On red alert for Atlanta

Close-up; Jane Sixsmith: The leading lady of British hockey has proved that fighting spirit can be a golden attribute. Simon O'Hagan met her
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The Independent Online
THEY say it takes only a second to score a goal, but has anyone ever worked it out exactly? Jane Sixsmith, the nation's most celebrated woman hockey player, found herself doing just that when the Great Britain team of which she has been a leading light for nearly eight years were at crisis point during the Olympic qualifying tournament that ended in South Africa last weekend.

Britain, third in Barcelona in 1992, had played five of their seven round- robin matches, winning two, drawing two and losing one. A respectable enough record, but so tight was the competition that by the time they took the field to play Argentina in their penultimate match in Cape Town, only one of the eight countries involved - Germany - had made certain of qualifying for Atlanta in 1996. Four other places were still up for grabs, but for Britain to be sure of keeping their chances alive, they had to get at least a draw against the Argentines.

They started well, going a goal up through Mandy Nicholls. But Argentina pulled one back, and then went ahead. As time began to run out, Britain strove for the equaliser. The clock ticked down to the last minute. Finally Britain won a short corner. Sixsmith was to take it. She hurried into position. There were 14 seconds to go.

"The Argentinians started time-wasting, but we managed to get the clock stopped at four seconds," Sixsmith recalled last week. "But I took the corner too soon, so the umpire stopped the clock again and now it was down to three seconds.

"I thought to myself, how long does it take to score from a short corner? I reckoned it must only take a second to get the ball to the top of the D, and another second for it to hit the back-board. So I thought, that's only two seconds, we've got a second to spare, we can do this. So I'm walking back to the ball thinking, oh my God . . . I push the ball out. Chris Cook stops it. Sue Fraser strikes it. We've scored. Unbelievable. Everyone just went mad."

As it turned out, other results meant that Britain were still not certain of qualifying until after their last match, against South Africa. Although the host nation were out of contention themselves and destined to finish the tournament in last place, Britain's 1-0 victory, which left them second in the final table behind the Germans, was no mean achievement. "There weren't many cheering for us," Sixsmith said. "We were pleased, but it was nothing like the end of the Argentina game."

It had been the toughest tournament of Sixsmith's career - seven matches in 10 days, none of them easy, with the added strain of an outbreak of food poisoning in the British camp just before the first match, and an injury to another key player, the veteran Karen Brown, which was as upsetting for the team as it was disruptive. In the match against Korea, Brown bent into a tackle, received a knee in her head, and left the field with a fractured skull. She still plans to be back for the build-up to Atlanta.

Other teams may play with more flair - the Koreans, for example - and some may have the resources to go about things more professionally, notably Australia, who as world champions are one of three teams automatically assured of a place at next year's Olympics along with the hosts, the United States, and the Olympic champions, Spain. But for fighting qualities, Britain stand comparison with anyone in the world, and nobody embodies this spirit better than the 28-year-old Sixsmith, the red-headed striker whose 40 goals in 98 internationals - she has played another 101 times for England - have helped make Britain a force in the game.

It was an irony, therefore, that of the 10 goals Britain scored in South Africa, not one of them came from the formidable stick of Sixsmith. "To be honest I didn't feel I had many chances," she said. "But I wasn't disappointed in that I assisted with many of the goals."

Such is Sixsmith's stature, however, that just having her on the field is a source of immeasurable strength to the team. "She's feared by opponents, and she's also greatly respected by our own players," Sue Slocombe, the Great Britain coach, said. "She's worth her weight in gold from that point of view. She's a real stalwart. Her work-rate is absolutely tremendous. She grafts as much when we don't have the ball as when we do, so that's an added dimension in a striker's game."

On a grey autumn afternoon, in the office at the Birmingham Sports Centre where after her South African adventure she was back working as an assistant coaching co-ordinator for the city council, Sixsmith seemed to radiate energy all the more warmly. She used to to work in the council's payroll department until it occurred to them that it might be to everyone's advantage for her to have a job in sport. It suits Sixsmith perfectly - there are training facilities on hand, and the council are good about giving her time off to play.

Sixsmith is a Brummie through and through - born and brought up in Sutton Coldfield, where she still lives with her husband, Tim, and plays for the local club, Sutton Canada Life. She first represented Great Britain in 1988, in the series of play-off matches from which they qualified for the Seoul Olympics. That was the year that Britain's men's hockey team, Sean Kerly et al, became Olympic champions, following the bronze they had won in Los Angeles in 1984. The women's team had to wait until 1992 for their first taste of glory when Sixsmith's goals helped them bring home an unexpected bronze medal.

Just as the men had hoped, the women saw this as the start of something big for the game as a whole. But it didn't happen. "I don't think we built on the success we had," Sixsmith said. "We could have attracted sponsors. The BBC offered us coverage but the association said it wasn't the right time of year, whereas if they'd asked us players we'd have jumped at it. I think they were a bit naive." Still, even Sixsmith adheres to the basic truth about hockey - that it is a better game to play than to watch.

After Atlanta, her third Olympic Games, Sixsmith says she will almost certainly retire from international hockey. So what chance of her doing so in possession of another bronze medal, or perhaps even better? World- wide, speed and fitness levels are increasing fast. Britain's approach is much more thorough than it was, but with all non-Olympic international hockey played by the individual home nations, opportunities for the larger grouping to get together are limited. "The spirit and will to win are very strong," Sixsmith said. And, after all, it takes only two seconds to score a goal.

Sixsmith's Britain: A player-by-player guide

Jo Thompson (goalkeeper). Age: 30. Caps: 28. Club: Ipswich. Total commitment makes her one of the best in world.

Jill Atkins (sweeper). Age: 32 Caps: 102. Club: Bradford. Captain with vast experience who leads by example.

Karen Brown (central defence). Age: 32. Caps: 118. Club: Slough. Barcelona veteran who came out of retirement.

Lucy Cope (left defence). Age: 20. Caps: 17. Club: Leicester. Wise head on young shoulders. Made position her own.

Sue Fraser (right defence). Age: 29. Caps: 52. Club: Grove (Perth). Short corner striker, one of a group of influential Scots in team. Thrives under pressure.

Tammy Miller (left midfield). Age: 28. Caps: 50 Club: Clifton. Hard worker.

Pauline Robertson (midfield striker). Age: 27. Caps: 33. Club: Grove. Powerhouse; most improved player in team.

Mandy Davies (right midfield). Age: 29. Caps: 43. Club: Sutton Canada Life (Sutton Coldfield). Strong and quick.

Anna Bennett (left wing). Age: 19. Caps: 18. Fast maturing into classy striker.

Jane Sixsmith (central striker). Age: 28. Caps: 98. Club: Sutton Canada Life. Symbol of the rise of British hockey.

Mandy Nicholls (right wing). Age: 27. Caps: 37. Club: Slough. Nicknamed "Snakey" because of ability to weave.

Hilary Rose (goalkeeper). Age: 24. Caps: 8. Club: Sutton Canada Life. No 2 to Jo Thompson. Team joker.

Chris Cook (utility). Age: 25. Caps: 15. Club: Hightown, Liverpool. Short corner stopper.

Diane Renilson (defence). Age 30. Caps: 16. Club: Edinburgh Ladies. Calm and astute. Came in for the injured Karen Brown in South Africa.

Sue Macdonald (forward). Age: 28. Caps: 25. Club: Glasgow Western. Unpredictable, difficult to mark.

Rhona Simpson (forward). Age: 23. Caps: 17. Club: Edinburgh Ladies. Top scorer in South Africa with four goals.