Big Interview: Peter Nicholson

Former international Peter Nicholson is the new coach of Preston Hockey Club
Former international Peter Nicholson is the new coach of Preston Hockey Club
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They say ‘home is where the heart is’ and that old adage has a certain ring of truth for new Preston Hockey Club coach Peter Nicholson.

Although he originally hails from Ulverston in the Lake District, the 60-year-old spent the vast majority of his playing career with the South Meadow Lane outfit.

He credits the club’s influence in helping him develop into an England indoor international and subsequent captain of his country.

His fine playing career enabled him to forge a career in the game as a coach and manager with England and Great Britain after retiring as a player.

He has appeared on the sidelines for England at various major events including the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships – most famously guiding the men’s team to Euro glory in 2009.

Nicholson also took charge of theTeam GB men at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, as well as preparing the team in the years leading up to the London Games four years later, although he was not directly involved.

Just over a year ago, the former England skipper decided to step down from his role with the national set-up after many years’ service.

With Preston searching for a new coach this summer following the resignation of Martin Scanlon – who left to join St Albans after guiding the club to promotion back to the National League North Conference – Nicholson jumped at the chance of taking over the reins at his old club.

“I think I came to Preston in 1975 and played for the club for 15 or 16 years,” he said.

“I am from Ulverston originally and started playing for Ulverston Hockey Club.

“But when my hockey progressed like it did I moved down to Preston at the age of 20 because that was a much better standard at the time.

“I had already played for the North and my county Cumbria, but then I started playing for Lancashire which was a strong team.

“I went on to get picked for England’s indoor team and played for them for 10 years.

“It feels great to be back at Preston. There are still people at the club now who were involved when I played back then, which is interesting and quite surprising.

“I have been away from the club for quite a while, but it does feel bit like coming home for me.

“I had a great time here as a player and I am looking forward to some enjoyable times as a coach.”

After the success of last season under Scanlon, Nicholson knows he has some big shoes to fill.

His remit is to ensure the club is competitive in its elevated surroundings.

The White and Greens lost on the opening day of the season 3-1 at Sheffield Hallam, but got their campaign up and running last weekend thanks to a 4-2 home victory over Deeside Rambers.

Preston v Deeside Ramblers match reports

They will be aiming to collect their second victory on Sunday when they host Doncaster at South Meadow Lane.

“The club got promoted last year so confidence is high,” Nicholson said.

“It will be a challenge this year because it is a step up in class but the club has been in this division before so will know what to expect.

“So far it’s been good. There are a good group of lads here.

“I think if we can get ourselves organised and stay free of injury, we can do well.

“We will be aiming for consolidation this year and then build on that moving forwards.”

Technically, Preston are just one step away from the Premier League – the highest rung of English hockey.

But Nicholson concedes it will be difficult to establish the club at the highest level.

“I think it will be tough for a club like Preston to get in the Premier League, because most of the Premier League clubs are situated in the south,” he said.

“The challenge for all the northern clubs is retaining the young players – the talent. Once they reach university age, they tend to move south because if they are of that quality, then there are more opportunities for them in the south.

“They will go to universities like Loughborough, Birmingham or Bath, that’s where the best universities for hockey and sport in general are.

“So it’s hard to attract the good players...I am talking the really good players in the country who play in the Premier League.

“It’s hard to attract them to come this way.

“There are clubs in the north who are doing well.

“Brooklands Hockey Club, which is based in Sale, Manchester, have done a good job of staying in the Premier League over the last couple of years.

“But they have had to work incredibly hard at it.

“I worked at Bowdon, who like us are in the North Conference, last year and what they do is look to recruit from abroad.

“They have got a couple of players in from Germany, but that can be quite expensive. The club will have to find the players work and find them accommodation.

“It’s a bit unrealistic for a club like Preston to do that.

“So what we have to do is develop the kids – develop our own talent and see where that takes us.

“Sam Sinclair, who plays in the first team, works with the club’s juniors.

“He’s got some good kids and does a really good job with them.

“We probably don’t have the numbers compared to some of the big clubs.

“Bowdon had 250 to 300 juniors, but they have a big catchment area.

“Preston obviously don’t have the numbers but you don’t necessarily need big numbers as long as you have got good quality.

“The kids that come along do enjoy it and if they bring their friends along and the parents spread the word, we should be okay.”

Judging by Nicholson’s ethos, the players at Preston should enjoy playing under him this season. He is a strong advocate of allowing players to express themselves on the pitch.

“I am not somebody who stands on the sidelines shouting instructions,” 
he said.

