OLYMPICS / Barcelona 1992: Kerly senses the final curtain: Richard Williams witnesses the parting shots of Sean Kerly (left), the man who took British hockey to Olympian heights

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The Independent Online
IN THE end, you can't choose how you go. Ask Bobby Charlton or Gary Lineker. Our final glimpses of those unsullied heroes were not of goals and cups and celebrations, but of lonelier and less glorious farewells. At least no one invited Sean Kerly to make a premature exit yesterday morning, when it became clear that the Great Britain hockey team were in for a terrible thrashing. But the moment of truth was every bit as poignant.

There were 10 seconds of the first half to go and Britain were

2-0 down when Kerly lurked as a penalty corner came in. Making a yard of time and space as the defence tore out, he whacked the ball with the full meat of the blade. Flying less than a foot outside the angle, it was still sizzling in the protective netting when the hooter sounded for the break.

An hour later, there was an awfully empty, switched-off look in Kerly's eyes as he talked about the decisive instant. 'I believe you should never be afraid of missing,' he said, 'so I hit it as soon as it came in. But I was stretching, and it went wide. It was a bad mistake, and it made all the difference.'

And then, his eyes fading as he talked, he thought aloud about retirement. 'Hopefully,' he began, perhaps wanting to hold the admission at bay just once more, not wanting this to be the place and the time to say it, 'I'll continue to play.' But a few seconds later, he was ready to recognise the inevitable. 'There are lots of young players coming through,' he found himself saying, as he stared at something above our heads, something visible only to him. 'So I don't see myself playing any more after this.'

Somebody asked him if leaving international hockey would make a hole in his life. 'Now there's a question,' he said, with a flinch that he exaggerated a bit, to try and cover up the truth it told. And he thought for a moment. 'I've been playing international hockey since the age of 16 - so, yes, there will be a hole in my life. But I've got a family now, and that's more important than hockey.'

To the non-specialist audience, Sean Kerly, now 32, was British hockey, just as Charlton and Lineker were English football - the verray parfit gentil knights who rode off to foreign fields and brought home trophies and glory and joyful inspiration. Sean Kerly was the dashing goalscorer who made children pester their parents for sticks, balls, shin- pads and a lift to the Saturday- morning coaching session at the hockey club.

Kerly came into the Great Britain team in 1983, as a raw 23-year- old. A year later, his eight goals in Los Angeles helped the team take the bronze position, the nation's first Olympic hockey medal since 1952. Suddenly hockey was an OK sport to be playing, to be watching, to be nattering about in the pub. Four years later, in the Seoul semi-final, it was Kerly who scored all the goals in a 3-0 defeat of - oh, irony - the Australians. His seven goals in the campaign bought Britain the ultimate prize, and an even higher profile for the sport, notably with sponsors and the television people, who loved his keen, handsome looks and unforced eloquence.

Infamously, Kerly's employers had refused to give him the time off to represent his country in Seoul. He told them that they could put their job where the sun doesn't shine - and how they must have regretted their stupidity when he strode back through the red channel, with a gold medal to declare but with 'unemployed' on his passport.

Now, of course, he's set up, with a wife and two small daughters, working as a sales and marketing manager for a company making artificial pitches. He left his long- time club, Southgate, a couple of years ago, moving to Canterbury, who play just around the corner from his mother's pub - so Jackie can leave the girls with her mother- in-law and go to watch Sean play.

Even in the hour of a traumatic defeat, Norman Hughes, the coach to the national team, needed no persuasion yesterday to pay tribute to the player he described as unmatched among the world's goalscorers over the last decade. 'You could see that his real desire was back today,' Hughes said. 'He did his own ball-winning and he made life very difficult for their defence. We've pulled him off in other games, when he hasn't been performing by his own standards, but he was pulling 110 per cent out there today.'

Hughes also praised his contribution to the broader development of the team. 'He's been a great squad man. He's not a difficult guy to handle, and he's a very good lad in terms of giving his knowledge to the younger players. He's been a great ambassador for the sport - great with the press, with TV, especially with kids. And in return he's had a lot of fun.'

They weren't saying yesterday, but there must be a chance that Hughes and the team manager, Bernie Cotton, will leave him out of the two remaining matches of this tournament, in the search for the results to take them into next year's Champions Trophy. After 110 goals in 190 appearances for Britain and England, that's out of his hands.

The other thing you can't choose is how people are going to remember you. But Sean Kerly doesn't need to worry about that.