the years has had some promotions, a cup win and a relegation but always been fairly steady in midtable in recent years.

“This off-season we had great support from Phoebe Geake, the club chairwoman. We actively went out and managed to secure a great new local sponsor - Alan Day Volkswagen.

“We found a new kit supplier, Silver FX, and we also actively recruited a number of new players, bringing some fresh blood, some fresh life, into the squad. These are some top players that have played Premier League if not international hockey.

“It’s not to say that things weren’t going well previously, but it just feels like a slight sea change and we’re excited for this season. Our target is without doubt promotion – the top two.”

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The star signing is midfielder Harry Slater, a 29-year-old England international who has dropped down three leagues from the Premier Division, having been with Hampstead & Westminster in the top tier last season.

“It’s a huge coup for us,” said Bullock. “He’s a seriously top-class player and he could still be playing in central midfield for a Premier League club.

“I think he can see the quality we’ve got in the squad. The majority of our players want to play National League hockey. He wants to be part of something that’s on the up and help us get promotion.

“There’s an internal joke in our team that we have a bit of a clique as we have quite a few ex-Oxford University players, and Harry was there too, after my time.

“He was thinking of stopping playing Premier League hockey, with all the commitments that go with it, so we managed to attract him down to play what is still a very good level of hockey, and with a few of his old mates from university.”

Another new recruit, defender Ed Perry, has also played for Hampstead & Westminster in the Premier Division - and he reinforced his reputation as a penalty corner specialist by scoring in Saturday’s opening fixture against Winchester, who eventually ran out 2-1 winners after a decisive late strike.

Meanwhile, midfielder Laxman Karan has just taken a step down from National League outfit Indian Gymkhana – and goalkeeper Adam Carter has arrived from Division Two rivals Lewes, while midfielder Ben Battcock has returned to the club after a two-year absence, having spent 12 months abroad and then a period out of the game.

Bullock feels West Hampstead’s ability to sign both Slater and Battcock – and the club’s new sponsor - is due in part to the after-effect of the Rio Olympics and the success of Great Britain’s women’s hockey team, who had the nation on the edge of their seats as they beat the Netherlands in a penalty shootout to win gold.

“I just think it’s given people the incentive to continue playing hockey,” said Bullock. “Those who may have decided to retire from the Premier League, or retire entirely, may decide ‘actually I’d quite like to continue playing hockey’.

“But I think perhaps the bigger effect, and this is a phrase England Hockey are using now, is the ‘back to hockey’ phenomenon. Someone like Ben Battcock hasn’t played for a couple of years. I don’t know what his reasons were but he’s decided to come back and it’s fantastic for us.

“Equally we haven’t had a sponsor for a couple of years. All of a sudden we’ve managed to secure a sponsor. Is the profile of hockey on the up a little bit? Hopefully so.

“In the Olympics, the men didn’t do so well and it was the women who were hugely successful, but in terms of the game I don’t think it’s particularly gender-driven - I just think it’s good for the profile of the game.

“Over the last few years there’s been a huge number of significant rule changes that have made it a much faster, more athletic, better spectacle as a sport, and I think people want to be involved with that.”