Less than two months ago, after group losses to USA, China, South Africa and Argentina, England’s women ultimately finished eleventh (out of twelve) in the Hockey World Cup – and even that was only courtesy of a penalty shoot-out victory over Belgium. But sandwiched in between was a notable 3-1 success over Germany in the final pool match that said a lot about the team’s ability, but a whole lot more about the squad’s pride and determination.
The South Africa defeat was duly overturned in the final of the subsequent Investec London Cup and despite a loss to Australia (who had finished runners-up in the World Cup) in the group stages of the Commonwealth Games tournament in Glasgow, and a very tense send period against the host nation Scotland, the girls eventually made it through to a semi-final against New Zealand.
In what was a pulsating, nerve-wracking and ultimately wonderfully emotional finish, England won a penalty shoot-out to make it through to the final – against an Australian side that had already beaten them, and had conceded just one goal in the whole tournament.
The Australians looked justified and strong favourites on paper, but sat in front of my television, I remembered back to 1988 when Great Britain’s men took the Olympic gold medal with a 3-1 success over Germany, despite having lost to their perennial rivals in the group stages: so anything was possible.
As for the game itself, well the Australians dominated possession and fashioned a couple of chances in the first half, but England’s defence was resolute and the scoreline remained goalless at half time. But that all changed when an attack down the right allowed the sublimely-talented Lily Owsley the chance to flick the ball over the Aussie keeper and into the net, to give the girls a lead that was against the run of play, yet bizarrely totally deserved at the same time.
The “Hockeyroos” (really?!!) continued to press the England defence, and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, but as England snuffed out attack after attack, the effect on the favourites was evident, as the increasing frustration led to a string of errors and misplaced passes.
With a minute to go, Australia launched one final attack. The fat lady may have been clearing her throat, but as the girls knew only too well from their semi-final – and the England netball team found out to their agonising cost – the game isn’t over until that final whistle, and a score in the final minute (or last couple of seconds even) counts just the same as at any other time.
Australia won a penalty corner... and another... and from an initial save, the ball fell to Jodie Kenny who drilled a wonderful – and heartbreaking – shot into the net. How long was left? Eighteen seconds, I think; I can’t really remember, but it was just the most devastating blow after a performance of such remarkable courage that I almost forgot I was English... which makes the most unlikely of sporting turnarounds almost obligatory.
Even though the momentum must have swung Australia’s way, England still had the chance of winning the ultimate prize, but it wasn’t to be. The Australian captain Madonna Blyth calmly slotted home the decisive goal in the shoot-out and the final was over. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast in the emotional release that followed. As the Australians celebrated a victory they may have fully expected a few hours before the game, but surely couldn’t have imagined literally minutes earlier, the English girls were faced with the realisation that gold had turned to silver in the sporting equivalent of the blink of an eye.
I have absolutely no idea how an elite athlete would deal with such a devastating moment. At this level, ability is a given, but think of all the fitness work, the training, the years of sacrifice that it takes to play international sport. To continually strive to be the very best you can be... individually and collectively... and to be almost able to touch the medal you have given so much for...
Only to have it almost cruelly snatch away...
By definition every competition has a winner and a loser, and perhaps if you’d asked the England girls midway through the World Cup if they’d take a silver medal, maybe one or would have bitten off your proverbial hand. That said it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the answer had been “no”, because irrespective of how results were going in June, there was still time to rally, time to prepare, time to regain focus and belief... and a gold medal to play for.
I hope that over the upcoming weeks and months, everyone involved will come to terms with what happened last night and be able to look at their respective medal, and realise just what they have achieved. Remember that the width of a post denied New Zealand a place in the final, and last night could easily have been a bronze medal play-off. Success and failure (perceived or otherwise) can often be separated by the tiniest margins and, for me this was a brilliant silver medal won, rather than a gold medal lost...
(photo © Getty Images)