Ashley Jackson: The Ronaldo of hockey
Ashley Jackson has the skills to match the Madrid superstar and he's an integral part of Team GB's high-risk strategy which may lead to Olympic glory. He talks to Ian Herbert
Ashley Jackson's captain compares him with Cristiano Ronaldo and it does not take long to see that Jackson is the flamboyant one, the member of the Great Britain hockey team whose name will be much better known if the side take the gold medal which they are not afraid of saying is within them. Jackson is the one with golden locks – worn at varying lengths but shorn now, in readiness for combat – and with his own website, which carries superficial similarities to Ronaldo's. He is 'AJ7' in the way that the Real Madrid player is 'CR7' – but Jackson is obviously delighted to drive a sponsored BMW; Ronaldo has no need to thank anyone for his Bentley.
Where hockey is concerned, Jackson has everything; a self-belief built on goals, an ability to undertake immensely good dribbles and feats of dexterity, plus a 100mph shot – faster than anything you will see in Test cricket. And the 24-year-old also has that occasionally infuriating aspect which belongs to all of sport's languid greats. "We often joke that Ashley runs forward so quick that he doesn't run back quite so quick," says his GB coach Jason Lee. "Ashley is brilliant and frustrating in equal measure but I will take that. I'm quite comfortable to accept his weaknesses as well as his strengths." The captain, Barry Middleton, one of the game's elite players in his own right, equates it thus: "If we are going to do well, he is going to be the main part of it. If he scores some goals, we will do well; if he doesn't, we won't."
Flamboyance comes in many guises and in Jackson, named World Young Player of the Year after his dazzling performances inspired England to a European Championship triumph in Amsterdam in 2009, it is understated. An intensity burns, though, as he discusses the uncertainties which – gold or no gold – will follow the Olympics for all but those three members of the team, including him, who will return to professional contracts in the Netherlands come September. "In hockey there's not too much that can be opened up," he says. "After winning things like the Europeans, very little changed. That's the way it is in our sport. Hopefully we perform really well and have some shiny medals after this. But I'm not expecting too much."
That was certainly the story of Seoul in 1988, when Sean Kerly's goals were as much a part of the gold medal-winning legend as the BBC's Barry Davies asking during the final: "Where, oh where, were the Germans? And frankly, who cares?" No one is getting carried away by thinking of the aftermath of a tournament which sees Britain, whose No 4 world ranking is vastly more realistic than that of Roy Hodgson's England football team, up against the world No 1 Australians and the dangerous, fifth-ranked Spanish in the group stage. But Lee does not care to quash expectations in the way Hodgson did earlier this summer. One of the reasons this hockey side may be one of the sleeper stories of the summer is that they have undertaken a philosophical shift perhaps best described as the England football team in reverse. Caution has been abandoned in favour of an attacking game which, Lee admits, is high risk but which means the players won't die wondering.
"We could guarantee third to sixth with a different style of play but we are trying to orientate higher than that," the coach says. "We are going to try to win the Olympics and there are bigger risks, so we could finish first or ninth. We will be opened up a little bit more, so it will give us a chance of winning the gold. It certainly won't be boring."
The tactical gamble occurred three years ago, after Britain missed medals in Beijing, and initially it seemed to have failed. "We had got by with solid players and had been quite defensive and could win here and there but never consistently," says Middleton. "We wanted to be attacking and entertaining. We talked about trying to sell the sport to the country. We said 'this could go one of two ways' and for months we lost quite a lot of games in a row to the point where we thought: 'Do we change this? Have we gone crazy?' Then it just clicked in a couple of warm-up matches for the 2009 Europeans. We were scoring quite a lot of goals, looking threatening. We thought: 'Hmm, we've got something here.'"
Look out for the way Lee's players interchange when Britain face Argentina on the strikingly blue "Smurf" pitch at the Riverside Arena two weeks tonight because that is at the heart of the philosophy. "You will just see a flow," says Middleton. "We play with three forwards, three midfielders but what you probably won't see a lot of the time is who is playing in which position." The strategy, quite simply, involves unadulterated attacking. There is no offside in hockey so to score you need a lot of players at the top end of the pitch.
This offensive outlook has seen Lee select only one goalkeeper in his 16 – highly unusual four years ago but now an imperative for many, generating the extra outfield player which will allow Lee to make up to 60 rolling substitutions during a game. If Britain are 1-0 or 2-0 down with 10 minutes to go, also expect Lee to remove goalkeeper James Fair. Yes, Lee agrees, that's a defensive risk, which will see Britain concede more. "Some countries do it more than others. It depends how risk-averse you are. We have become less risk-averse; we are trying to win the thing rather than just do our best."
There's been a big focus on mental strength, with Britain drawing on Lane4, Adrian Moorhouse's consultancy. "We talk quite a lot about trust in each other," Middleton says. "When defenders were in a lot of trouble, we used to charge back and help them. Now we just say 'trust them'."
Jackson is the epitome of this. "One of the things that differentiates him and makes him one of the best players in the world is that he has got a fantastic mentality for it," Lee says. "He can repeat, repeat, repeat, under any circumstances. He wants to take the pressure. I think it's a very rare commodity in any sport when a player wants the pressure, wants to be putting himself in that."
Jackson's vital technical asset is his ability to deliver outstanding corner flicks – and more besides. Traditionally, corner-flickers have been so specialist that they offer little else; Jackson sees himself as "a creative player, someone who can make things happen and do things that people like to see".
He makes a comparison with Teddy Sheringham, who could "do several different things on the forward line". But Middleton offers the Ronaldo analogy. "People talk about bravery just in terms of big tackles and getting in the way of the ball and getting hit," the captain says. "But I use the analogy of what Alex Ferguson used to say about Ronaldo. He would get kicked off the ball, smashed on the ankle, smashed from behind and jump around for a bit but he then gets up and wins the ball again. And someone will kick him again and he will get up again. That's what Ashley has: the bravery to want the ball. If you make a mistake you don't worry about what people think of you. You keep playing the game as it is and keep doing the same thing over and over and over again. That's a great quality."
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