** This article was first published by Push Hockey Magazine in their European Championships preview edition in August 2013.
A number of times in the past year, The Hook has been asked how has Belgium, with a smaller hockey playing population than Ireland, risen from way down the pecking order to be contenders for world level medals. Perhaps this interview with Belgian technical director Bert Wentink can give some illumination.
“The players in the past had a poster of Teun de Nooijer on their wall. Now, they don’t care.”
As a Dutchman in Rotterdam on the eve of de Nooijer’s farewell match in June, Bert Wentink may be skating on thin ice. It is, however, a frank assessment of the overhauled mindset of the Belgian men’s team as they hope to break up the established world order.
A day later Wentink – the Belgian technical director – was celebrating a breakthrough World League round three gold medal as they saw off Australia in the ninth round of penalties.
It was their 22nd game unbeaten, obtained by a panel with an average age of just 22 and a half. Wentink’s latest plan is entitled “Push for the Podium” and while it is geared toward Rio in 2016, recent results suggest that Belgium’s time may come sooner rather than that.
He is generally credited as the mastermind behind the country’s hockey revolution, one that earned a best Olympic finish for over half a century in London. Indeed, the country had waited 48 years just to qualify for the Games prior to his arrival.
On the women’s side, they had never achieved such a feat prior to 2012 and were languishing at 27th in the world at 2005, year zero for the new model.
With a strong dollop of Dutch self-confidence, a large amount of financial risk, innovative programmes and the best imported coaching talent, he has been the brains behind a remarkable rise.
“The most important thing was for the youth. In the past was we spoke about the possibility of going to the Olympic Games. Now, we have proved and know we can do it. That’s the magic.”
It came from a belief that “much more was possible” in the country with a strong domestic league, one in which he had been working for several years before taking a call from Belgian federation chief Marc Coudron in 2005.
Prior to that point, he had coached the Dutch women albeit not overly successfully with a sixth place finish at the 1994 World Cup.
From there, he crossed the border to Antwerp, taking on the head coach’s role at Dragons. On D-side, the seeds of his master plan had their roots, achieving a series of league titles as well as earning promotion to the European Cup’s A division on two occasions.
He described it as the first club to be “restructured in the right way”, gearing the progress toward a high performance environment.
While he did bring in players from abroad – notably Irish players like Stephen Butler, Justin Sherriff and Graham Shaw – the key for him was always getting the right coaching staff on board. It was a principle that would guide his appointments later on in a role that came just at the right time.
“After seven years of club hockey, I was looking for something new. The Belgian Olympic committee asked me to reorganize the structure of Belgian hockey as part of a plan – “Be Gold”.
“We started the plan at youth level with the U-16 boys in 2006. Five of those players played their first European Cup in Dublin, reaching the final against the Dutch. They lost but it proved the talent was there.”
Wentink says that developing that ability, working with the mantra “youth, youth and youth” was always central to a long-term focus. The introduction of two national training centres – one in Braxgata, one in Brussels – came on stream along with a ‘High Potential’ programme with standouts Tom Boon and Florent van Aubel part of that first U-16 wave.
“Structures were always made with an eye to the future. It happened regularly in Belgian sport that they were distracted by interim setbacks. This was wrong. We had to be single-minded with our plan.
“The underage set-up is the most important thing. Our next programme is called ‘Push for the Podium’ for Rio. Currently, the men’s panel has an average age of 22 and a half. The five who were in Dublin [in 2006] will be about 27 in Rio while 14 of the players we had in Rotterdam also have the ability to be around then.
“It’s about youth, youth, youth. Without it, all you have is one shot [every four years of getting a group together]. That’s my most important thing. We know where we want to go, bring someone out and bring someone in from the coaching side, finding the new knowledge for the long term. That’s the magic of the system.”
Boon, in particular, is the new poster boy for the structures put in place. A prodigious talent, he netted six goals in one of those U-16 games. Five years later, his legend grew worldwide with another stunning barrage of five goals for Racing Bruxelles against Club an der Alster in the EuroHockey League.
Getting the right staff was the other step, matching coaching ability with the playing skills that were quickly developing. That skillset, though, has taken much longer to find internally with plenty of forays abroad to find the people required.
On the men’s side, Australian Adam Commens had instant success in Manchester, earning a formative European bronze, bringing with it qualification to Beijing.
Colin Batch took on the reins before Marc Lammers – an Olympic gold winner in 2008 with the Dutch women – started the role in the wake of the London Games.
“We kept on reorganizing and restructuring, finding better people ever year. Of all the guys we started with in the beginning in the staff, no one is there anymore; every time we take new guys on to spread the knowledge.