“The players do have to take ownership of it in terms of how they prepare for matches.

“They have to set the standard in training through driving each other on, without me shouting and bawling at them every Tuesday and Thursday night. That is not my style.

“My style is technical, tactical... questioning things.

“The players have got to own it and believe in what they are doing.

“If I demand that we play in a certain way and the players don’t really believe in it, it’s not going to work is it?

“I try to get the players thinking about the game, help them make the right decisions at the right time.

“We will do drills in training where they will have to think –that’s where I will come in and challenge things and question them.

“To be honest, I was not like that when I started coaching, I was more, ‘This is how we are going to do things’.

“But my involvement as a coach over the last 16 years has taught me that there are different ways, different styles to get the best out of players.

“The interesting thing for me is that I am coming back to coaching, because I haven’t actually coached over the last few years.

“I was the England junior performance director.

“So all the England age group teams – Under-16s, Under-18s, Under-20s – all the staff working in those programmes all reported to me.

“I was not a hands-on coach so it’s nice for me to get back out on to the pitch and do some coaching.”

A skilful, attacking midfield player in his pomp, Nicholson played in a golden era for the sport in this country.

The 1980s saw many of the country’s top players like Sean Kerly and Imran Sherwani become household names, especially after Team GB’s gold medal victory at the Seoul Olympics in 1988.

“I played with Sean Kerly when I played for the England indoor team,” said Nicholson, who made 54 appearances for the national indoor team and skippered the side between 1985 and 1987.

“The 1988 GB team which won Olympic gold at the 
Seoul Olympics was my 
era. People still remember Sean.

“There was Imran Sherwani, Steve Batchelor and Ian Taylor the goalkeeper.

“They all played for the indoor team

“I have been asked whether I could have been good enough to get in that GB team and the answer is definitely no.

“I can definitely say I wasn’t good enough.

“But it was a golden period for hockey in this country.

“Many of that team became household names and it’s probably not been quite as good for the sport since.

“They had won a bonze medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 so it had been building for a few years, culminating in the win in Seoul.”

While Nicholson was not able to grace the Olympic stage as a player, he was handed an important role off the pitch after he had hung his stick up at the age of 35.

“Over the years I have been to three Commonwealth Games,” he said.

“I went to the Beijing Olympics as the team manager of the men’s field team.

“That was obviously a great experience, staying in the Olympic village.

“We finished fifth overall, but I will always remember the qualifying competition for the Olympics.

“You’ve got to qualify for the Games first and we went to Chile for a qualifying tournament. To qualify is quite complex. You can qualify by winning your own continental tournament.

“If you don’t do that then there are two or three qualifying tournaments, which can be anywhere around the world.

“Ours happened to be in Chile and we had to beat India in the final.

“We kind of knew that we would have to beat India in the final because we were the 
two best teams in the tournament.

“We basically prepared for six months for this one-off game against India.

“That’s pressure – more than the Olympics themselves.

“If you don’t qualify for the Olympics then you know your funding is going to be seriously under threat.

“But the lads did the business and beat India 2-0.”

Nicholson is predicting a bright future for the national teams.

The ladies picked up a bronze at the last Olympic Games and this year were crowned European champions, while the men just finished outside the medals in London 2012.

“I think the girls have got a very good chance at the next Olympics in Rio,” said Nicholson. “The lads have an outside chance of a medal in Rio – a few things will have to fall into place for them.

“The Dutch, the Germans and the Australians are probably better than us at the moment, but we are not a million miles away though.

“The legacy we wanted from London was to try to get more people playing the sport and all the information says that has been achieved.

“It’s just a case of keeping them now.”

While proud of everything he has achieved within the national set-up, Nicholson is now glad to be free of the stresses and strains which comes with involvement at the very highest level.

“I decided to leave England Hockey in 2014 after 16 years,” he said.

“I just decided the time was right for to leave.

“Everything is heavily based in the south and I live in the north. My decision to leave was lifestyle-driven.

“The job was seven days a week, full-on.

“I hardly ever took any annual leave and when I did I would take my laptop with me.

“I just got to the point where I have got two young sons who are 16 and 13 and I just felt there’s more to life than this.

“I thought I have done my bit – 16 years is enough.

“Once I had left, I started looking to strike a good work/lifestyle balance.

“I thought I would try to get back into coaching.

“Bowdon got in touch with me last year and offered me a role. It did not quite work out there – it only ended up being short-term.

“Preston and Liverpool Sefton Ladies were advertising. I had chats with both clubs, which were very positive.

“But I came here and I am looking forward to doing this for the next few years.”