Since the start of my project to raise awareness of mental health issues through undertaking a series of varied challenges and tasks, a couple of events have involved my friends from the local Muslim community.
I’ve attended Friday prayers at a Mosque, and observed Ramadan… well for a couple of days, and have thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning something about the Islamic culture and faith. Actually that’s not totally true…I didn’t enjoy the dates at the Iftar meal, and the fact that they looked just like chocolates just increased the sense of disappointment….
On reflection, I suppose I should include my boxing challenge in the list, as the unbeaten Guisborough fighter Josh Leather is trained by Imran Naeem, and he was the person solely responsible for sending me into the ring with the absolute minimum amount of training (five minutes on the pads…) and no gum shield to face one of the country’s brightest young prospects.
Imran assured me Josh wouldn’t hit me in the mouth.
Imran was wrong….
To be honest I was rubbish, but as anyone who has followed my challenges since 2014 will know, that’s not the point. The aim is to talk, to be able ask for support in achieving a goal (however small), and to try and highlight what I see as the parallels with mental health; the massive difference that can be made by taking that often incredibly difficult step to ask for help….
The fact I am not a Muslim has never been of any consequence to my friends within the community; they respect the values and beliefs that are important to me, just as I respect the faith that guides their lives. There are members of the local community who do a lot of work to support those less fortunate than themselves—work that often goes unnoticed by the majority—and I really wanted to take part in an event to find out just a little about the “difference” (that word again) that they make.
I was aware of a soup kitchen for the homeless, which is run through the One Ummah organisation (which provides aid to those in need around the world), and so I sent an e-mail asking if I could volunteer for an evening.
When the reply came, it was from someone I knew (which was a bit of a blow because I’d really exaggerated what a nice bloke I was) and we arranged for me to go along to Middlesbrough’s International Community Centre last Saturday evening.
Atif, Imran, Pav and Sab were already busy setting up the hall when I arrived; putting out tables and chairs, boiling the water in the urn for the hot drinks and putting the food (pizza and rice) into containers. At six o’clock, it was time to welcome those who had come along for what is now a regular fortnightly chance to have a hot meal and a drink in comfortable surroundings—I didn’t count the exact number, but there were would have been somewhere near forty people in the hall.
I helped Atif with making the teas and coffees, and seeing all these faces file past, each with their own life, their own circumstances, their own story certainly made me stop and think. It wasn’t so much the day-to-day difficulties, because I don’t really know or understand enough to appreciate just how tough their individual situations may be; it was more their gratitude for being given something that most of us simply take for granted.
It wasn’t a sense of pity… I suppose it was a more positive feeling; that experience of seeing people in need both accepting and appreciating an offer of help. Homelessness has its own stigma, as has mental health too, but just as there are some battling debilitating and unseen illness; others have to contend with different forms of hardship… often with quite humbling dignity.
Saturday was intended to be a one-off… another tick in a box; but that simply doesn’t feel right. Atif, Imran, Pav and Sab (and everyone else involved in the work that One Ummah does) give their time freely to help others; obviously my work with Time to Change continues, but I will be back….
After a break of a month or so, it has been a really positive week for my “Time to Change” challenges. However, before I mention what has happened, I just want to draw your attention to the link at the foot of the page. Right from the start of the project in January 2014, I have never lost sight of the reason behind wanting to push myself to accomplish various tasks from the relatively straightforward right through to facing my fears.
The link is to a blog on my website, in which I try (as honestly and openly as possible) to describe how it feels to have lived with a form of depression for over forty years. Please feel free to have a read….
Back to the challenges, a word that is perhaps something of a misnomer when it came to no.80… to be photographed with a beauty queen.
I was able to get in touch with Alexandra Devine, a former Miss Tees Valley in her own right, who is also a director of Envied Events, the company which organises the Miss North Yorkshire competition; and Alexandra arranged for me to meet the recently-crowned Miss North Yorkshire, Emily Austin, during a photo shoot at Solberge Hall near Northallerton.
The last beauty contest winner I can actually remember is Hólmfríður Karlsdóttir (the beautiful Miss Iceland), who won the Miss World title in 1985. She was actually born exactly one year earlier than me, so if my maths is correct, she should be about 35 now….
