Sta­dium plans hit coun­cil snags

The Hockey Paper - - NEWS - By Rod Gil­mour

AM­BI­TIOUS plans by Eng­land’s do­mes­tic cham­pi­ons to build a hockey-spe­cific sta­dium in Wim­ble­don Park will fall through un­less Mer­ton Coun­cil “gets it act to­gether”, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal MP Stephen Ham­mond.

Dubbed ‘Pitch in the Park’, Wim­ble­don HC hope to move into a new home be­fore 2020 – but their bold vi­sion is be­ing held up by con­sul­ta­tions.

Wim­ble­don Park, in south west Lon­don, con­sists of 27 hectares of green space, a lake and sport­ing fa­cil­i­ties in­clud­ing an ath­let­ics track, seen as an ideal home for one of Eng­land’s lead­ing club sides, who have been seek­ing a per­ma­nent venue since 2013.

Mer­ton’s re­gen­er­a­tion op­tions range from a new state of the art sta­dium, to one where the ex­ist­ing ath­let­ics sta­dium and grand­stand would dis­ap­pear, leav­ing a run­ning track for gen­eral use by Her­cules Ath­let­ics Club.

“Mer­ton Coun­cil need to aban­don their plans and get back into talks about what is re­al­is­tic,” Ham­mond told The Hockey Pa­per. “A good idea would be to get the hockey and ath­let­ics club and the Friends of Wim­ble­don Park work­ing to­gether on a sta­dium scheme.”

Ideas mooted in­clude an all-weather, sunken pitch in the mid­dle of the track, with re­gen­er­a­tion of both the grand­stand and club­house and wheeled seat­ing stands for ma­jor matches.

Wim­ble­don’s pro­pos­als are seen as an ideal fit in Eng­land Hockey’s bid to en­tice broad­cast­ers to show­case live do­mes­tic hockey af­ter the 2018 World Cup in Lon­don.

“The vi­sion in the park would be fan­tas­tic and the hockey club are pur­su­ing all op­tions in the bor­ough if the coun­cil aren’t be­ing help­ful,” added Ham­mond.

Wim­ble­don cur­rently play home matches at King’s Col­lege School and Ben Mars­den, the club’s di­rec­tor of hockey, said: “The Pitch in the Park is a plan that has legs. The is­sue is how long it will take to come to fruition.”

Ham­mond, who plays vets hockey at Wim­ble­don, re­garded it as “ex­tra­or­di­nary” that Mer­ton Coun­cil had not prop­erly en­gaged with the club and its ideas.

“Wim­ble­don have been the cham­pi­ons over the last cou­ple of years,” he said. “This would be good for the lo­cal area, would be used by schools and a big boost to Lon­don hockey in that it could be­came a cen­tre of ex­cel­lence. My un­der­stand­ing is that Wandsworth Coun­cil are keen to see this de­vel­op­ment. We need to push Mer­ton Coun­cil to the same place.”

Nick Draper, Mer­ton Coun­cil cabi­net mem­ber for com­mu­nity and cul­ture, said: “Wim­ble­don Park is a glo­ri­ous park which we are com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. Re­sponses to the con­sul­ta­tion we held in the sum­mer show most peo­ple pre­ferred to keep the park close to what it is at the mo­ment.”

In essence, this means that the ath­let­ics sta­dium would stay where it is – a key cri­te­ria in Wim­ble­don’s pro­pos­als tak­ing shape.

PIC­TURE the scene: it’s 2020 and the fi­nal throes of an In­dian sum­mer. Wim­ble­don are host­ing the first do­mes­tic Su­per Hockey week­end of the sea­son. Tele­vi­sion cam­eras are here, broad­cast­ing live games fea­tur­ing top clubs across the men’s and women’s Premier Divi­sion.

The club’s spon­sors are do­ing brisk trade. There’s the braai sizzle and smoke from lo­cally-based Sa­vanna, the grow­ing South African food and drink chain, while queues form out­side the STX tent. Like­minded hockey fans min­gle.

Fur­ther, new con­verts have walked into Wim­ble­don Park from across Wandsworth, where plenty of sport lovers from South Africa and Aus­tralia re­side. So much so, that the sold out signs have gone up out­side the sta­dium dubbed ‘Pitch in the Park’.

Now, let’s rewind three years to the present day where the English cham­pi­ons are seek­ing the fizz of a Gon­zalo Peil­lat penalty cor­ner strike to kick start the blue­print into life.

Their vi­sion falls into line with Eng­land Hockey’s con­sul­ta­tion with the top flight clubs over what the do­mes­tic league might look like when the FIH events port­fo­lio be­gins from the 2018/2019 sea­son.

Here, each coun­try will have five to six months of reg­u­lar home and away matches ev­ery year, rather than the cur­rent norm of top na­tions play­ing two-week tour­na­ments.

Eng­land Hockey’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Sally Mun­day says that that this will “fun­da­men­tally change the sport long term”. Do­mes­ti­cally, it hopes to have a com­pet­i­tive struc­ture in place that will en­able clubs to pro­vide fa­cil­i­ties which will, in turn, en­cour­age spec­ta­tors to watch. Only then will broad­cast­ers take in­ter­est.

The cur­rent prob­lem, of course, is that many are com­mu­nity-based clubs aren’t set up to host, say, 2,000 spec­ta­tors.

How­ever, Eng­land Hockey re­search also sug­gests that mem­bers want the fan ex­pe­ri­ence, hence the ris­ing ac­tiv­i­ties at Lee Val­ley dur­ing in­ter­na­tional matches.

