By Graham Thomas
Gary Carlisle is a man on a mission at Whitchurch Hockey Club and is not afraid to spell it out.
“If I can get one of our teams – men’s or women’s – eventually up into the National League, then I have done my job,” says the club’s recently appointed director of hockey.
That’s a tough assignment, given that Whitchurch men’s first team currently play in the competitive second tier West Regional Premiership and the women’s firsts – known as Whitchurch Saints – are in Premier 1 of the South Wales Women’s League.
But what gives Carlisle – a Wales Masters player at last year’s World Cup – genuine optimism he can deliver is the enthusiasm and commitment to improvement he has discovered at the Cardiff club since he was appointed in the summer.
Whitchurch have always been one of the leading clubs in Wales, from their founding back in 1949 to more recent stints carrying the Welsh flag into Europe with the Euro Hockey League.
They currently run seven men’s teams and six women’s teams, plus various youth sides and boast a modern clubhouse location in the north of the capital city.
“Whitchurch used to be in the National League and they were once the premier club in Wales,” says Carlisle, a former Zimbabwean international turned coach, who played top level club hockey across the UK.
“There’s a yearning to get back to the those levels, but a realisation, also, that we had to modernise and improve certain aspects if we are going to compete with the best English clubs.”
With that in mind, the club have invested in more equipment for training and analysis, particularly around their first teams, and hope to improve the level of their player recruitment.
“We have spent a bit of money, re-organised certain things around training, and just tried to give ourselves the best possible chance we can of being successful,” adds Carlisle.
“The climb back is going to take a bit longer on the women’s side because a lot of the best players had left to go elsewhere, but now that we feel the men’s team is up and running properly, we will be spending more time and attention with the women.”
To that end, Whitchurch Saints recently appointed Mark Lewis – a former Wales and Great Britain international – as the head coach for the first and second teams.
Lewis is a former Whitchurch player himself, who played first team hockey at the club for an incredible 25 seasons.
His brief is to get the Saints promoted into the West Women’s Group and start their climb toward the National League – a climb that rivals Swansea managed to take all the way to the Women’s Premier Division.
“They have never had a coach of Mark’s calibre before, so it’s exciting times for them,” says Carlisle.
The men’s firsts began their season with a 2-1 defeat at Cardiff and Met seconds, a tight game Carlisle feels might have ended in a different outcome if not for injuries.
They bounced back last week to beat ISCA 2, 4-3, and this weekend (October 14) face another Welsh derby away at Swansea.
Double Header weekend for 3 WHC Teams taking part in Hockey Wales Cup Competitions.
Follow the results online here >>
— Whitchurch Hockey (@Whitchurch_HC) October 13, 2023
“I would say we are contenders to win that league and certainly should be aiming for a finish in the top three,” says Carlisle, who once played at Stourport alongside the likes of Great Britain Olympic gold medalist Imran Sherwani.
Whitchurch Saints are two wins from two and in free-scoring mode, having beaten Llandysul 5-1 in their opening fixture and backed that up with a convincing 8-0 victory over Penarth 2.
This weekend, the Saints host Gwent Ladies 2 on Saturday, looking to build on their lead at the top of the table.
The challenge for Carlisle is to keep things ticking over and improving at the elite team end of the club, whilst also helping create a steady flow of youngsters who can provide the next generation of senior players.
“University hockey teams playing in the National League has changed things and maybe made life a bit harder,” he says.
“I personally would like to see more good young players playing for clubs like Whitchurch, Penarth or Swansea. If we don’t get that happening, we run the risk of only taking players who have left university and want to carry on playing.
“Competing with football and rugby is always going to be difficult, but we definitely can do it as a sport here in Wales.
“Look at the Wales men’s national team. They got to the Hockey World Cup for the first time ever and you have got to admire that.”
West Hockey Men’s Premier
Swansea 1 v Whitchurch 1
King George V Playing Fields (2.00)
South Wales Women’s League Premier 1
Whitchurch Saints 1 v Gwent Ladies 2