Olympics 1992 Tuesday 28 July: Stick Ability: Sean Kerly - Hockey: Pool match v Germany 7.0pm

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The Independent Online
The summer of 1988 had not been a vintage one for British sport. The England football team had performed dismally in the European Championships but had at least surpassed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in qualifying for the finals. England's cricketers went through four captains and four defeats at the hands of the West Indies.

So it was with relief as well as surprise that the nation found itself acclaiming a collection of individuals in a sport it had up till then largely ignored. Britain's hockey gold medal in the Seoul Olympics was greeted with all the gratitude to be expected of a success set against a background of wider sporting failure.

Four years on and nothing much has changed, except that now, encouraged by the Seoul success, the men's hockey team carries a weight of expectation they did not have to contend with in 1988. Britain expects. The problem is they may not deliver.

'It's going to be seen as an almighty flop if we don't reach the semi-finals,' Norman Hughes, the British coach, agrees, 'but it's a possibility. We're ranked fifth in the world on past results. Germany are the favourites and Australia are the second favourites, and both of them are in our pool.'

It is not the only difficulty that Hughes has had to confront since becoming British coach in 1989. The Seoul team broke up after the Olympics, seven retiring and others losing the form or inclination to devote the necessary hours to an amateur sport with professional-style preparation. Nine players whom Hughes picked for his first squad, for the Champions Trophy three years ago, are missing from the Olympic party.

'Our first aim is to stay in the top six in the world,' Hughes, who won an Olympic bronze and a World Cup silver as a player, says. 'We won't be satisfied with that but it will mean we get future invitations to the top competitions like the Champions Trophy. Once we've achieved that the next aim is the semi-finals, and I've got an inner belief that if the Brits get there it's going to be a bloody good team that will keep us out of the medals.

'I don't know why but the Brits play best when they're underdogs. If you look at Seoul they messed it up in the pool games. They drew with South Korea, a very disappointing result after being 2-0 up, and they lost to Germany. Suddenly it was, 'Hell, we're not going to make the semis'. There's a big meeting, what's going right, what's going wrong, let's get it sorted. And they won every game from then on.

'We seem to want to make life hard somehow. We play best with our backs to the wall. So in a way going to Barcelona as slight underdogs will be good for us.'

Britain also have a talisman in Sean Kerly, the quicksilver striker who spearheaded the attack in Los Angeles and Seoul. Much will depend on whether the 32-year-old can still find the net with the regularity of old. 'He's still got the burst, he's still bloody quick over 10 to 15 yards, but he can't burst as often for as long so we'll have to use him wisely,' Hughes concedes.

That will mean substitutions. The spectre of a Gary Lineker-style 'Why was he taken off?' controversy looms. Hughes raises his eyes at the prospect and smiles. 'It's already crossed my mind. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.'

(Photograph omitted)

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