How Omar Shibli’s Barnes Squad Have Achieved Success This Season

Rod Gilmour of The Hockey Paper speaks to Barnes women after celebrating promotion to Division 1 South

Four years ago, Barnes HC were sent a ‘well-constructed’ email from Omar Shibli, with the club looking for a new head women’s coach. Shibli outlined a few coaching qualifications but highlighted examples of where he saw the club going. After a trial session, he was given the role.

Last weekend, Barnes secured the Conference East title. They head into their final match having lost one fixture this season and shipping a meager eight goals in 17 matches.

“If I’m honest they took a gamble on me,” says Shibli, of his first national league role. “But I was confident I could do a job, even if I never had a formal route.”

Shibli did, however, have hundreds of contact hours on the pitch, watching and learning from athletes across the globe in his capacity as co-founder of coaching company EVO Hockey.

“He is very-driven and very calm and those two things don’t normally go hand in hand with a coach,” says Katie Martin-Fagg, Barnes’ goalkeeper and captain. “He loves focusing on the skills and flair side which is awesome. Of course I come in saying ‘flair’s great, but can we also defend please!’ “

Martin-Fagg is into her fourth season as captain and tenth with the club. A former Loughborough University student, she played one season with St Albans and has been with Barnes ever since. “It is accidentally now my home club,” she says.

Formerly known as Barnes, Hounslow and Ealing following a merger, the club has flirted with Division 1 status over the years until renewed focus under Shibli. In the first season of the England Hockey restructure, they missed out on promotion to Wimbledon 2. In the Covid-curtailed season they were in fine fettle, played six, won six and conceding just once.

They carried that form over into this campaign, where they failed to concede in seven successive matches until last month. “The way we press definitely means we try and play in the opposition half as much as possible and lighten the load on any defensive heroics that are needed, although we have had a couple,” admits Martin-Fagg.

“We would definitely say that we can now compete in Division 1. The work rate and commitment that everyone puts in is phenomenal. When the pitches are half frozen and there is horizontal rain coming down in January, but you still have 16 at training, it is pretty cool to see. “

Barnes are part of Barnes Sports Club, shared with the cricket and squash sections, while the club owns its Dukes Meadow pitch across the River Thames, a five-minute walk back for clubhouse socials. “Now there is a functional small tea room and changing rooms pitchside,” adds 34-year-old Martin-Fagg, who works in IT with electronics retailer Currys. “That is a big deal. We were famous for being the team with portaloos for quite a few years! “

With a growing support base and, says Shibli, players who adapted to his style of hockey, Barnes have developed as a tight squad over the last three full seasons.

Shibli, who played for Cheam for 12 years, had been transitioning out of the legal world as he looked for a more flexible workload, entwined with a full-time coaching role. Barnes seemed the perfect fit.

“It was pretty heavy stuff at times but really interesting,” he says of his former life as a human rights barrister. “Hockey was my escape and to have a run around. I wanted to have a job where I could have more freedom and be flexible.

“I love working with people, and working with clients you are advocating that. Coaching is different but ultimately you are still working with people. Every single season I’ve learned a huge amount. “

With the promotion party taking place last weekend following their 13-0 victory over Canterbury 2, Shibli will no doubt already be concocting plans for their Division 1 campaign. After all, Martin-Fagg jokes that it’s not uncommon for her to receive 7am calls on a Monday morning deconstructing the weekend matches.

Shibli says of his team: “Everyone has full-time jobs, there are no full-time athletes but every single person is really committed to their sport. We are almost like a team transitioning between the two and they really are proper athletes.

“My coaching now is as much sports psychology and mental work as it is tactical and technical work.

“It’s trying to find a balance with what’s almost a professional program for amateur players. It is about creating a high performance environment with some players with demanding jobs. “

As a club with limited financial support, Barnes have done it their own way as they aim to muscle in on Wimbledon’s and Surbiton’s second teams next season.

“We are trying to grow the fan experience,” adds Glaswegian-born Shibli. “We are getting nice crowds coming down and the style of hockey we are trying to develop is quite exciting. Hopefully the people who have come down to watch are buying into it. “

Barnes play their final game of the season away to Ipswich this weekend, push back 2pm at Tuddenham Road.

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