Olympics: Lee earns right to instant respect

Countdown to Athens 2004
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It was one of the most joyous celebrations in British sporting history. Even the sports minister blubbed as the Germans were vanquished in the final. Wembley 1966? No, Seoul 1988, when the Great Britain men's hockey team struck Olympic gold. As he hugged the players, Colin Moynihan felt the occasion for him surpassed even that of eight years earlier when he had coxed the British eight to a silver medal in Moscow.

Can that magical moment ever be repeated for a sport which has subsequently battled through turbulent times? "Yes," says Britain's new coach, Jason Lee. "Maybe in years to come. But who knows when that will be. I just hope we don't have to wait too long."

This rather suggests that he doubts it will happen in Athens this summer - that is, if his team actually make it. The perilous journey begins tomorrow when they fly to Madrid for the Olympic qualifying tournament. To be sure of their Athens berth they need to finish in the top seven nations, something that is by no means beyond them. But while Lee is chirpily upbeat he is not the sort of chap who counts chickens, pointing out that there isn't a team in the 12-country tournament, which embraces every continent, that Britain haven't lost to at one time or another.

But he does promise: "If we do get to Athens we'll go there full of hope and ambition. After all, Wimbledon did win the FA Cup once."

The football analogy seems particularly apt for someone who bears the same name as that eccentrically coiffeured fellow about whom the Nottingham Forest fans used to chant: "He's got a pineapple on his head".

As it happens this Jason Lee was a bit useful with his feet, too, playing the game up to county level before injury forced him to choose between football and hockey, much to the delight of his hockey-playing mum, who had introduced him to a sport that has become a family affair. Lee's wife, Laura, a teacher, has played over a hundred times for Ireland, and his sister Lisa is a clubmate of the former England star Jane Sixsmith at Sutton Coldfield.

Lee made his own international debut for England at 19 and represented Britain at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics. He retired after the 1998 World Cup and embarked on a coaching career with Loughborough Students and England which culminated in his recent GB appointment. At 33, he is one of the youngest national coaches in any British sport, and as such has a unique affinity with his players. He is only a month older than the oldest member of the squad, and has actually played against every member, and alongside several of them internationally. He jokes: "I am very upset when I ask them who is the best player they ever played against and I don't get a mention."

Goalkeeper Simon Mason says: "Jason not only has the respect of the players because of his experience, but because he does what he does brilliantly. He can squeeze that extra per cent out of the players, because he can say, 'Look, I was doing this only two years ago'. It's not just a theoretical principle of 'You just keep working until you're tired, or until I say so'."

Player power, which has always played a significant role in British hockey, was instrumental in the removal as national coach of Mike Hamilton, who was also doubling as performance director, and the immediate recruitment of Lee, the young field marshal for whom the foot soldiers had petitioned.

Lee, who looks and acts like the sort of feisty coach you would expect to find in a football dug-out, quickly flexed his muscles by insisting on the controversial recall of fellow 33-year-old Russell Garcia, the only survivor of the Seoul brothers, who served a three-month ban in 1999 following a positive test for cocaine and whose return had initially been blocked by the Olympic Hockey Board.

Garcia had been in exile as a player-coach in Germany. Did Lee have to fight the establishment for his inclusion? "Not at all. My judgement was accepted, and it was based on Russell's form and fitness." If Garcia plays against Poland in the opening game on Tuesday week it will be his 300th cap.

Hockey is still emerging from a period of administrative and financial turmoil which has seen the complete reconstruction of its governing body and the provision of a new training facility at Bisham Abbey, where Lee's part-time players, whose £10,000-a-man Lottery funding still falls short of the support accorded to most rival nations, have been preparing.

Their form is decently promising, with two wins over Belgium last weekend and defeat only by a golden goal against Spain in the final of an international tournament designed to test the Olympic facilities in Athens where, Lee says, the pitch wasn't "international standard", being soft and spongy. The heat and pollution will also be a factor should Britain get there.

If they do, Lee refrains from suggesting that the outcome will again bring tears of joy to the present sports minister's eyes. "To be honest, I'd actually be quite scared of winning a gold medal, because of all the hullabaloo that goes on around it. I just want to achieve excellence and satisfaction in what I do. When I look back I want to be proud, not just of what I did, but how I went about it."