It was very jolly hockey sticks indeed for Great Britain in the end as amid scenes of amazing drama they beat the all-powerful Netherlands in a nerve-shredding penalty shuffle shoot-out to win gold in the women’s Olympic hockey final here on Friday night.
Holly Webb smashed home her final penalty to make it 2-0 and to spark wild scenes of celebration among the Brits. The Dutch – the better team through 60 minutes - were distraught.
A thrilling match finished 3-3 after normal time and was settled by the shuffle where each player has eight seconds to dribble the ball from the 23-yard line and score. Eight seconds seemed a blink of an eye but also a lifetime so tense was it.
Up first went Helen Richardson-Walsh of GB but her effort was saved. The Netherlands missed. Alex Danson missed too as nerves frayed. The Dutch almost took the lead but the ‘goal’ was too late - just after the eight second hooter had sounded. Sophie Bray was then fouled leading to a penalty stroke which Helen Richardson-Walsh scored.
The Netherlands missed again when Maddie Hinch pdulled off a fine save but so did Laura Unsworth. It was too tense to watch for some. Margot van Geffen then hit the post. Webb scored and bedlam broke out.
That they had been no match for the dazzling Dutch mattered not a jot to Britain who had gone two better than bronze in 2012.
With water spraying off the blue pitch with every flick at Deodoro’s Olympic Hockey Centre, the Dutch were much the stronger team at the start as GB struggled to get on the ball.
The Holland fans, who were by far outnumbering the British, were loving it. The main stand was a sea of signing, drum-banging, horn-blowing orange-clad Dutch lit up by the setting sun.
Their team, after all, hadn’t lost in the Games since the 2004 final, reeling off 21 successive wins and won gold in Beijing and London. Just watching them alone made the BBC’s decision to shift the News at Ten a sensible one.
The early pressure should have paid off after GB’s Sam Quek fouled Willemijn Bos to give away a penalty but Maartje Paumen, the Dutch captain, saw her weak effort saved by Hinch in the GB goal.
The brilliant Naomi van As had set up that chance and moments later she zig-zagged through the GB defence forcing Hinch into another save.
It looked like only a matter of time for Holland but totally against the run of play GB took the lead on 10 minutes on almost their first foray into the Dutch D. Sophie Bray juggled the ball and got a shot in which was saved but Lily Owsley poked the rebound home.
It was coming and it came when the Dutch broke early in the second quarter and found themselves two on one at the back after an error by Kate Richardson-Walsh, making history here with her partner Helen as they became the first same sex couple to play at an Olympics.
Holland’s Kitty van Male was released, took the ball around Hinch who had slid out and brilliantly lifted it into the roof of the net with a reverse hit.
On 22 minutes Hinch made a marvellous double save following a short corner. The Dutch will be glad to see the back of her – she saved three penalties when GB beat them in last year’s European Championships final.
Van As then hit the bar on 24 minutes with a brilliant piece of skill: she manufactured a shot on the turn that hit the underside of the bar.
GB couldn’t keep the Dutch at bay for long though and a minute later a short corner was cushioned to Paumen who slammed the ball home.
It looked like the Dutch could run away with it but against the run of play GB equalised when Crista Cullen, who’d been bloodied and felled against New Zealand in the semi-final, found the ball at her stick in the box after a kind deflection and stuck it away. She had retired after London but was coaxed back. It looks like a good decision now.
The second half continued in the same vein: GB defending desperately, the Dutch pouring forwards. And they retook the lead on 38 minutes when Van Male swept home following a cute short corner routine.
Kate Richardson-Walsh – the 36-year-old who has been captain since 2003 and is retiring from the international game now - tried to urge her players on and it amazingly worked: With eight minutes left GB equalised. Nicola White turned the ball home following a goalmouth scramble after a short corner.
There was late pressure but no breakthrough for the Dutch and the shoot-out drama – and the joy - ensued.
After the bronze in 2012, funding for hockey went up and it led to 25 per cent more participation among women in the UK. It may be on the up again after a night of high drama.
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