At 33, he is the newest addition to the 400 club. After the legends of the likes of Teun de Nooijer, Jeroen Delmee, Dilip Tirkey and Waseem Ahmed, Middleton is the fifth player in the history of international hockey to have clocked 400 matches for his national team. The rarity of this statistic should alone be a proof enough that Middleton is a legend of the game. And despite being on the wrong side of the 30s, he is still England’s engine driving and dictating the terms, marshalling the midfield and guiding his younger team-mates.
It’s a long journey, 400 matches. Middleton has seen the game evolve and adjusted his own to meet its ever-changing demands. He’s England’s record holder for most caps and seen it all. He has been to four Olympics, three World Cups and eight European Championships and recently gave up the team captaincy. But his love for the game is intact.
“Journey? It’s very long,” he told TOI Sports when asked to reflect on his career. “I started senior hockey in 2003. Hockey in general has changed a lot since then. It’s interesting that the game has grown and become bigger since then. For me it’s just playing all the time and having fun. I have had a good career and enjoying the last little bit of it and see how far I can go.”
Middleton was a sports lover growing up. He played different sports but found his calling in field hockey. “I always wanted to play sport. I started hockey when 6 or 7. I played hockey, cricket, football. I was better at hockey. So I always knew that I wanted to do that really,” he says.
When he made his debut in 2003, hockey was a bit of an amateur sport in England. Things have changed from then. When he started, the team’s preparations for a major event began only months before but now, things are more structured and the funding has increased too. “Just much more professional now,” he says. “When I started, there wasn’t much funding, so you didn’t train as much together. We came together six months before Athens [Olympics] to try and qualify, trying to get together a team and go to Olympics. Now, it’s a whole four-year cycle where planning is lot more. It’s harder as well because it’s busier. Just look at the next year. You have to be pretty full time to commit to it,” he said.
Middleton did not have any idols growing up, partly owing to the paucity of hockey on British television back then, but does recall watching Dutch midfielder and two-time Olympic gold medalist Stephan Veen. He has a lot of respect for India hockey stars such as Sardar Singh and Arjun Halappa.
In India, he feels the following for hockey is immense and enjoys playing here. He has experienced that while representing for Ranchi Rays, a team with which he won the Hockey India League in 2015. “The crowd is the obvious one. The love they have [for the game], especially when we play India. It’s loud. I think one of the loudest I’ve heard,” said Middleton. “Just how much they enjoy getting behind the team. They are not hostile, it’s just exciting for hockey. I found that about in Hockey India League. I was lucky to be at Ranchi (Rhinos). Had a really good crowd. Even when you are tired, you really want to go out and play.”
He feels the situation is improving, especially after the women’s team performance in recent years. “With the girls doing better, there’s been a lot more publicity to it and people are coming to watch. I think in England for all the sports there is not the same atmosphere. We are not quite out as there and just not going crazy all the time. There’s not always the same noise. We are trying to make it more like that [in India]. But we are getting bigger crowd now which is good,” he said.
When asked what he enjoys most after hockey, he laughs and replies, “Sleeping a lot.”
Middleton follows football, cricket and a bit of rugby and is amazed at how the likes of Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Steve Smith have been pushing boundaries to become what they have.
“It’s like everyone else trying to find things to do. I used to study, now obviously have finished. I kind of try to find ways to relax – watching films and listen to music, watching lot of different sports,” he said. “I like football, cricket, little bit of rugby. Manchester United is my favourite club. Being a Manchester United fan, I have always been [Eric] Cantona, [Paul] Scholes, [David] Beckham fan. I also watch cricket. Now you see Kohli, Smith and Root, the level they have pushed themselves to, it’s amazing.”
Middleton has studied sports science but confesses that he still hasn’t figured out what he wants to do after finishing his career, as playing hockey has his full attention. “I have studied sports science which is very broad. After hockey, I have ideas but I in the next couple of years, I will work out what I am going to do. At the moment, I am still focusing on hockey,” he said.
What keeps him motivated even after all these years? “Enjoying what I do. It’s as simple as that. I love the challenge. It’s harder at times but also there’s the team coming together and the commitment they show which is also motivating. There are people around who are trying to become the best in the world, then I want to be part of it as well,” he said.
Though his career is winding down, Middleton has plenty he wants to achieve. “I just want to continue winning tournaments. There are still things I want to achieve. Ask me in a few years.”
Source : timesofindia