Lewers and Townsend are UK hockey players of the year

Higgins youth awards also presented
Wednesday, January 21st, 2015
The 2014 Hockey Writers' club awards winners

The 2014 Hockey Writers' club awards winners. Photo: Peter Savage

Holcombe’s Iain Lewers and Canterbury’s Susannah Townsend have been named UK hockey players of the year, following the annual poll conducted among British members of the Hockey Writers’ Club.

The winners, both established members of England’s hockey sides, were announced this afternoon [Tuesday January 20, 2015] at the annual lunch and awards ceremony of the Hockey Writers’ Club at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge, London.

Guest speakers at the event were England Hockey Board chief executive officer Sally Munday and International Hockey Federation (FIH) president Leandro Negre. Master of ceremonies was GB Olympian, and previous player of the year winner, Simon Mason. The Higgins Group plc youth and junior hockey awards for 2014 were presented by chairman of the Higgins Group, Richard Higgins.

The Higgins Youth Award (boys 18-and-under) was won by Liam Sanford of Bath Buccaneers Hockey Club. Following up in close contention were Repton and Beeston’s England U-18 player Andrew Oxburgh and Jack Waller of the Whitgift School and Wimbledon HC.

The Higgins Youth Award (girls 18-and-under) was won by Holly Hunt of Stockport Grammar School and Bowdon Hightown. Canterbury and Sutton Valence pupil Anna Baker and Repton and Beeston’s Erica Sanders completed the line-up in what was again a highly competitive field.

The Higgins Junior Award (boys 16-and under) was won jointly by Jack Whelan of RGS High Wycombe and Reading and Ollie Rogerson of Repton School and Beeston. James Oates of The King’s School and Canterbury came third.

The Higgins Junior Award (girls 16-and-under) was won by Lizzie Neal of Kent College, Canterbury and Canterbury Hockey Club. Repton School’s Mimi Tarrant, and centre-half Esme Burge, regular players for Beeston first XI and both playing at England u16 level came second and third.

In the senior awards, Lewers, 31, was an outstanding performer at the heart of England’s defence during 2014. Highlights of his year included scoring the winning penalty stroke as England defeated Belgium 3-2 to reach the World Cup semi-finals in June. England went on to finish fourth in the World Cup in The Hague, the Netherlands. They later won bronze in the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in August.

England, and Lewers, started the year with a third-place finish in the hockey World League Finals in India in January.

Townsend, 25, took a leading role in England’s midfield as the women’s side won silver at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, including scoring the vital second goal in the 2-1 win over Scotland that secured a semi-final place.

The runners-up in the men’s vote were Lewers’ Holcombe’s team mate Nick Catlin, 25, and East Grinstead’s Ashley Jackson, 27.

Last year’s winner, goalkeeper Maddie Hinch, 26, also from the Holcombe club, and another Holcombe player, 26-year-old defender Laura Unsworth, were runners-up in the women’s vote.

Lewers, whose previous clubs include East Grinstead, HGC in the Netherlands and Annadale (Belfast) said: "It’s a great honour to win an individual award and especially this one. I was quite surprised.

"We have played a lot of hockey in 2014, the World League in India seems so far away now, but there were many positives and tests for our group and that was a big step forward for us.”

Lewers' World Cup preparations were, however, hampered by a 'deadleg' injury in a warm-up game against Australia.

“Going on to the World Cup and going back to The Hague where I played for three years was understandably a bit tricky for me, especially after suffering a freak injury and missing out on the start but it was a brilliantly staged event with a fantastic atmosphere.

“I was happy to be involved but it was disappointing that we did not come away with a medal.”

England won the Investec London Cup in July ahead of their first Commonwealth Games medal since 1998, secured with a shootout defeat of New Zealand in the bronze-medal game after a 3-3 draw. Their year finished with a return to India for the Champions Trophy in Bhubaneswar.

“The Investec London Cup at the Olympic Park was also challenging mentally for us, though on a different level, bringing back all those memories of the Olympic Games, and that was quickly followed by the Commonwealth Games and a bronze medal.

"The seventh place in the Champions Trophy was a disappointment after finishing top of the pool." But Lewers said that the international squad needed to improve their consistency for the big games against the teams such as Australia and Germany, which he is confident it will do. “It’s a development point that will come,” he said.

Lewers' stellar 2014 followed a period where he battled a knee injury after Great Britain's fourth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

“My injury took a long time to get over. But I feel I have grown as a player. I know what I am good at and what I am not, but feel my level of performance is consistent. I don’t often go from being very good to very bad and am comfortable and happy to contribute in the big matches throughout.”

