Troubles after the goldrush

Paul Trow traces the upsets that have undermined the GB hockey team
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IT WAS only eight years ago, yet it seems more like a lifetime. As the Great Britain men's hockey squad prepare to leave today for a spot of rest and relaxation in Trinidad and Tobago before the Olympic Games start, the exploits of their gold medal- winning predecessors of 1988 are fading into oblivious memory.

After bronze in Los Angeles, the ultimate prize in Seoul - and the attention that it brought to a sport which had been unsung for generations - was supposed to herald a new era of success.How could anything go wrong? Britain had struck gold despite minimal financial assistance, and now sponsors were queueing up to throw money at the sport.

That 1988 triumph did indeed yield an unprecedented legacy - sponsored leagues, full-time coaching positions for many leading players and a new pounds 9m national hockey stadium in Milton Keynes which was baptised in March with an international between England and India.

The failure to win any medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona did not unduly hinder the sport's growth in popularity and participants, but a far-from-satisfactory build-up to Atlanta, which came to a head a couple of months ago when the players controversially ousted their coach, David Whitaker, suggests that all is not set fair.

Steve Batchelor, a member of both the 1984 and 1988 British teams, feels that playing standards may have declined since he retired despite the fact that many more players are effectively full-time. "I don't have much contact with the sport at international level these days," Batchelor said, "but I went to England's 2-1 defeat by Germany at Milton Keynes a few weeks ago and I was a bit disappointed with what I saw. Having said that, the squad's trip to the West Indies is just what they need. They will do some light training out there, but most important they will be getting away from the spotlight and relaxing. Also, in a tournament of just 12 sides, you've always got a chance."

Roger Self, whose 10-year career as Great Britain team manager was crowned by the Seoul gold medal, is in a better position than most to assess what is needed in Atlanta. He acknowledges that a successful Olympiad is essential but believes the present side can confound their critics.

"We do have a lot of natural ability in this country," Self said. "Over the last 12 weeks of preparing for the Olympics, the design side of things seems to have been completely fouled up. But I remember the Denmark footballers hauling themselves off their holiday beaches at a moment's notice to win the European Championship in 1992. It could be that the team spirit created because things have not gone well will work in our favour.

"Our own preparations in 1988 were not much better than this time, especially as we went to Pakistan just before the Games and got rolled over five times. The key thing then, as now, was that there was optimism about our prospects."

In reality, it is not possible to feel too optimistic about those prospects, especially when the team's captain, Jason Laslett, says "our draw in Atlanta is the toughest I've ever known". The opening game on 21 July is against South Korea, a team expected to thrive in Georgia's summer heat. The other members of Britain's six-strong group are Holland, Australia, South Africa (all touted as potential medal winners) and Malaysia. Only the leading two sides after the round-robin section will progress to the semi-finals.

Including the Olympic pre-qualifying tournament in Barcelona, the players have turned out (either as England or GB) in nearly 40 internationals over the past seven months, producing mainly moderate performances. They have also visited Belgium, Egypt, Sardinia, Malaysia, Atlanta and Amsterdam - a punishing schedule by anyone's standards, and one which ultimately cost its architect, Whitaker, his job.

The players reportedly resented being asked to put their careers on hold to devote themselves full-time to the Olympic cause while their coach, who was reportedly paid more than pounds 25,000 for fewer than 100 days a year by the Great Britain Hockey Board, was quite often absent pursuing his own profession as a motivational consultant.

Rumours abound that the players have been exhausted physically and mentally by their schedule and are depressed about their preparations for Atlanta, but Laslett claims that morale is high. "It's been a long haul - the last few months have been chaos but I think overall we have prepared as well as we could. The two coaches who took over David Whitaker's responsibilities, John Copp and James Duthie, were with us anyway so there hasn't been much disruption."

Things looked up last Thursday when GB thrashed Italy 7-1 at Bisham Abbey in their farewell game with the penalty corner specialist Calum Giles netting a hat-trick. Self believes that result could be just the boost the team needs. "From what I've seen, they're useful, young and holding their corner," he said. "Now let's hope they can get their act together like we did in 1988." For one person, at least, Seoul is anything but consigned to oblivion.