Women's Hockey: Forget St Trinian's, hockey just got serious

The women's game is transformed. England have shot up to fifth in the world and a London medal is realistic.
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The Independent Online

Why is it that images of those brattish belles from St Trinian's still hover in the minds of many when thinking of women's hockey? Toothy Joyce Grenfell's "Up sticks and at 'em girls!" is not exactly the sort of exhortation that springs readily from the lips of England's captain, Kate Walsh. Suggest to any member of her current squad that it is not a game to be taken too seriously is to invite a sharp thwack across the shins with a not-so-jolly hockey stick.

Few sports can look forward with as much relish to striking out for the 2012 podium based on a total transformation of results over the past 12 months, culminating in England's bronze medal at last week's Champions Trophy in Nottingham, the most prestigious event in the annual hockey calendar.

"This time last year in the same competition we got one point, and this year we had 10 at the end of the group stages and finished in third place," says the 25-year-old Alex Danson, a stalwart of the GB and England teams after becoming one of hockey's youngest-ever full internationals as a 16-year-old schoolgirl.

A bright, bubbly blonde, Danson epitomises New Age hockey woman, a full-time professional, totally committed to her sport. "Our results over the past week have moved us up to fifth in the world and given us a great boost for 2012. It means a medal is in sight but we are going to have to work really hard. With just two years to go we are so lucky to be in our current situation and we will use these two years to do everything we possibly can to get success in London.

"If we improve so much in one year then just think what we might be able to do in two. Of course, the Olympics will be much tougher with all the top nations involved but I genuinely believe we now have the best programme and coaching in the world. I was really, really pleased not just for myself but for the team. We had a brilliant tournament."

Danson, who scored the winning goal in the opening match against Argentina, likens her role to that of one of her sporting heroes, David Beckham. "I am classed as a forward but I am here, there and everywhere, fetching and carrying in midfield, defending and attacking. It involves a lot of running."

She says she played "any sport that was going" at school in Hampshire. "I remember first watching hockey when I was very young and pestering my mum for a hockey stick for my birthday when I was seven. When I finally got one it weighed about seven pounds. I was thrilled and started using it in my back garden. I had it until I was 15 and had joined a local club. The school I was at did not really play much girls' hockey so I joined in with the boys when they had a knock-around at lunchtime."

The Reading star, who spent last season playing in Holland, home of the Olympic champions, has now well over 100 international caps. "For me hockey encompasses everything you want in a sport. It's physical, it's skilful, you need strength and a tactical brain to think your way through a match. The image of St Trinian's has long since fallen by the wayside."

Away from the hockey pitch, Danson works with a Sky Sports scheme to entice schoolkids into hockey and is a Boutique Sports ambassador, a concept designed to encourage young women to exercise with the promise of a post-event "pampering" party. The first event took place in Battersea Park on 10 July with thousands running five or 10 kilometres, though Danson was unable to participate as it clashed with the Champions Trophy.

Two years ago Danson suffered a broken thumb in the Beijing Olympics, has had several shoulder injuries and had to be airlifted off the field at Bisham Abbey after dislocating her collarbone. She says: "Hockey is brilliant fun but it is physically very demanding and fitness is the trademark of our team."

Southampton born, she is currently living in Marlow, close to hockey headquarters at Bisham. She says she is "seeing someone at the moment" and eventually would like to settle down, have a family and live by the sea. "That would be perfect." She is taking an Open University degree with a view to becoming a PE and geography teacher.

Her hockey icon, she says, is her team captain Walsh. "She is such a good role-model and an inspiration to me, as has been Helen Richardson, who next to Kate is our most capped player. I've been so lucky, I'd never been abroad before I was selected for my first international and now I've been all over the world. I think that hockey is ingrained into my soul, I love it, really love it."

Message from an icon: Kate Walsh

'Alex is a deadly finisher. She'd do anything to score'

Things have started to progress for us since we relocated to the Bisham Abbey area, which means we can all train together more or less full-time every day. Alex Danson has responded particularly well to this situation and also adapted brilliantly to the recent rule change which means you can self-pass: that is, you do not have to pass the ball forward to another player before you can touch it again but can tap it again yourself and run or dribble with it. This speeds up the game much more and suits Alex's style.

I have been in the team a long time (since 1999) and remember Alex coming in as a very young player, watching her grow into a world-class striker. The season she had playing in Holland improved her game enormously. She has come out of it a stronger and more confident player with a lot of different skill sets. She is also a clubmate of mine at Reading and with every game seems to be getting better and better.

Between now and 2012 I am convinced she will improve her game even more as she is our most consistent forward and hers is probably the first name to go down on the team sheet. She is quite modest about it but actually she is outstanding in the circle, a deadly finisher and adept at drawing the keeper out. She would do anything to score a goal! As captain she is a joy to work with and I am so glad that the whole team is performing so well. 2012 is getting closer and as long as we keep developing as we have over the last year the signs are good."

The British Olympic Association (BOA), formed in 1905, are the national Olympic committee for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. They prepare and lead the nation's finest athletes at the summer, winter and youth Olympic Games, and deliver world-leading services to enable success for athletes and their national governing bodies. For more information go to: www.olympics.org.uk