Barry Middleton: 350 not out.

Barry Middleton celebrates scoring for GB

7 April 2003 seems a lifetime ago to most people. Barry Middleton is probably no exception. It is however a significant date in the career of the England and Great Britain captain. It is the date he made his debut for his country.

Now on the verge of his 350th cap, it is still a game he remembers well. Not so much for the details or a stunning performance but for an injury Jon Bleby, now Assistant Coach to Bobby Crutchley picked up:

“There are a few games you remember and for me that is one of them. It was down in Canterbury with a load of the young guys who came through the Under 21s together. I remember Jon Bleby getting a ball in the face. It’s a weird one because I remember it more for that than what happened in the game. He had to go off to hospital and we always remind him about it. I can’t remember if I played well, though.”

Middleton couldn’t have known then that he was about to embark on a career that today has him reaching a landmark not many can boast as he wins his 350th international cap. He is a laid back character, as indicated in his “what will be, will be” approach to his career:

“I just get on with it really. It’s always been other people telling me what they thought I could achieve rather than me thinking about it myself. Initially I just wanted to play for Doncaster 1s. Then I moved to Cannock and then my international debut came, it just sort of happened. I don’t mean that to sound disrespectful but I always just wanted to play and then play full time. I always thought about the next step rather than what I might or might not achieve.”

With the No18 a part of the furniture it is hard to envisage an England or Great Britain side that doesn’t have Middleton in it. In his time with the national team he has seen a marked change in attitude and quality as Great Britain have come from also-rans to contenders on the world stage.

“I feel like I’ve been around a long time. After Athens 2004 Jason Lee came in and changed the group, bringing in a lot of young players. We stayed together till London 2012. We had a few changes here and there but the core of that group played U21s and seniors together. After London the group changed again but we’ve kept a fairly settled core which is a nice thing. We’ve been mates since our teens and it’s great to play together for such a long time.” He adds: “We’re now all full time and we’re very lucky in that respect. It’s the first time everyone has seen themselves as a hockey player rather than someone who works and then plays hockey. It’s shown in the improvements we’ve made in the last couple of years. We’ve come to this point very quickly and we can hopefully still go places. That’s down to the professional nature of this group.”

The professionalism and the competitive nature of the GB squad hasn’t always been there. Had Middleton lost heart during the dark days, his story could have been quite different:

“The early days were weird; sometimes you questioned why you were doing it. I trained really hard and gave everything but we went to tournaments with no chance of winning. That was a strange existence and it made me want to be part of a group that could push for more. At the time it was like people didn’t realise we could achieve things. Around Beijing 2008 and 2009 we made a breakthrough and the penny dropped. People realised we could compete, the culture changed, we started to produce better players and the players we have now compared to when I started are very different. That’s why you play, though. That’s why you go to tournaments, to try and win. It seemed to take us a long time to get that.”

Winning the European Championships in 2009 is the Captain’s stand-out achievement in a long and storied career. Not only was it England’s first tournament win in Middleton’s career but he felt it signalled a change in attitude with people outside and inside the squad now knowing England were a side to take seriously.

Middleton lifts the EuroHockey Championships trophy in 2009

Milestones like the 350th cap lead to inevitable questions about the future, something he is characteristically laid back about:

“I’ve started being asked a lot about the future which means I must be near the end! Rio is a big tournament but I want to play on after that and till the next World Cup. The group we have now gives me energy to keep going and the younger guys are really positive and want to learn. They can really take us somewhere and I want to be part of that. If my body gives up or if don’t enjoy it anymore I’ve always said I’ll stop but I don’t see me losing that enjoyment any time soon. I’ll know when it’s time to call it a day.”

With talk of the end of the line albeit not for a while yet, what does the Holcombe star see as his legacy? How would he like to be remembered? Again his answer is simple:

“I’d like people to remember me as someone who enjoyed playing hockey. That’s all I’ve set out to do. It shows in the way I play. I hope the people I’ve played with have good opinions of me; I’d like to think I’ve made a difference to them, too. If not, I’ve still enjoyed it and that’s what counts!”

He certainly seems to have enjoyed the ride so far and we’ve certainly enjoyed watching Middleton over those 350 caps. Congratulations to him on his terrific achievement.