Give or take.
In stark contrast, Emily is just eighteen years of age. If that didn’t make me feel old, the fact that she is eight and twelve years younger than my two daughters most definitely did.
When I arrived Alexandra was getting ready to take a series of photos of Emily on an ornate chaise longue—just your average hotel furniture; we certainly don’t have one in our house (at least we didn’t the last time I looked).
Alexandra took us outside (apparently grey hair photographs better in natural light) and after a quick chat Emily and I posed for a few pictures taken with both my camera and Alexandra’s; the latter being a slightly more impressive piece of equipment than my vintage instamatic!
Emily’s role will involve supporting Miss North Yorkshire’s partner charity, Zoë’s Place, a baby hospice situated just a mile or so from where I live, which does such amazing work. A Facebook page set up to follow Emily throughout her reign and it would be great if some of you could click “like” and keep in touch with how her year is progressing.
It was lovely to meet both Emily and Alexandra and when I got home and had a chance to see the photos, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Only one of us was ever going to looked natural and relaxed in front of a camera—but I’m sure Emily will soon get the hang of it….
Obviously that’s not entirely accurate! I look my usual portly awkward self, whilst Emily has a seemingly effortless poise that belies her years. It promises to be an exciting year ahead for the new Miss North Yorkshire; and I hope she enjoys every moment.
Less than twenty-four hours later, there was another task ticked off the list as I successfully recalled the names and spellings of the 196 capital cities of the world in less than 15 minutes.
It had taken a while to learn some of the less obvious ones. It’s particularly difficult to learn the capital of a country when you haven’t actually heard of the country! In addition, there were a few (mainly African) countries that all started “Ma…” and they were some of the last ones to stick in my mind: Maseru, Malabo, Maputo, Majuro….
Lesotho, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique and the Marshall Islands (I hope!).
I’d done a couple of practice runs and my memory and typing seemed up to the job, but the actual test was done at work and witnessed by a couple of colleagues. I must admit that I was slightly concerned that I would go blank when the “pressure” was on, but the only one I actually stumbled over was Castries, the capital of Saint Lucia.
The last country on the list was Zimbabwe, and as soon as I’d typed Harare, the clock was stopped: 11 minutes and 37 seconds… one second faster than my best practice time.
It’s strange how you can reel off a long list of place names, yet if you go to the shop for a handful of essentials, there’s always something you forget. For that reason, I was pleased that I showed my memory san till function pretty well… sixty-six challenges down, nineteen still to go.
Last November, armed with a bunch of flowers, I drove over to the Cheshire to have a cup of tea and a chat with a former athlete who, back in 1964, was responsible for my favourite ever moment in British sport.
She is Mrs Ann Brightwell now, but fifty-two years ago, she was Ann Packer, winner of the 800 metres at the Tokyo Olympics. The back story, the race itself, the time, the trackside embrace with her future husband… it encapsulated everything that can be truly magical about sport—and to be able to spend time in Ann’s company was nothing less than a privilege.
I am too young to actually remember the 1964 Games (despite appearances…), but in all the intervening years, I have never witnessed any sporting event that could come close to matching the brilliance, the drama, the achievement, the joy of those two laps in Japan—until last night.
Anyone who has been even a reasonably regular reader of my blogs will know how much I admire the GB women’s hockey squad. Their bronze medal at London 2012 was my highlight of the Games, last year’s EuroHockey triumph (albeit in the guise of England) was the most wonderful sporting theatre, and over the past couple of weeks, I have tried to keep anyone willing to listen and/or read up-to-date with the exploits of Kate Richardson-Walsh and her players over in Rio.
Their progress through to the final was hard to fault. From a crucial opening pool victory over Australia, there was a consistent improvement in performance resulting in the only unblemished record heading into the knockout phase. Spain (comfortably) and New Zealand (superbly) were then defeated to set up last night’s historic clash with the Netherlands, the reigning Olympic champions.
The respective world rankings of 7 and 1 pointed towards a third consecutive gold for the Dutch, but Team GB’s preparation, fitness, spirit and unwavering belief meant this was always likely to be a much closer contest than the bare rankings may have suggested. In addition, that 2015 EuroHockey success had been gained over the Netherlands (courtesy of a stirring last quarter fightback and thrilling penalty shoot-out victory) and so the stage was well and truly set for a memorable evening of Olympic action.
