The cavalier spirit of the British men's Olympic coach, Jason Lee, made the build-up to last summer’s tournament an exhilarating contrast to the unfulfilling England football which had just gone before at the European Championships. “We could finish first or ninth,” Lee said of his charges at the time.
Well, their eventual fourth-placed finish hadn’t quite come into the equation but some of the hockey was thrilling and this weekend Lee is back, this time coaching the England women's team who are entering the biggest moment since the Games for British hockey. The Investec World League Semi-Finals, in which England open against South Africa at Chiswick tonight, with Australia tomorrow and Spain on Tuesday, find Lee's players needing a top-three finish to qualify for next year’s World Cup in Holland.
Not all of the names who found briefly entered the national conversation at the Olympics have stayed around. The ebullient corner striker Crista Cullen has retired. But Georgie Twigg and Kate Walsh are among many who remain from the Olympics bronze medal-winning squad and then there is the young prospect whose inclusion typifies Lee's spirit of adventure. Lily Owsley, who was sitting A-levels as Lee was speaking to The Independent this week, is untested at this level and the call-up may have come too soon. But Lee has seen raw talent, goals and the pace which saw her finish second the national under-19s championships at 800m, opting for a career in hockey because of her preference for team sport.
"It's a risk having her, she's very young and inexperienced and I don't know whether she can do it," Lee said of the Clifton player. "But she started scoring goals when she joined us and I want to see what happens. She's playing at a standard well above her age."
Lee has involved his wizard short corner specialist Ashley Jackson in helping the women build on their bronze but it is an aspect of sporting culture absent in the men’s set-up which has impressed him since he made the switch, having concluded that ten years with the men’s team was long enough. “Yes, the men are stronger,” Lee said. “But the big difference is how the girls operate as a group. The guys are much more egotistical and the challenge is to get them playing as a team. The team ethic is stronger with the women. We’re working on getting the aggression right. It’s a fascinating exercise.” Lee insists the attacking game which is the only one he will coach. “It’s the way I am,” he said. “I believe in trying to dictate the pace of the game. We tend to score a lot but we can concede a lot.”
Qualification is not a foregone conclusion for England, for whom this has been a mixed period of results. In the other group are Olympic silver medallists Argentina, China, the USA and Italy. The all-important World Cup qualification games begin after the group stages, next Thursday.
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