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Russell excited by Holcombe performances
Russell excited by Holcombe performances

Tom Russell has been excited by Holcombe’s performances in Phase One of the Premier Division season but emphasised the team’s focus is on closing out the first stage with three points on Saturday against Hampstead & Westminster.

Holcombe currently sit third in the table, three points behind both Old Georgians and Surbiton, their only two defeats to this point coming against Old Georgians and fourth-placed Wimbledon.

Barry Middleton’s side are aiming to qualify for the Euro Hockey League for a second consecutive season, having been knocked out by hosts Real Club de Polo de Barcelona in this year’s KO8.

That was sandwiched between a busy period of matches, with Holcombe picking up eight wins in their opening 10 league fixtures this season, scoring 49 goals in the process.

Russell said: “It’s been a positive start definitely. Being within three points of the leaders going into this weekend is a big mark for us and staying within touching distance with Phase Two around the corner gives us the opportunity to close that gap or even get ahead of them.

“Going into this year, we had some high expectations but I think we’ve definitely met those if not exceeded them slightly. The boys are loving it.

“It’s definitely a strange feeling for me that’s for sure! I’ve been enjoying it the last few weeks, trying to fill my boots early doors so I cover myself for the second half of the season! It’s not just myself – Pendle, Ropes, Banders, the lot – we’re all chipping in.

“It’s definitely been a long time coming goals-wise.

“There’s been a lot of times where I’ve been in the right places and all that but this year it’s just kind of clicked and I’ve been more ruthless in front of goal.

“Whether that’s come with Banders missing a few games and myself and Pendle having to step up to fill his shoes, I’m not sure but then we also saw, in the Nottingham game for example, he scores six, but then I scored two, Pendle scored, Ropes scored – we’re all chipping in.

“Having those kind of players in the team [Bandurak and Roper] is great, the feedback they can give – whether that’s in training, during games, anything like that, it’s invaluable.

“I think I’ve got a pretty good relationship with Banders, he gives me some great feedback whether he’s playing or even if he’s on the sideline watching, he’s always around in the changing room keeping us busy, giving us little pointers.

“I couldn’t have picked two better people to be around in that sense – probably one of the most in-form strikers in world hockey and one of the most skilful and experienced players there is currently in the country.

“They’re always useful to talk to, always friendly to talk to and they’re excellent for the team and me as an individual.

“We’re hungry for goals every game but we’re also defending really well.

“Payno’s [Ollie Payne] put some stellar performances in, in net – I think we’ve only conceded one goal in our last three games, least goals conceded in the league and that’s down to Payno and the defensive block putting in a real shift.

“That gives us the freedom to express ourselves and put goals past our teams.”

“50 goals in 11 games would be quite some going – hopefully we get 55 to average five a game! The most important thing is three points.”

“You can see the stuff we’re doing on the training pitch in terms of our attacking play is working and how we’ve all gelled together as an attacking unit has definitely stood out for me.

“We have a big thing about having a front-five and a back-five and the big aim for us as the front-five is just to have fun.

“The way we set ourselves up is to give ourselves space and I think we’ve got some very technically-gifted players but also some unbelievably quick players in our team so it’s about trying to exploit the space, be free-flowing and stay connected.

“We do plenty of it on the training ground and it’s good to see this year that it’s really been paying off. Some of the moves we’ve put together for goals have been a joke and I’m just loving being up there at the moment.

“For most of us this year, it was our first little taste of the EHL and we want to be right back there next year.

“It’s the pinnacle of club hockey and we really enjoyed it this year, especially being so close to getting through to the next round.

“That’s given us that little bit of a kick to try to get back there and if we secure it by the end of Phase Two, that would be a bonus. It’s an aim for us to be as competitive if not the top team by the time we get to Phase Three but we always know that there’s another chance.

“We all loved it out there and definitely want to be back there again.

“Going into Phases Two and Three, the games are a lot more competitive and they definitely mean something.

“We’ve had our fair share of good home days but also some nice away trips, some good atmospheres and I think the switch to playing Saturday nights is really, really good – it’s made it a lot better for us.

“We’ve enjoyed having a bigger crowd and some double-headers with the ladies team, it’s made the atmosphere around the games really enjoyable.

“Once we get past Christmas time, games are going to be a lot closer and a lot more competitive, they’re the kind of games you want to play in.

“It’s all well and good beating teams by double figures, scoring a load of goals but you don’t really get all that much out of it.

“It’s those close games where it’s 2-1 or 1-0 wins that you’ve had to grind out, that’s where you can learn a lot about your team and learn some lessons, even if you come out on the wrong side of them.

“I’m really looking forward to those kind of games coming around the corner.”

Hampstead & Westminster are currently three points behind Holcombe in fifth, only below Wimbledon on goal difference. Alongside the top four, Hampstead and newly-promoted Southgate have already secured their top-six spots for Phase Two when the league splits.

Recent fixtures between the two have tended to provide goals though Holcombe will be buoyed by their hosts currently having the worst defensive record in the top-five and joint-lowest goal tally in the top-six with Wimbledon.

Middleton’s side also won all three meetings last season, winning 3-1 in Phases One and Two before a 1-0 home win to kick off Phase Three.

“They’re definitely a threat, they have been for the last however many years.

“They’ve got a big penalty corner threat in TGB’s brother, Matt Guise-Brown.

“He’s a world-class flicker so it’s a big aim of ours to try to shut that out and prevent those opportunities.

“They’ve also got some very quick and skilful players up top and some good defenders in there too so they’re a solid outfit.

“In this league, against teams like that if you don’t play your best you’ll be punished so we need to finish strong and try to stay within three points of the top-two.

“We’ll have to be at our best to get a result.”

Russell also praised the improved social media coverage across the Premier Division this season ahead of a busy winter period for both himself and Holcombe.

He will be involved in a number of Great Britain Elite Development Programme (EDP) events either side of Christmas ahead of an indoor campaign in January, where Holcombe will be aiming to reach Finals Day – which has moved to Derby for this year – for the first time since 2020, when they were beaten in the final.

“We’re seeing clips go up on social media of every goal, on the Saturday night you’re getting all the scores in on Twitter, it makes you feel a lot more involved in everything that’s going on and a lot more connected.

“They’ve done a lot of good this year in terms of graphics, it’s been excellent.

“I’ve got a few EDP bits coming up either side of Christmas so it’s about staying in that squad and keeping myself busy with that kind of stuff.

“I’m keen to let the games at the weekend do the talking, just keep myself in the hat and let them know I’m there.

“It’s about keeping my head down, keeping busy and trying to improve.”

“We’ve got some very good players within our ranks this year – keeping them fit is obviously a top priority but also trying to keep the momentum going forward as well.

“We’ve got a few players now hitting some good form so it’s about trying to keep that going through the winter break whether that’s through indoor or individual training, whatever it is so that when we come back, we’re right where we left off going into this weekend.

“The main focus is on this weekend, trying to make sure we’re at worst within three points of the top-two.

“Indoor will be a strong part of our game, we’ve got some very good players when it comes to the indoor scene. I give it a go, I wouldn’t say I’m the best at it but we’ve got some strong players, we’ll see when we get there because we’ve got no idea what everyone else is looking like.

“It’s definitely an aim to be as competitive in the indoor as we have been in the outdoor.”

Updates of Saturday’s match will be provided across Holcombe’s social media channels while the full indoor schedule and Phase Two fixtures are yet to be confirmed.

Picture supplied by Jon Goodall.