An international hockey player's decision to abandon Scotland for Holland raises questions about the sport's viability at school level, reports Roddy Mackenzie
The Scottish Hockey Union has recently had cause for self-examination. Scotland's top prospect, Laurence Docherty, has opted to turn his back on Scotland and go through the process of an international transfer to play for the Netherlands.
Mr Docherty is still listed as one of the Scottish Institute of Sport's 20 hockey members (14 women, six men) and substantial funds have been invested in nurturing his talent.
Squash suffered a similar situation two years ago when the Scottish number one (and world number one) transferred to England, where he felt the opportunities would be greater.
Mr Docherty's decision seems to be sparked by a desire to compete in the Olympic Games for his new country: there are limited opportunities to get into the Great Britain team.
His last act for Scotland was to help them clinch a top-eight place in the European Nations Cup in Barcelona this month, which included only the eighth victory over England in 100 years of competition, but also a 5-1 mauling at the hands of the Dutch.
The SHU has already set in place the motions for a grand plan to ensure there is an assembly-line for future talents. The game's governing body has released details of its business plan for 2004-7, which are subject to SportScotland approval, and there is no shortage of ambition as it seeks to keep Scotland to the fore in European hockey.
By 2007, the SHU wants to see a Scotland team ranked in the top six at every age-group level it competes at in Europe. To help lay the foundations, it aims to increase participation at schools level and has set itself a number of targets.
The SHU wants to see 1,000 school-aged players go through camps or festivals by 2007 and hopes to establish 60 new school or youth teams. No fewer than 40 teacher in-service workshops are planned.
The SHU is also targeting 1,000 new coaches by 2007 and is placing great emphasis on rearing its own players, with a view to having 90 per cent of both the national men's and the women's squads coming up through the youth system. That is why schools, through active primary schools co-ordinators and secondary sports development officers, are likely to play an increasing role in the next few years.
There are few better models in Scotland than Currie High in Edinburgh, which is linked to Inverleith Hockey Club. Mr Docherty started out with their under-12 team.
The club effectively uses the school as its youth development and there is a strong crossover of pupilsclub members. All of the club's teams except the men's first team - which has to play on water-based Astroturf due to Scottish National League rules - train and play at the school.
Fiona Cousins, who left school at the end of the summer term, plays for Inverleith but coaches Currie High's third-year team, and has done so since they were in first year. Former pupils are encouraged to return to the school for coaching input.
A former member of the Scotland under-16 squad, Miss Cousins has just returned from the World Youth Festival in Amsterdam, where she was Scotland's representative at an eight-day conference to look at the sport's future worldwide. Twenty-two countries were represented, from the established nations in world hockey terms, such as Germany and Australia, to lesser countries, such as Trinidad and Tobago and Romania. "There were great differences between some of the countries and it was a great insight into how other countries get people involved in hockey," Miss Cousins says.
"The representative from Trinidad and Tobago told us there was only one pitch among the islands and he had to fly to Trinidad every time he wanted to play. Yet there was still a dedication to playing the game; and if sometimes we complain here about lack of facilities, we should not let it stop us from playing.
"In South Africa, on the other hand, hockey is one of the major sports and there are a lot of youngsters playing the game.
"The overall impression I brought back is that we should be getting youngsters involved in hockey at a younger age and we really need to be getting into the primary schools more.
"I didn't play organised hockey until I was in first year at secondary school and it was only because a group of my friends were playing that I wanted to play. But by secondary school, many of the boys are already playing football and do not want to learn another sport."
Miss Cousins acknowledges that lack of media coverage of hockey, compared to blanket football reporting, means it can be difficult to attract children.
Inverleith holds annual under-12 and under-10 festivals which are well attended by the four local primary schools - Curriehill, Riccarton, Juniper Green and Nether Currie.
"In an ideal world, we'd be holding primary festivals a lot more regularly than once a year," Miss Cousins says. "If we are to increase the numbers of youngsters playing the game, we must catch them at primary school.
"It is difficult when football has such a hold, but it is something that is being looked at, not just in Scotland. England Hockey held an open day recently which attracted 1,500 children from all over the country. I don't think we could do it on the same scale but that sort of size has an impact on a young player.
"There are other things happening. The International Hockey Federation, for example, is working on a computer game for children, which will come out within the next two years so that children who do not play the game get an interest and hopefully then want to play."