It really said everything about the agonies that the British women’s hockey players have brushed away on the way to an historic bronze medal that the broad smile worn by captain Kate Walsh last night hurt her like hell.
She’s the GB player whose jaw was fractured by a hockey stick in the opening game Japan and who was back six days later to face China, with a titanium plate stitched into it. The 'nerve block' Walsh applies before each game was beginning to wear off in the afterglow of victory over New Zealand yesterday but in the circumstances she could take that. “I am hoping I can sleep lying horizontal tonight. I’ve had to be at a 45 degree angle,” said Walsh who has been living on a diet of liquidized food and chocolate milk shake since her teeth “ended up in another part of my mouth,” as she so delicately put it.
Walsh has delivered a few home truths to the world of football, where you’ll find a fair amount of scoffing about ‘field hockey,’ despite the fact that a broken metatarsal can put paid to a player’s World Cup. But the 32-year-old is also a motif for way these women have hunted down their medal.
They’re arguably British women’s field sport’s most intelligent group of individuals, whose coach Danny Kerry was not spared their unsparing analysis after finishing sixth at the Beijing Olympics. Kerry revealed last night that he had been crucified in anonymous player debrief reports, which left him contemplating walking away. The crux of their analysis appears to have been that Kerry thought it was all about him, and not them. “I was absolutely driven at Beijing about thinking it was about me understanding hockey better than the opposition coach. I just tried to feed the world on hockey alone and I forgot about the players. People gave me some home truths and I felt betrayed,” Kerry said. “But once I got past the whole denial and anger bit, I [made] myself change, which is only what I would expect of my athletes.”
The players’ dissatisfaction seems mildly harsh. Britain outperformed their world rank ninth in Beijing, after all. But that’s the women’s hockey squad for you. They have closeted themselves away at Bisham Abbey since 2008, developing the “gold medal” mentality which explained the scenes of open devastation which followed the semi final defeat to Argentina in midweek. The conditioning coach was thrown into the swimming pool that night, which seems to have helped the squad get it out of their system. The results of their work were revealed in full splendour yesterday when they put aside the debilitating heat and the pressure in this arena to overwhelm their opponents.
When first half domination had delivered nothing but deadlock and when the blacksticks has emerged more enervated after the interval, it was the stand-out player in their ranks who provided the necessary magic. Alex Danson’s leap towards Walsh’s flicked corner allowed her to deflect it into the net from a prone position, at full stretch. “Kate can have three quarters of that goal,” Danson insisted. “My job is just to get on the line and get a touch.” This was too humble.
Crista Cullen made it 2-0 just after the hour with a low finish from another short corner, delivered just high enough from the ground to make it difficult for Russell as she leapt to her right. The joy was unbridled when Sarah Thomas made it 3-0, deftly deflecting in a Walsh shot. An infringement from Cullen allowed a short corner to the Kiwis which Stacey Michelsen deflected in. But the game was long gone for them by then.
The significance of this win may be greater than the players yet know. The four-year Rio round of UK Sport funding, succeeding the £15.3m awarded in the last round, is dependent on the men and women securing at least one medal between them. With the men facing the indomitable Australians today, this hockey medal may be the only one Britain get. “The people who succeed in life are the people who just keep coming back,” Kerry said. “I knew we would be good to go. I knew.”