Get­ting clubs up to this stan­dard in three years will be a tall or­der. But Wim­ble­don are al­ready three years in the mak­ing thanks to their ' Pitch in the Park' plans at the 27-hectare Wim­ble­don Park, a her­itage space de­signed by Ca­pa­bil­ity Brown.

If the green light is given, it would also mean a wel­come exit from their cur­rent home at King’s Col­lege School. It’s been slow progress since a con­sul­ta­tion meet­ing was held at the Wim­ble­don Club in March con­cern­ing a pro­posal to in­stall an all-weather hockey pitch in the park’s ath­let­ics sta­dium where well-es­tab­lished lo­cal club Her­cules train.

Wim­ble­don’s vi­sion – to­gether with the Friends of Wim­ble­don Park who have de­vel­oped a broader ap­proach as to how in­vest­ment would be best suited – forms part of Mer­ton Coun­cil's multi-op­tion mas­ter­plan pro­pos­als for the park.

From a sport­ing point of view, the coun­cil’s multi-mil­lion pound op­tions range from a mod­ernised and re­gen­er­ated sta­dium to a de­mol­ished grand­stand and club­house, with just the use of a run­ning track. Clearly this is not in Wim­ble­don’s vi­sion state­ment.

The club, how­ever, has the back­ing of two lo­cal MPs, Stephen Ham­mond and Jus­tine Green­ing, as they bid to en­tice Mer­ton Coun­cil into a re­trac­tion of their ideas and en­ter into proper dis­cus­sions over the sta­dium’s fu­ture, rather than the “van­ity pro­ject” they be­lieve some of the pro­pos­als to be.

At present, Her­cules are un­able to host ath­let­ics’ events, while Wim­ble­don wants to in­ject both man­age­ment and fund­ing into the site to do so.

As the track is on the out­side of the pitch, Wim­ble­don’s plans are on a sim­i­lar keel to West Ham’s move to the Olympic Sta­dium, only on a smaller scale and, hope­fully, with­out the pol­i­tics. Wim­ble­don would have to be in­ven­tive if they were to host top-level events, with the pos­si­bil­ity of a sunken pitch and temporary seat­ing wheeled into place for tick­eted matches.

There are, though, po­ten­tial hur­dles with the club’s joint ven­ture. Firstly, throw­ing events would not be able to take place in­field. Wim­ble­don plans to in­cor­po­rate them but in a dif­fer­ent part of the sta­dium, boost­ing it at one end and giv­ing off an am­phithe­atre feel, while other in­ter­nal is­sues to over­come with the run­ning club in­clude mid­week train­ing. With both sports tak­ing place, it would re­quire some level of high safety net­ting.

The other stum­bling block comes in the form of the po­si­tion­ing of the sta­dium, which splits di­rectly across Mer­ton and Wandsworth coun­cil lines, Labour and Con­ser­va­tive-led bor­oughs re­spec­tively. “Mar­ry­ing those in terms of plan­ning is dif­fi­cult and mak­ing sure it gets the back­ing from the com­mu­nity,” says Ben Mars­den, Wim­ble­don’s di­rec­tor of hockey.

“But our vi­sion is to bring hockey back to the Wim­ble­don Park area. For us the brand name of Wim­ble­don [the vicin­ity in­cludes the All Eng­land club] car­ries weight. To be able to build a state-of-the-art hockey sta­dium in the area could be very ex­cit­ing for the fu­ture of the sport.”

As cham­pi­ons, to­gether with a busi­ness-ori­en­tated out­look, Wim­ble­don are in a unique po­si­tion com­pared to other Lon­don clubs. At a clubs’ fo­rum last week, Mars­den heard how find­ing space for hockey was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly harder due to the de­mand for hous­ing.

“De­mand for hockey is not the is­sue,” he adds. “Ev­ery Lon­don club is turn­ing peo­ple away, par­tic­u­larly at ju­nior level. The is­sue is where they are go­ing to play. It’s num­ber one on ev­ery list, at ev­ery meet­ing.

“Hardly any Lon­don clubs can run Back to Hockey pro­grammes, hardly any can run Quick­sticks pro­grammes. We’re des­per­ate to try and pur­sue the next pro­ject and want to run ad­di­tional per­for­mance pro­grammes. We have the struc­ture, de­mands and the en­ergy to do it – we just don’t have the fa­cil­ity to do it”.

The Pitch in the Park would of course change all that. How­ever the cur­rent trend of lo­cal coun­cils re­act­ing neg­a­tively when it comes to sport and space are hold­ing up plans. There is hope, with Mer­ton ad­mit­ting this week that most res­i­dents pre­fer the park to re­main un­touched. It means that the sta­dium will not be up­rooted.

Mean­while, Mars­den re­mains pas­sion­ate in the wider pic­ture as the club awaits a coun­cil de­ci­sion. “I would be re­ally in favour of Eng­land Hockey sup­port­ing not just Wim­ble­don, but the Lon­don clubs to help us and find some flag­ship fa­cil­i­ties,” he says.

“One of the big pil­lars EH has tried to achieve is par­tic­i­pa­tion. We have a unique pe­riod of time now where we have to har­vest that in­ter­est in the sport. For me it comes down to fa­cil­i­ties and we need that to cater for the in­crease in the sport.”

The sport cer­tainly has to weather that is­sue be­fore any In­dian sum­mer on tele­vi­sion.

We have the struc­ture, de­mands and the en­ergy to push for­ward – we just don’t have the fa­cil­ity

Sup­port: Stephen Ham­mond MP

We’ve big plans: Wim­ble­don Hockey Club is at the cen­tre of the sta­dium pro­pos­als

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