ONE YEAR TO GO...
Top nations take note as Team GB's women's hockey side run into form at the right time
Team GB, led by England captain Kate Walsh, are up to fourth in the world and tipped to capture medals
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Wednesday 27 July 2011
Kate Walsh has worn an England shirt 173 times and the Great Britain jersey a further 85 times. "It's the best of both worlds," she says, a suggestion that may not sit comfortably with various football authorities as they struggle to keep their players from participating in the London Games.
"Football is massive and the players are massive – almost as big as the associations, which is completely opposite to hockey," says Walsh, who captains England and Great Britain. "Sometimes you do think: 'Just get on with it and play for the good of the game.'"
The comparison between the unwillingness of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish football associations to have any involvement in the Games and the enthusiasm of the British hockey side to come together, while still enjoying their national independence, is not strictly fair – the Olympics is the pinnacle for hockey – but the contrast in attitude is striking.
"Last year we went to the World Cup as England and won a bronze medal – and we know that we have these Scottish and Welsh players to come in who will strengthen the side," says Walsh. "It's a positive vibe – if we can do that with this squad, what can we do when these girls come in? It's exciting.
"I can see it from all sides. The Scots and the Welsh want to compete in, say, the European Championship as their own nations. Quite rightly, and they should be allowed to do that. Everybody has very strong patriotism for their country. We can still do that and then come together as Great Britain."
The England side that reached the last four of the World Cup will be strengthened by a probable quartet of Scots and one from Wales and enter the Games as medal contenders. England are ranked fourth in the world and with reinforcements, Team GB are increasingly being regarded by the top nations as worth keeping a wary eye on.
"The Dutch are coming over to play and in all my time in the game the Dutch have never been over here. Not once," says Walsh, 31. "They have always been ranked one or two in the world. They now want to see what we're doing: why has the Great Britain team risen up the rankings? What are they doing?"
The Chinese team, who won silver in Beijing, have also been over to Bisham Abbey to train; part acclimatisation, part intrigue, it would seem. "The gym where we train has part-glass walls and all we could see were these Chinese heads popping up trying to see what we were up to," says Walsh. "It's an interest in what physical training we are doing from the bigger nations. We are the fittest team in world hockey."
England's climb up the rankings – Britain take on that of their best- placed side – began in the wake of failing to qualify for the Athens Games in 2004 and peaked at the start of this month when a fifth place in the Champions Trophy lifted them above China to fourth in the world, behind Germany, Netherlands and Argentina, the top-ranked side.
Increased funding has played a key role – £14m has been handed over to the men's and women's game in return for the expectation of two medals next year. Both squads now train full-time. "In the past we would come together at weekends here, there and everywhere, because people had to work," says Walsh. "It was really haphazard. You might take a couple of steps forward at one training camp but then have to start again a week later. Now we train five times a week and live together. We know each other inside out."
It was last year's World Cup that established the women as the coming force in the game. Walsh's side finished second in their group behind hosts Argentina to earn a semi-final against the Dutch. The game ended 1-1 and the penalty shoot-out took a predictably English turn; Walsh was one of two to miss their strokes.
There was the consolation of bronze medals after Germany were beaten in the play-off. The aim for London in one year's time is to improve on that. "For us it is business as usual," says Walsh of the intensifying countdown. "We keep on training, our days are packed. There's no real time for anything else – that's the countdown for us.
"Our vision that we set in 2009 was gold and we were not just saying [that] because it was London. We broke it down into what that means day to day. What we eat, sleep, breathe is part of that gold standard. Last year was fantastic, a real breakthrough for us to get into the semi-finals of the World Cup. We're there, knocking on the door and pushing for the podium."
"Where, oh where, were the Germans? And frankly, who cares?" crowed the usually magnanimous Barry Davies, after Britain's third goal in the 1988 men's final. With that, for perhaps the first and only time, hockey muscled itself to the front of the nation's sporting consciousness. Britain, who had overcome Australia in the semi-finals thanks to a last-minute Sean Kerly winner, had lost to the Germans in the group stages and had not beaten them for 30 years. But the team made history that autumn night in Seoul, as the magical Imran Sherwani scored two goals and Kerly the clincher in a 3-1 triumph that gave Britain their only post-war men's hockey gold.
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