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Author: Roger Jackson, Posted: Saturday, 25th November 2023, 09:00
“I like a challenge!” So says Cheltenham Hockey Club men’s coach Tom Cole, who has certainly thrived in his two stints in the role.
The 35-year-old was actually referring to his golf when he said he liked a challenge – he plays off scratch! – but the statement is equally applicable to his hockey.
And just as he is at golf, he’s rather good at hockey too, having played for Cheltenham for many years in the National League.
He was captain for some five seasons and, since getting involved on the coaching side, initially while still a player, he has twice helped the club win promotion to the National League.
The most recent promotion was at the end of last season, which means the club are now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Oxford Hawks, Isca and Fareham in the 10-strong Conference West, the third tier in English hockey.
One team will go up and two will go down at the end of the campaign and although Cole is clearly a glass half-full man, he is also a realist.
“The first aim this season is to stay in the National League,” he said. “If you offered me eighth now I’d probably take it.
“But at the same time we’ll back ourselves. It’s going to be close and it will be a case of who performs best on any given day.
“It’s those fine margins but we want to be playing at the highest level we can.
“Sometimes scrapping at the bottom can be as exciting as scrapping at the top.”
Cole, who is head of PE at Chipping Campden School, experienced both promotion joy and relegation battles during his time as a player with Cheltenham.
Originally from Andover in Hampshire, he moved to this part of the world in 2006 when he went to the University of Gloucestershire and he started playing for Cheltenham a year later.
“I started playing senior hockey for Andover when I was 13 or 14,” he said.
“Originally I was a midfielder but I spent most of my career as a central defender. That’s where I played my best hockey.”
And a good standard it was too.
“We got promoted to the National League in 2010. It was the first time the club had played at that level for 25 years,” he continued.
“We played there for nine years, it was a good journey, and when we got relegated we went straight back up the following season.”
That 2019/20 season was the first promotion on the CV of Cole the coach.
“I was still playing,” he said. “The coach at the time stepped down in September and I said, ‘I’ll player/coach’.”
It turned out to be an inspired decision and what made the season all the more special for Cole is that his brother Luke, who is now in his 11th season at the club, was captain of the team.
“He’s six years younger than me and it was a really nice time to be involved,” said Cole, who lives in Bishop’s Cleeve with his partner Charli Roberts, a long-time captain of Cheltenham’s flagship ladies’ side and still a first-team regular.
“It was a nice introduction to coaching because I was still playing.”
And it was certainly nice for the club because Cole clearly thrived on the extra responsibility, just as he did during his time as captain.
That period as captain coincided with Cheltenham’s best ever league finish.
“We came fifth in Conference West, the only time the club have finished in the top half of the division,” he said, adding with some understatement, “That was nice.
“In those days the league was structured slightly differently. We were one of three divisions in the second tier, one tier below the Premier Division.”
And Cole certainly enjoyed his time as captain.
“I embraced it,” he said. “I liked the responsibility, I liked communicating with the coaches, it was an honour to keep that team in the National League.”
And that’s where they are again now after Cole returned to the club as men’s coach, having stepped away for a period because of work commitments.
“I came back and helped out in 2021/22 when the coach dropped out,” he explained. “I’d decided during Covid that I wanted to coach rather than play.
“I still played a few games last season and it can be a bit frustrating at times because I sometimes think I can still play.
“But when we won promotion last season with the winning goal scored 15 seconds from the end of the final game I don’t think I’ve ever been so emotional and I wasn’t even playing!”
Cole is keen to give the players the credit for that title success but equally, he obviously played a crucial role.
So how does he see himself as a coach?
“It’s a bit like my day job, I’m trying to get my views across to a group of people,” he said. “I’m tactically knowledgeable and I was able to see the game well when I played.”
Cole also coaches the men’s 2nd XI, who play in West Division 2 East, as well as the flagship team.
“We train on Tuesday nights, all the players train together,” he said. “We get about 30 to 35 at training and everyone who trains is potentially in with a chance of playing for the 1sts or 2nds at the weekend. Both teams play in the same way.”
So what is that way?
“I would like to think we’re quite a brave, attacking team,” he said. “It worked well for the 1st team last season.
“The standard is obviously higher this season but we’re still playing with good speed. We attack in numbers and we’re aggressive in our pressing.
“We’ve got the old Real Madrid mantra, ‘If you score two, we’ll score three!’.”
Last season was a tough one for the 2nds and ended in relegation, but they started the new campaign well and Cole is hopeful that they can make a quick return to last season’s level.
“The gap between the two teams is three divisions which is too big,” he admitted.
He also admitted that he was uncertain how long he’ll be coaching Cheltenham, even though it is something he clearly enjoys.
“We’ll take it a little bit season by season,” he said. “If we do well and we’re constantly evolving that’s obviously good.
“Captain Chris Laird said that the team were enjoying my coaching. My brother is still there and so are a few of my mates from when I was playing.
“I’ve always done my best for Cheltenham but if someone can come in and take the club on to bigger and better things then I’d happily step aside.”
And when he does step aside – and he will do eventually! – it will give him more time to devote to golf, the other big sporting passion in his life.
“I took it up when I was 16, then gave it up when I went to university and restarted in 2012ish,” he said.
“I joined Naunton Downs before moving across to Cotswold Hills in 2019. I like a challenge and golf is the biggest challenge.
“It’s not a team sport like hockey, everything is down to me. I’m very driven, getting down to scratch was a big challenge, I want to be the best I can be.”
Anyone who has played golf will know that it is not possible to play well every time, of course, something that Cole admits he has had to come to terms with.
“My partner says that if I have a bad day at golf I’m not to bring it home with me,” he laughed.