If you wanted to see the very best in sporting skill and drama, it was shown live on BBC 2 this afternoon—but sadly I would wager a large number of you didn’t tune in to what was a truly remarkable women’s final of the Unibet EuroHockey Championships.
It has been well documented that in the guise of Great Britain or England, teams led by Kate Richardson-Walsh have produced some wonderful hockey at pretty much every recent major championship, yet respective squads have somehow never managed to win that elusive gold medal.
Some of you will know that the girls’ bronze medal at London 2012 is actually my favourite moment of the last Olympic Games—a medal that in Alex Danson’s case, I have been lucky enough to have worn round my neck. It’s hard to imagine the emotional and psychological effect of that narrow semi-final defeat to Argentina, but to shrug off such massive disappointment and produce a sparkling second half performance to defeat New Zealand and climb onto that podium said such a lot about the courage and determination of this group of elite athletes.
Fast forward three years and, in the colours of England, the squad made steady progress through their group and secured their place in the final with an expected but hard-fought win over a gritty Spanish side. Their opponents in the final were the Netherlands... reigning Olympic champions... reigning World champions; and for three quarters of the final, they looked every bit the best side in the world.
The English girls defended valiantly against wave after wave of Dutch attack, and the opening goal from a third quarter penalty corner was no more than the Netherlands deserved, although they had their keeper to thank for a wonderful save to deny Alex Danson shortly before they took the lead. A second penalty corner strike doubled the advantage and I must be honest, I didn’t think the Dutch would be denied with just fifteen minutes left to play.
The difference is what I saw as “just” fifteen minutes, was actually more than enough time when viewed through the eyes of England’s players. Their desire was undiminished and when Sophie Bray managed to extricate the ball from under the Dutch keeper’s body and flick home from close range, you could sense the belief within the host squad.
When the equaliser came (from another penalty corner routine) there was a hint of good fortune as the ball seemed to strike Lily Owsley on the foot before she volleyed into the net (below). The umpire missed it... the Dutch had already lost their video review... and sometimes... just sometimes you make your own luck.
It was a stunning fightback in front of a vocal home crowd, and with no winner being scored in normal time, we were left with the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Actually it’s just a shoot-out really as the ball is placed on the 23-metre line and the player has eight seconds to convert a one-on-one situation with the opposing goalkeeper.
In Maddie Hinch England has one of the finest goalkeepers in the world and when Helen Richardson-Walsh put England ahead (courtesy of a penalty stroke) and Alex Danson also scored (courtesy of the post), the stage was set for Maddie to put her homework into practice and maintain an advantage which, in truth, England never looked like relinquishing.
Fittingly, it was another Hinch save that secured the shoot-out victory and the gold medal. The celebrations were fantastic as the Holcombe keeper was buried under a pile of ecstatic team mates. There was a brilliant moment as a clearly emotional Kate Richardson-Walsh was about to be interviewed by Matt Pinsent. The remainder of the squad arrived just in time to engulf their captain and the four-time Olympic gold medal-winning rower in an impromptu dance of jubilation that brought a smile to my face, immediately followed by a tear (or two) to my eye.
I had picked a man of the match shortly before the end of the fourth quarter—Holcombe’s Sam Quek—and was more than pleasantly surprised when she was also the choice from the commentary box. I just thought Sam was the pick of a defence that was put under so much pressure by the speed and skill of the Dutch attack; she looks an outstanding athlete, she was strong and assured throughout, and I am now officially an expert!
With rolling interchanges, hockey is very much a squad game and everyone played their part in a victory that is so richly deserved, and which is also a massive boost to the Team GB build-up to Rio. In a week when England and the Netherlands have provided arguably the two outstanding female athletes in the World Athletics Championships in Beijing—namely Jessica Ennis-Hill and Daphne Schippers—the women’s hockey players of those two countries treated those watching live and on television the very best in elite team sport; and as a one-off sporting occasion, this was as good as you could wish to see.
You might prefer your top flight football or rugby union, but when the schedule for next year’s women’s Olympic hockey tournament is announced, put the Great Britain games in your diary and tune in to watch... you might just find you get hooked.