Rod Gilmour of The Hockey Paper speaks to a club wanting to put Oxfordshire hockey on the map
Twenty one years after joining the club as a junior and working his way up to the Men’s 1st XI, Drew Blackburn is now not only M1’s coach at Oxford Hawks but is also passionate about driving the sport forwards in the local area.
Relegated from Men’s Division 1 South last season, Oxford Hawks are now second in Conference West with three matches left in the opening half of the season.
Blackburn has been with Hawks since he was 10 after moving from his first club Bicester, where both his parents played. He spent his first three years playing age group hockey before being introduced to senior hockey through the then newly-formed development side named the Fledglings. “It was effectively a ‘lads and dads’ side comprising a group of players that played together in the late 80s, their respective sons and a few additions such as myself,” says Blackburn.
Over the past eight years, four ‘Fledglings’ who started as juniors at the club and were introduced to senior hockey were still playing together in the M1’s at Division One level, including Blackburn until the back end of last season where he transitioned into a coaching role and took the decision not to play.
The 31-year-old is now involved across many aspects at the club, including heading up the junior programme, setting up outreach and state school provision, as well as Flyerz, a Young Leaders programme, promoting the social side, managing pitch bookings and other initiatives that come his way. Effectively he has created a role across most of the aspects that come with running a club the size of Hawks.
Blackburn says that Hawks have been at a “crossroads”, with plans to professionalise the way the club is run and managed via a “Foundations For Our Future” initiative.
“We are making the right moves to try and become a centre of hockey in our location,” he says. “Oxford could be viewed as a bit of black hole for the sport. There is no reason for it to be with the facilities, resources and the number of independent and state schools that play.
“If you think about the amount of top-class players Oxfordshire has produced in recent times, it’s very few. And we have to ask ourselves why.”
The club wants more than just a five-year approach and plans to network within its contacts to find the best people who have the requisite skills to help progress their project forwards. “We are getting very close to the point where we are clear on where we are going. We see Hawks as a club looking potentially very different in five years’ time with its infrastructure and facilities as well as hoping to improve on the pitch.”
With volunteers’ free time at a premium in the modern world, Blackburn says that clubs such as Hawks “have to somehow run themselves more like a business but get the balance right of having that community feel and member contribution which is integral to any amateur sports club ”
On the pitch, Hawks lost 11 players in the close season and have averaged nearly five under-18s per game this season with young talent such as Luke Hooper and Julian Laird being blooded into the Conference West squad. Recruiting players at first team level for provincial clubs such as Hawks is a significant challenge when so many graduates migrate towards London and the outlying areas.
Another ‘Fledgling’, Jack Biggs, who still represents the club at 1st XI level, has been in and around the club for longer than Blackburn.
“Along with a handful of guys who have played 1st XI together for several years, I spent countless hours on the side of the pitch at Hawks growing up, initially kicking a football around, while our dads played on a Saturday afternoon,” says Biggs. “I then started playing hockey when I was 12 and have only ever played at Hawks, so suffice to say it’s been a big part of my life!
Both Biggs’ and Blackburn’s commitment shows how the club wants to nurture the future. “We want to make Oxford Hawks an attractive proposition through what we do and players to come to us for that,” says Blackburn.
“Each week our aim is simply to play as close to our potential as possible. If it results in us at the top end of the table, then great, but if it puts us as mid table side then that is where we are at as a team and as a club.”
Should Hawks come away with the points this weekend away to Fareham, it will set up an exciting clash at the top of the table later this month - a home fixture against University of Bristol, who were also relegated last season from Division One - in their penultimate outdoor game before the winter break.
Biggs says there are “no expectations” this season. “We are doing very well at this stage but all we are trying to do is perform well and hopefully improve each week,” he adds.
The club have reinvigorated their social media and marketing to try to promote the club and its various activities and the hope is that there will be a sizable crowd to cheer on the Hawks to the top of the league.
“It goes back to the topic of creating a community and the club wanting to get behind the respective 1s. But we have plenty of work to do,” adds Blackburn.
Saturday: Fareham v Oxford Hawks 1:30pm
Photo courtesy of Evelyn Hargraves