WHEN Michael Bremner was 15, he had a decision to make. Stick with Kilmarnock Football Club and try to ascend to the ranks of professional players, or chase his dream of playing for Scotland at hockey.
Having seen friends go down the football route only to be chewed up and spat out by the beautiful game before their teens were over, he chose the latter, much to the relief of his father Alan, who played hockey for Scottish champions Kelburne for 30 years and shed tears of joy when his son first pulled on a Scotland shirt.
Football’s loss has definitely been Scottish hockey’s gain. By the time he was 16 the Kilbarchan prodigy was making his debut for Scotland, shortly after he had led Scotland’s under-16 hockey team to a famous Home Nations Championship victory in Cardiff, during which they memorably beat England. Five years and 34 caps later, and with the Commonwealth Games in his home city just months away, the 21-year-old art student is in no doubt that he made the right decision.
“I’ve never regretted for one second giving up the football career, even though I sometimes miss playing because I loved it,” he says. “The decision for me was whether I would want to give up the possibility of playing for Scotland to go and pursue a football dream in which there were no guarantees. To be honest I don’t think I could have reached the same level in football as I have in hockey, so it was a good decision for me. But it’s about more than that. To play for your country is something that is just so special. Because I’ve managed it so many times and started so young it seems really normal and sometimes I need to just step back and remind myself of how lucky I am.”
Less than a year out from Glasgow 2014, the Games are constantly on his mind. A student specialising in graphic design at Glasgow School of Art, he was even given a role in designing the official logo or pictogram for the hockey competition, and he is reminded forcefully, at least three times a week, about the imminence of the forthcoming Games.
“Of course the Commonwealth Games are dominating my thoughts,” he laughs. “My club Kelburne has just moved to the Commonwealth pitch, which is where we’re training and playing our home games, so it’s like a constant reminder – between that and the Scottish regional set-up I’m there three times a week. Not only that, but our strength and conditioning has moved to the Commonwealth velodrome. It’s good because I’ll be so used to the place and how the pitch plays, but it’s also a source of motivation all the time. It also attracts other teams to come over and play so we’re regularly testing ourselves against top players.”
The Games have been a long time coming for Bremner, who was identified early as a major figure for the Scotland hockey set-up at next year’s tournament. That realisation was the reason why he was part of Achieve 2014, a scheme that was set up on the back of research which showed that athletes perform exponentially better at their second multi-sports tournament than at their first. In an effort to ensure that Scotland’s first-time competitors at 2014 achieve their full potential first time around, Bremner and 29 other young athletes joined the Scotland squad in Delhi so that they could experience the full range of distractions which can mitigate against performance for first-timers.
“We’re trying to get away from the Disneyland effect where coming across distractions, such as the intense press interest or the demands of security, undermine performance,” says Alan Lynn, the programme’s director. “We can’t artificially replicate and recreate the rarefied atmosphere of multi-sport events, so young athletes have to experience it for themselves. They swear by the experience because it helps them find out what they need to pay attention to and what they can tune out.”
For Bremner, his experience in Delhi, where he witnessed first-hand the sapping security operation and saw the enormous delays before some competitors are able to compete, has given him an invaluable insight into what to expect next year. He has also been lucky in that he has experienced more in his five years of playing for Scotland than many players will in their whole careers.
The defender has already demonstrated his big-game temperament, excelling as one of two Scots in the Team GB side which won silver in Sydney at the Youth Olympics. In a thrilling game which Team GB lost in extra-time to Australia, Bremner was outstanding.
So, too, was the other Scot in that side, Alan Forsyth, who has played alongside Bremner for Kelburne since the two players were ten. Their success has been symbiotic, with the two friends’ rivalry driving them forward to the point where they are now key players in a young, quickly improving Scotland side. Much of that improvement, says Bremner, is down to the fact that many of its top performers play elsewhere. Of the core of top players, only fellow Kelburne player Willie Marshall is in Scotland, while Gordon McIntyre (Beeston), Ian Scholefield (Qui Vive in Holland), Chris Grassick (Surbiton), Kenny Bain (THC Hurley in Holland) and goalkeeper Jamie Cacchia (Sheffield) all play in tougher leagues.
Not that Bremner was with them at the European Championships this summer after a freak injury in the warm-up for a game in France left him nursing ligaments in his foot in a protective cast. Indeed, his absence was one of the reasons advanced for Scotland’s failure to make it into the A group. Still, Bremner has been making up for lost time, especially with Kelburne, who have been competing in the Euro Hockey League and, after registering a watershed win over next week’s goliath opponents Polo Club Barcelona the season before last, beat HTC Wien from Austria last season to advance to the last 16 for the first time, a remarkable performance for a Scottish side.
Bremner has high hopes for the future. The Commonwealth Games obscures all other objectives for the moment but, once they are over, he has a plan. “I’d like to have moved abroad this year but I couldn’t because of uni,” he says. “So, once the Games are over, I’d love to move on to somewhere where I can maybe combine part of my degree with playing a different style and really challenging standard of hockey. Berlin sounds good. I’d be playing great hockey in a beautiful city known for its design. What’s not to like?”
Achieve 2014 is developed and managed by Commonwealth Games Scotland and supported by Search Consultancy, Glasgow 2014’s official recruitment agency.