The Premiership emerges on Saturday after an enforced closure of 18 months – but what will have changed?
For a start, the format has altered with the divisions increased from ten to twelve teams to allow the top two sides from division two to not lose out on their promotion aspirations. After playing each other once, the league will be divided into a top-six striving for the title and European places and a bottom-six striving to avoid relegation.
All that is clear and obvious…but what is not so apparent is the relative strength of the Premiership sides after this length of absence. Current form will be difficult to assess after such a long absence.
After around eleven games both Premierships ended in March 2020 split in two groups. Grange, Grove Menzieshill, Western Wildcats and Edinburgh University were clearly the top four in the men`s division, at least six points ahead of the leaders in the chasing pack.
The women`s division was similar, Clydesdale Western, Edinburgh University, Wildcats, Dundee Wanderers and Watsonians were well ahead of the rest.
Will the old order still prevail or will upstart clubs come along to challenge the status quo – only time will tell!
So let’s start with the Premiership newcomers – the four sides who have been added to the top-flight
Inverleith men are back in the top flight after a few years absence and seem determined to stay there at least. Firstly, they have signed up Chris Duncan as head coach, to be assisted by Alan Wall, Neil Wilson and Neil Mitchell.
Duncan is a rising star in the coaching world and only recently was appointed interim coach to the Scotland women`s squad for the forthcoming World Cup Qualifier.
Spokesman Arnie Sathiy reflected the confidence in the new Inverleith squad. “Aspirations wise, we are looking forward to continuing to develop our front-foot pressing style and really drive Chris` playing philosophy as it continues to bed in across the group.
“We have a stretch target for the team which remains our own but are fully committed to pushing for the top half and continuing to develop our younger players.
“We`ve an exciting and very talented group of lads and are absolutely not in the Premiership to make up the numbers.”
Inverleith start their campaign against Dunfermline Carnegie, the other promoted side. Both ended their truncated second division season with 30 points, although the Fifers had played a game less.
However, it was Inverleith who won the head to head 3-1, so perhaps they may have the psychological advantage.
Carnegie, under the coaching aegis of Steven Glass, have also been working hard to get up to speed with their new status and have won all four of their pre-season friendlies. Contact Liam Witt said:
“We are excited to test ourselves at the top level and show that we are not just in the league to make up the numbers!” Something familiar in that last remark!
The women`s top flight novices also have a gentle start to their elevated status. Erskine Stewarts Melville have a home game against Grove Menzieshill for their first-ever venture in the top flight. Coached by Stuart Lobb, ESM have attracted new recruits Annie Neill, Jennifer Tait, Ava Allan and Imogen Shields.
Harry Dunlop, Uddingston`s head coach, fancies the three points away to GHK on Saturday. He said: “I want the girls to hit the ground running and that means bringing home the points from game one.
“Our aim is a top six finish which I believe is doable, but I`ve not lost sight of the top four which is not such a big gap.”
The signing of MacKenzie Bell is a big boost for the Lanarkshire side, she is in the Great Britain Elite Development Programme and earned her first full Scotland caps this year.
However, the Glasgow side have also been adding to the ranks, principally Lucy Williamson from Dundee Wanderers but also Makenzie Brown from Michigan State University, Heather Curry from Granite City Wanderers and the Glasgow University trio Laura McCabe, Sophie Aitchison and Katie MacKenzie.
By and large the traditional top sides in the Premiership have been kept apart on the opening day – that is except the women`s Peffermill clash between Watsonians and Clydesdale Western.
When the season came to an abrupt end in March 2020 Clydesdale were top and Watsonians fifth, but only five points separated the sides. Further the Edinburgh side won the head to head 1-0.
Watsonians` coach Keith Smith remarked: “Yeah, it was a good performance that day, but a lot has changed since then and our team is quite different now.
“So it`s difficult to predict what will happen this weekend – it`ll take us a bit of time to gel properly, I think we`re all just really happy to have the chance to be back playing competitive hockey again.”
I`m sure that last sentiment is shared by all.
However, Watsonians have made some telling additions to their squad, especially the return of prodigals Katie MacCallum, Ellie Wilson and Mairi Drummond who will add quality to the squad. Also free-scoring Emily Dark has joined from Dundee Wanderers.
On the coaching side Keith Smith will be assisted by David Knipe who had a very successful stint with Grange men over several years.
Clydesdale Western have also recruited a couple of newcomers, from Argentina Paz Medina San Martin along with Iona Colquhoun from Dundee Wanderers, but coach Derek Forsyth`s time with the squad has been limited by international commitments over the last several weeks.
Forsyth remarked: “Watsonians is always a tricky match away and we will have to be at our best to take anything from the game.
“By all accounts they have recruited well over the summer and I`m sure Keith will be looking to be one of the teams challenging for the league at the end of the season.”
Elsewhere Dundee Wanderers make the trip north to take on Gordonians.
Friday evening sees an early start to the campaign with Hillhead hosting Wildcats at Windyedge. The Auchenhowie side will again rely on the solid foundation of Becky Ward and Kate Holmes but have new blood in Aspen Cumming from Dundee Wanderers and the CALA pair Katie Brett and Olivia Henderson.
Hillhead, now under the coaching aegis of Andrew Hilton, finished seventh in March 2020, but in the process lost 7-1 to the Wildcats.
Grange were the clear front runners when the Premiership ended abruptly in March 2020 – they had a comfortable nine point lead – so can the Edinburgh side continue their hegemony with a win at Uddingston on Saturday.
Manager Martin Shepherdson played a straight bat: “I think we are all a bit unsure of how all teams will look after such a long break, but we are all looking forward to playing again.”
Grange have added to their squad, principally Fraser Heigh (Watsonians), Elliot Sandison (Dundee Wanderers), Rory McCann (Gordonians) and Albert Rowling (Grove Menzieshill) along with a couple from England.
Uddingston are concentrating on bringing forward their home-grown talented youngsters, some of whom have made into the Premiership squad.
Harry Dunlop explained: “At the end of the COVID restrictions for youth players we made an early start to a youth development squad of around 20 youngsters divided into small groups under high performance coaches. These youngsters were fast tracked and advanced three years in their technical skills in one year.
“Grange will be a challenging start as our youngsters will need 3 or 4 games to settle in, but we hope to pick up the performance and results in the following games.”
Wildcats could present a clear challenge to Grange`s supremacy, they have added to their squad Hillhead`s Callum Duke, long-time veteran of Kelburne`s 13-in-a- row team Jonny Christie, and Andrew Webb.
Ironically for Duke his former club are the hosts for Wildcats` first outing at Windyedge.
Keith Joss, Director of Hockey at Hillhead, explained the issue. “With a large contingent of players moving on, it is likely to be a challenging season. He went on to explain that Duke has joined Western in an effort to regain his place in the Scotland team going towards the 2022 Commonwealth Games and Hillhead are supportive of this move.
Hillhead will have Fraser Ward as captain and will rely on the experience of Graeme Campbell, Iain Hilton, Ewan Campbell and Matt Macintyre, but that may not be enough to fend off the Wildcats on Saturday.
In the remaining fixtures on the men`s card Kelburne are at home to Grove Menzieshill while Clydesdale travel to Dundee Wanderers where last time out the match finished in a 1-1 draw.
In conclusion, Premiership university sides have been given dispensation this weekend but must play these fixtures by the end of October.