12 for 2012: No 11 Simon Mantell, hockey player

Our monthly series presenting potential medal-winners at the London Games in six years' time turns to a young hockey striker - and hears how his mentor prepared for the greatest show on earth
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The Independent Online

Seoul 1988 was to hockey what Wembley 1966 was to football. When Sean Kerly's Great Britain team defeated Germany to win the Olympic gold medal, even the sports minister of the time, Colin Moynihan, openly blubbed as he sprinted on to the pitch to embrace the lads. It also provided a commentary moment almost in the same league as Ken Wolstenholme's "They think it's all over". "Where were the Germans?" screeched the BBC's Barry Davies as the third goal went in. "Frankly, who cares!"

Simon Mantell, aged four at the time, says he vaguely remem-bers being tugged out of bed by his hockey-mad dad in the early hours, who said excitedly: "Son, you must come and watch this."

Now Mantell is himself one of the brightest young stars on the hockey horizon, with aspirations to be part of a similarly joyous celebration, if not in Beijing in 2008 then on home turf in London four years later.

Outside of the hockey family, few will have heard of young Simon, the 22-year-old Reading sharpshooter with a Rooneylike instinct for goal. But his talent, allied to an outgoing personality and beefcake handsomeness, would make him an icon in a higher-profile sport.

On Tuesday he wins his 29th England cap when he lines up alongside his elder brother Richard, 25, against Holland in Hilversum. Between them these Charltons of hockey have won 69 international caps and are England's highest scorers with a total of 49 goals, Simon contributing 18.

Their father, Chris, a former player, is head of hockey at Millfield School where mother Alison is also a PE teacher and coaches hockey and tennis. The Mantell brothers were infant-school tots when they started playing the game under dad's tuition. "I enjoyed all team sports when I was young but hockey seemed to come naturally, probably because of my family's involvement," says Simon, who grew up near Glastonbury in Somerset and started playing seriously as an 11-year- old at Millfield.

Mantell's first international appearance was for England Under-16s, and he progressed through the other national junior teams until he was 21. He began in midfield and also played at the back for England Juniors as a sweeper before settling into his current striking role. "I found my real forte was scoring goals. That's really what I like to do."

He made his full England debut in November 2005, and this year's Commonwealth Games was his first major tournament. "Getting chucked in at the deep end was a massive learning curve for me, but I enjoyed it and we had a reasonably successful tournament, although I was disappointed not to get a medal. We lost to Pakistan in the semi-final on a golden goal and lost the bronze medal play-off to Malaysia."

He also played in the World Cup in September. "That's where we really started to come together and ended up finishing fifth, which is the second highest position for England.

"This was probably the greatest success by any British team since 1988. That Olympic victory really is still talked about in hockey, just as England's World Cup win in 1966 is in football. I don't remember much about the game, although we get plenty of reminders."

Mantell moved to Reading from his previous club, Firebrands of Bristol, when he went to Birmingham University, where he is now in his final year of business studies. "I wanted to take a step up and play Premier League hockey and I felt Reading were the best club to do that with. It means quite a lot of travelling, with training sessions twice a week, but once I finish university I will probably settle down around the Reading area."

He rejects the common perception that hockey is an elitist sport. "The statistics for the number of people that play the game are amazing and they go right across the board from all sections of society. Obviously it's a game played more than it is watched, perhaps because facilities for spectators are not that good, but I do think some clubs could do more to market themselves in the right way. If we can gain some success I still feel it could take off as a spectator sport, rather like rugby, which has made massive strides since England won the World Cup. With our present squad, which is relatively young, I think we have potential to do well in the next few years, and if that happens we will be on the way to making hockey more popular.

"As a non-professional sport, Lottery funding is a godsend. We barely get our expenses, and if we didn't have that funding we just wouldn't be able to put the hours in. You never know, if we ever get major television coverage then this would attract sponsorship, which in turn could bring in some element of professionalism. But it might take a long time. Once again it is geared to our success as a national team. Being a student I probably have a bit more free time than others in the team. This has been a heavy year for us and it has been very demanding on them. It is lucky that most of them have good employers who allow them to take the time off."

He follows cricket and golf and says his sporting icons are Freddie Flintoff and Lance Armstrong. After finishing his studies next year he plans to take a year out in the build-up to Beijing (assuming Britain qualify via next year's Euro champion-ships in Manchester), before looking for a job in marketing.

He describes the England coach, Jason Lee, as "very passionate," adding: "As a former international himself he knows what we are going through. He is a good coach and really gets into it." Lee returns the compliment by describing Mantell as "a fast, alert, neat player and also very intelligent. He is particularly quick in the circle and has good hand-eye combination. He scores about once in every two games, which is a good rate for hockey."

He adds: "Simon is a tremendous prospect for the next Olympics as well as for 2012, but like everyone else in the team he has to work at it. Quite a few of the older players retired after Athens and now the competition for international places is tough. It also helps that Simon is a bright and articulate young man, a very good advertisement for the game. It is good that hockey can attract youngsters like him. Actually we still have a pretty good intake despite the obvious attractions of other sports.

"Everyone still talks about Seoul and we'd love those days to come again, but what has to be appreciated is that with respect, it is now much harder to win an Olympics. In '88 there were only about eight teams at the top level, now there are more than twice that number."

Mantell will be 28 "and at my peak as a hockey player" when 2012 dawns. Naturally his dream is to score the winning goal for Team GB in the final, a prospect sure to bring tears to the eyes of the hockey family, and one member in particular.

The Icon: A message from Sean Kerly

Since I competed in the sport the game of hockey has got a lot faster, and players are finding that they are physically exerting themselves much more on the pitch.

I think that for the British team to be able to compete for Olympic medals and bring a return to the glory that we had in the 1980s they really need to believe in themselves, because the team are pretty young at the moment as they are putting the foundations in place for London 2012. The team have really good prospects, so that bit of belief will really propel them to be able to compete with the likes of Australia, Germany and Holland.

I have seen Simon compete a couple of times. He was a very solid member of the English team at the Commonwealth Games and World Cup. He certainly has the talent for a successful international career.

My advice to him would be to keep working on his mental and physical strength, but also to have a good balance between focusing on his sport and what he wants to achieve and having interests outside to give him a chance to take a step back from the sport. Whether this be through work or projects he is interested in, this will enable him to keep refocusing, and his goals will be more attainable.

Beijing in two years' time will be a great chance for Simon and I know the British team would like to build on Commonwealth and World Cup success. I think that by 2012 they really will be able to compete on home soil against the best in the world. I very much hope to see Simon in that team.

Sean Kerly was the centre-forward in the GB team who won bronze in Los Angeles in 1984 and gold at Seoul in 1988