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Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 10:57 UK

Hockey's new golden age?

By Julian Shea

England celebrate after winning gold
England players celebrate winning their first European championship

"Where were the Germans - but frankly, who cares?"

For many sports fans, commentator Barry Davis's legendary quote as the Great Britain men's team beat West Germany to win Olympic gold in 1988 is hockey's most memorable moment.

But success for both England's men and women at the recent EuroHockey Nations tournament in Holland suggests another golden age of British hockey could be dawning in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics.

The women's 2-1 victory against Spain to win the bronze medal was encouraging enough, but it was the men's 5-3 win over reigning world and Olympic champions Germany to clinch gold that really caught the eye.


Even men's team coach Jason Lee admits to having been slightly surprised.

"This was only the second time in the history of European competition that they've been in the European final (the first was in 1987) and it was only the second thing England men have ever won after the 1920 Olympics, when England represented Great Britain, so those facts would suggest it was unlikely that we won," Lee told BBC Sport.

"We played good hockey in the summer and were getting increasingly competitive with the top teams in the world - but I think everyone was surprised at how well we played."

It says a lot about the recent fortunes of hockey in England that names from the 1988 Olympic team, such as Sean Kerly, Ian Taylor and Imran Sherwani, are still more widely known than the heroes of the current side, like Ashley Jackson, Barry Middleton and James Fair.

But as Lee says, life since 1988 has been far from straightforward.

"For a long time there were two governing bodies, the Hockey Association for men and the All-England Womens Hockey Association," he said.

"They amalgamated in the 90s but went bust which caused an awful lot of financial challenges, and debts from that have only just been paid in full.

"Unfortunately the women failed to quality for the 2004 Olympics and so the sport had a massive financial cut which affected the men and women's programmes.

"Luckily, from that period onwards we made small progress in performance terms so we were considered more appropriate for funding, then London won the right to host the 2012 Games.

"That gave us not long-term focus but medium-term focus, and funding which allowed that to happen."

For all the talk of the legacy of the Olympics, hockey is one sport that is feeling the benefits before the Games have even taken place.

Ashley Jackson
Players like Ashley Jackson benefit from increased funding

Lee added: "2012 has brought us more security about funding. It can't be overestimated, particularly for the players.

"In the past we've lost a lot of players when we had funding problems. The players weren't sure what the future held, and they had to make a choice about what was better for them - that's one reason we're progressing better now.

"We can support players to buy time out of work, so work won't be such a key driver in their lives - they can commit more time to hockey.

"We have a good history on that, we've progressed significantly up the international rankings which we hope can get us closer to medal contention in 2012."

The England team does not even have a permanent home any more, and cannot compete with countries like Germany or Spain in terms of a professional league, but Lee does not feel that these are necessarily problems.

"You only need 16 good players," he said.

"The player pool is not that big but it's not always the answer to have more players. We haven't got the numbers other countries have but we're doing a pretty good job at development.

We were the best team at the Europeans but that's the first time it's happened in 20 years - if we want to be medal contenders in 2012, we have to play to that level repeatedly which we haven't done yet

"If you asked other countries, they'd say tactically we're strong but technically we're weak, so we're using the additional time we've got to try to move forwards technically."

But England's strengths, weaknesses, advantages and problems are of course not the same as those of Great Britain, who will be the team turning out at the Olympics.

"The 1988 gold medal winning team was very multinational, with significant players from Northern Ireland and Scotland in the group, but since then until the last two Olympics it's just been English players in the squad," he said.

"Scotland and Wales play at a European level below us, so it'd be like picking an international footballer from the Championship or lower, but for the last two Olympics for men there have been five Scots in the squad.

"I'm very aware of the players who would be available from the Home Nations and there's quite a number who have a strong chance of being picked for 2012."

Lee's England squad are young but experienced, and have plenty of opportunities to hone their skills in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

"There's the Champions Trophy in Australia in December, featuring the top six countries in the world, then there are the European Indoor championships in January, the World Cup in February and the Commonwealth Games in October," he said.

"One of the challenges of the international programme is that it assumes everyone is a full-time professional, so we don't have any time to rest on our laurels and sit back.

Sean Kerly celebrates success at the Seoul Olympics
Sean Kerly remains one of hockey's most widely remembered players

"We were the best team at the Europeans but that's the first time it's happened in 20 years - if we want to be medal contenders in 2012 we have to play to that level repeatedly, which we haven't done yet."

A bit more coverage would be welcome, but Lee does not have a major problem with hockey's media profile.

"I don't feel we're treated poorly," he said.

"In the British press, football is king, cricket, tennis, rugby and Formula 1 are queens, and the rest are footmen.

"It has not always been like that - even the senior team rarely get press coverage, but in comparison to other sports of our nature, we're treated equitably.

"Coverage doesn't necessarily impact on performance standards but more coverage would be beneficial."

Having already beaten Germany, the best side in the world, up next is the chance to beat the second best side in the world, Australia - always a way to guarantee media coverage, as the cricket team can testify.

"The last time we beat Australia was on grass which was about 20 years ago," he said.

"We've had quite a few draws since then and Great Britain were 3-2 up in Beijing with two minutes to go but Australia scored in the last minute.

"But a win's getting close and it will happen - I just hope it's on my watch."

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see also
England stun Germans to win title
30 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England women secure Euro bronze
29 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England beat Dutch in Euro semi
28 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England secure semi-final place
26 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England held by Germany comeback
24 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England win in EuroHockey opener
23 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England start with impressive win
22 Aug 09 |  Hockey
Clarke targets 100th England cap
04 Aug 09 |  Hockey
England suffer defeat by Aussies
10 Jun 09 |  Hockey
England earn draw against Germany
10 May 09 |  Olympics
Hockey on the BBC
17 Aug 07 |  Hockey
Crista Cullen's guide to hockey
07 Aug 08 |  Hockey
Basic rules of hockey
05 Oct 05 |  Hockey
Where were the Germans?
02 Jul 04 |  Hockey

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