The next big international test comes as Great Britain head to the World League Semifinals tournament in Antwerp, Belgium beginning on June 20, 2015. A top-four placing in that tournament should ensure a place for Great Britain in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. A second chance to qualify comes when England compete in the European championships (officially the EuroHockey Championships) at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park from August 21-31, 2015.

"2015 is a very big year in terms of Olympic qualification with Antwerp at the end of June. Everyone is aware of the magnitude of the next six months. We won’t be complacent. We have sacrificed too much. Hopefully, come the Euros in London we can breathe out and enjoy the atmosphere.”

Lewers said there was still work to do with his club Holcombe, "where hopefully we can get into the play-offs.”

Townsend was delighted when hearing of her award saying: “That’s cool.” And that comment after a year which one could describe as hot. “It started for me after we went to San Diego last February and a good training block that put me in a confident frame of mind,” she said.

"There was the disappointment of the World Cup (11th) but I was happy with the way I played individually. It was a shame that all our fitness and progression didn’t reflect in our end finish.

“Just the other day I even looked at some photos of us at the end and all the emotions were there. We looked devastated.

“There were some big questions in the period after that and I was a lot clearer in my mind and my life. And it is your life ̶̶ you spend so much time training hard and getting fit in all sorts of weathers and we didn’t feel our position reflected how good we were.”

England women also won at the Investec London Cup, and went on to equal their best ever finish at the Commonwealth Games, losing the final to Australia in a shootout after a 1-1 draw.

“After the World Cup, we never lost faith in ourselves,” Townsend said. “When we came out with a silver medal at Glasgow, we answered the critics. It has made us all stronger.

“In the London Investec Cup and the Commonwealth Games I felt I was more consistent. I do get swept up at how I am on the ball. We have looked how well I play off the ball as well and put more focus on my defensive abilities. I am an attacking player but we are chipping away at the small things.

England then finished fifth at the Champions Trophy in Mendoza, Argentina in December. Again she was happy with her strengths at being on the ball and running at the players but admits she has to control her aggression in defence. “I need to find the fine line and not get sent off,” she said, referring to one tackle on Argentina star Luciana Aymar which earned her a temporary suspension." We came fifth, and the only game where we did not play well was the quarter-final against New Zealand. I didn’t play well in that game either. I was getting turned over."

Susannah came back from Argentina with a ruptured tendon in her finger and spent Christmas resting at home with the family for the first time in a couple of years.

She is looking forward to helping her club Canterbury into the play-offs. “Though they did well enough without me last season". (They finished top while Susannah was at Reading). She is even thinking of the match against Buckingham at the season’s national league restart next month. “A tough away game,” she said. “The club stuff is important and then we are in Europe at Easter in Holland. There are still a lot of us who are still together from our campaigns in 2005 and 2007."

But it is the World League Semifinal tournament in June in Valencia, as Great Britain, which is taking precedence. “We are going there next month and we are preparing well,” she said. "We are a very competitive squad, training against the best, with the best possible back-up.

"Then England have the Euros at the Olympic Park. We came second in Belgium last time round. It would be nice to go one better, especially with us and the men and the whole location. It will be very special. Believe me a big crowd is a massive help and I would urge everyone to come along and watch."

Comments from President of the International Hockey Federation, Leandro Negre:

“As always, it is a genuine pleasure to be here at the Royal Thames Yacht Club in Knightsbridge for the prestigious Hockey Writers’ Club Awards. It is always a thoroughly enjoyable event, and I would like to thank the HWC both for my invitation as guest speaker and their efforts in organising an outstanding occasion that brings together so many members of the media and the hockey family."

"Three years on from hosting a spectacular hockey competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games, 2015 is set to be another landmark year for hockey in this city with the men’s and women’s EuroHockey Championships taking place at the impressive Olympic Legacy facility, the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.

“Both the FIH and the European Hockey Federation are very excited about this Olympic qualifying event, and know that England Hockey will deliver a stunning spectacle that will be thoroughly enjoyed by players, fans and the media alike."

“I offer my sincere congratulations to Iain Lewers and Susannah Townsend on being named the respective men’s and women’s UK Players of the Year for 2014. Both players have been exceptional for the England national teams over the previous 12 months. To finish ahead of world class athletes such as Nick Catlin, Ashley Jackson, Maddie Hinch and Laura Unsworth in the voting shows just how impressive they have been. I am sure that all of the players will be looking forward to making a big impression with Great Britain at the Hockey World League Semi-Finals, which act as qualifying tournaments for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, later this year."