“Improving players has gone quickly but we are behind with the knowledge of local coaching staff. Currently, the women’s staff is totally Belgian but the men’s coaching staff is 50pc.”
Such seismic shifts in approach, creating extensive high performance programmes and facilities, though, come at a financial cost. Currently, Belgium is probably the most travelled country in world hockey.
Previously, they engaged in so-called ‘Ryanair series’, using their location as a base for the budget airline to their advantage. Now, they are flying in a different class.
Currently, Wentink reckons funding is running at a level akin to the Dutch and German programmes with a sponsors book the envy of many. But he says that serious risks were taken in the pursuit of excellence.
“We had a lot of gaps! The sponsors did not come straight away. The success in Manchester helped and it gave new funding but, initially, it was only the Belgian Olympic committee who helped us.
“It was about building our system, having confidence in our beliefs and keeping everybody on the board. When you have good people who want to change, it’s important but, for me, I didn’t have to negotiate with everybody. I was allowed to my do my job, make decisions, take a lot of risk money wise and got the results.”
It is a risky strategy that has caused the likes of Spain and Ireland plenty of heartache but those results have helped fill those gaps and they face security for the first time since he took over the job.
“For example, the women going for the Olympic Games in 2012, we spent all the money preparing for the qualifier [in Kontich] but then getting the result, we proved it was possible and people hopped on board. Now, the financial support of the Belgian hockey committee, it is the first year we will now be guaranteed the funding for the coming years.”
He says that the raised standards at national level helped power a player-led push for clubs to match their ambition, citing the likes of Dragons, the Waterloo Ducks, Leopold and Racing Brussels as ones who have created an elite club environment to match.
“If you start with a strong youth structure, in order to help with the national team, those players will go back to their clubs and have their demands. They will ask for better people, more training.
“I’ve seen the national teams pull the entirety of Belgian hockey forward and the clubs follow.”
It is something that GB Olympian Alastair Brogdon can testify to having spent a year with the Waterloo Ducks where he won the national title under the tutelage of Shane McLeod – the New Zealand national coach – and Belgium women’s boss Pascal Kina.
“I wanted to experience how another nation approached their hockey and learn from the players around me whilst also hopefully being part of a successful team at the same time and it certainly delivered on both of those.
“I joined a squad of players who’d either just finished 5th at the Olympics [their highest finish since 1948] or who’d been victorious at that summer U-21 European Championships.
While he says that the league structure was not hugely different from England, it was tailored to account for the Champions Trophy in Melbourne and the World League round three.
It means players are always available for elite club games while also maximising the national programmes ideals. The league, itself, was a marquee event each week and lent to a professional atmosphere.
“The top of the table clashes or local rivalries would draw out some very good crowds. Hockey in Belgium is a bigger national sport, so there is more appeal for it than there is here in the UK. People could travel to watch these games with relative ease and there was very much a community feel no matter where in the country you played.
“The professionalism side of things as I experienced it at my club, was you knew you had a duty to your club/ team and you signed a contract committing to a number of things at the start of the season.
“We trained three evenings a week which I think was pretty much the norm; there would then also be video meetings around this. A high majority of the players in Belgian league are obviously paid by their clubs, which cannot be said of the league in England, and each club had a considerable amount of sponsors.
“Players did still have jobs or study outside of their hockey though, which they had to commit to alongside the semi-professional club hockey.”
It was apparent to Brogdon that youth gets its head at club level with young players receiving international standard advice.
“From speaking to a few of the internationals at Waterloo, they said there has been good organisation from the Federation starting from the junior teams, working hard with their development and trying not to cut short on any detail.
“I noticed at Waterloo that they get top coaches training the juniors at club level and the international players at these clubs play a part in the development of the juniors and lead a junior team.
“Every junior at Waterloo would know the first team players and vice versa. The juniors would also train at least three times a week (technical, tactical and fitness session) and the Junior 1 team would have video meetings too.”
As for Wentink, now 63 and with retirement on the horizon, he still loves his job in spite of the additional “interference” that success has brought and more paymasters to please.
But he has already put in place a decent team to take on the baton with Murray Richards – an assistant to Commens – in the technical manager’s role.
“After qualification for London, I was alone in my hotel room, thinking back on all the things that I have done, all the people that I have to now appease … if I had known that before, I don’t think I would have taken the job.
“Now, though, I could stop tomorrow if I want to but I really like the job.”
Their increased visibility means everyone can see them coming but belief is sky-high for a podium place in 2016.
“No one asks now ‘who is Tom Boon?’ We have to do more to get less [dramatic] results as everyone knows what we are about. The footage other countries get on us, not just of the national teams but also of the programme, makes our job harder.
“But we have learned to win and I know we can make it.”