The governing body of British hockey is making an ambitious push to capitalize on one of the surprise hits of the Olympics, with a recruitment drive under way which focuses substantially on the nation’s women.
The national team, coached by Danny Kerry, is seeking tonight to reach its first final, with the Argentine side which has been inspired by Luciana Aymar the impediment to the side progressing beyond the previous best bronze attained in Barcelona, 20 years ago. A huge amount rests on either Jason Lee’s men or Kerry’s women achieving at least a bronze – because the target set in the new round of four-year funding which replaces the £15m allocated after the Beijing Olympics was one to two medals for the GB teams.
But GB Hockey is acutely aware of how the sport was not ready to seize the opportunity presented when Sean Kerly inspired the men to gold in Seoul, back in 1988, so has already thrown itself into a recruitment campaign.
The Hockey Nation Give-it-a-go campaign has increased the number of people playing hockey from 27,000 to 106,000 and the introduction of Rush Hockey, a five-a side version of the game, has been critical. A major boost to the sport’s attempts to be ready for an uplift from the Olympics was the securing 12 months ago of a sponsor for the women’s game, Investec, whose seven-figure sum has enabled the governing body to split the costs of the televising of the sport on Sky Sports.
Victory for one of the two Olympic sides – with Lee’s men facing the Netherlands today – would provide an even bigger step, forward, though. The UK Sport funding deal secured after Beijing, has funded talent coach development and sports science and medicine investment – with a level of video analysis which is equal even to that in the fabulously wealthy football.
That analysis means that if today’s game goes to the same penalty shoot-out which saw the Dutch women beat New Zealand in yesterday’s women’s semi-final, Lee will have had a break-down on precisely how the Dutch men take theirs. That level of knowledge was clearly lacking in the Kiwis, whose coach Mark Hager admitted last night that he had failed to prepare adequately. “We didn’t practise enough and that’s probably my fault,” Hager said, after a 3-1 defeat on penalties followed a 2-2 scoreline after normal time, plus 15 minutes of golden goal time. Whether Great Britain or Argentina progressed, it will be a disgruntled, dissatisfied Netherlands they faced in the final – with the concern for the nation that would face them being that the team, the source of substantial expectation back home, will want to get it out of their system.
The Dutch’s stuttering performance against a New Zealand six places below them in the world rankings, reflected their sentiment in the tournament as a whole and one of the few consolation for ebullient coach Max Caldas was that his captain, Maartje Paumen, finally found her goalscoring touch having surprisingly failed to net once in the tournament. She scored 11 goals in Beijiing, where the Dutch side took Olympic gold, but her corner flicks have been curiously absent in this competition.
Hager could perhaps be forgiven for his planning oversight, given that his side’s was the Olympics' first ever hockey shoot-out – a contest which involves the players being given eight seconds to dribble the ball from the edge of the ‘D’ and seek to put it past the goalkeeper. The Dutch had experienced shoot-outs in international competition and their goalkeeper Joyce Sombroek proved to be a vital asset in their progress. "She read us well and anticipated our actions. But perhaps we were guilty. All our players basically did the same thing,” Kate Sharland, captain of a New Zealand side known as the Black Sticks, said of Sombroek.
New Zealand were given a seventh-minute lead by their captain Kate Sharland from a penalty corner.
Paumen replied in similar fashion. Krystal Forgesson restored the Kiwi lead but Paumen produced a near-perfect corner flick into the roof of the net to make the score 2-2.
The Dutch were awarded a penalty corner in the second seven-and-a-half-minute period of extra time, which they tried unsuccessfully to have upgraded to a penalty stroke with a video referral. When Paumen took the corner, she shot wide. But the Netherlands didn't flinch in the deciding shoot-out.
The other finalists would face an inscrutable opponent in Caldas, who has a difficult relationship with the Dutch media who have produced volumes of material on the nation’s campaign. He was indignant yesterday about refereeing decisions, including video referrals, though he admitted that his players own below-par performance was to blame for their struggle against New Zealand. He could not put his finger on why they have been below par, though five straight wins in the group stage reveals that they are not entirely struggling.