Fifteen minutes in, the British girls were in front; Lily Owsley nudging home from close-range after some superb play from Sophie Bray.
For the next forty-five nail-biting minutes though, even the rosiest-tinted pair of glasses couldn’t have hidden the fact that the Dutch dominated proceedings. Their stick work was fantastic to watch, they were a constant threat in open play and won enough penalty corners for the umpires to be suffering from RSI this morning, yet the British defence was breached just three times.
Maddie Hinch had set the tone by saving a penalty stroke early in the first quarter, and the defence repelled wave after wave of attack. Chances at the opposite end of the pitch were few and far between, but Crista Cullen’s flick somehow eluded the Dutch goalkeeper to level the scores at 2-2, but the Netherlands regained the lead in the third period and that single goal still separated the teams as the game entered the final ten minutes.
Just over a minute later Susannah Townsend and Lily Owsley combined to win Team GB’s first penalty corner. A goalmouth scramble resulted in a second penalty corner. Laura Unsworth’s shot was blocked and in the ensuing melée, Nicola White was able to reverse-flick the ball home and restore parity.
The closing eight-and-a-bit minutes are a bit of a blur to be honest, but with the final whistle came the realisation that the gold medal would be decided by a penalty shoot-out… and we had Maddie Hinch!
The respective keepers were in charge during the opening exchanges, but when Sophie Bray was fouled, a penalty stroke was awarded and Helen Richardson-Walsh stepped up to nervelessly convert from seven yards. Maddie Hinch held the Dutch at bay and when their fourth attempt struck the post, you just sensed it was to be our night… and a few seconds later, after Hollie Webb pushed the ball between the goalkeeper’s legs and into the net, victory was assured and the celebrations could begin.
And what celebrations they were. I could try and describe those truly glorious scenes, but the best thing you can do is sit back and watch them for yourself. I was in tears… and I’m sure I was far from alone. I cried again when the National Anthem was played, and the Union Jack raised… and the depth of emotion on each of the girls’ faces was just a joy to behold.
It is hard to appreciate the enormity of what the British women’s hockey squad accomplished in just two short hours; one thing’s for sure, their lives will never be the same again. The media will rightly praise individual and collective achievement, but this squad wasn’t suddenly amazing last night… they’ve been amazing for years.
To claim bronze four years ago after the heartbreak of a semi-final defeat in front of a partisan home crowd was, in hindsight, a massive turning point. Obviously in any Olympic cycle there are ups and downs on and off the pitch, but London 2012 helped to create something very special indeed; and I’m just delighted that so many people had the chance to watch years of physical and mental exertion translated into the realisation of a dream.
Whatever the future holds for Dame (just putting it out there…!) Kate Richardson-Walsh and this incredible group of athletes, I just want to say congratulations to you all… and thank you. You are… and always have been amazing!
Team GB’s performances in Rio have been truly exceptional. To date 50 medals have been won, with the 19 golds currently enough to sandwich the United Kingdom between the sporting might of the USA and China in the medal table.
Success has come in such a wide variety of sports; some of the athletes are already instantly recognisable, others have suddenly become household names, and the lives of so many British sportsmen and women will undoubtedly change forever at the end of this South American adventure.
As with every Olympic Games, people will have their own particular highlights; moments where that sense of pride at the individual and collective achievements of fellow Britons have brought a tear or two to the eye… well at the risk of repetition, I am hoping my highlight is still to come.
Until last night, the progress of the women’s hockey squad had gone largely under the media radar, but a semi-final clash (and repeat of the 2012 bronze medal match) against New Zealand belatedly—and deservedly—earned Kate Richardson-Walsh and her players top billing in the BBC’s schedule.
Under the expert guidance of coach Danny Kerry and with Kate’s inspirational leadership, the girls had the only 100% record during the pool stage of the competition, the world’s seventh-ranked side overcoming countries ranked second and third in the process.
Topping the group earned a knockout quarter final against Spain and a brilliant first half laid the foundation for an ultimately comfortable 3-1 victory and a date with the Black Sticks….
If you missed last night’s game, I’m sure you’ll have heard the result, but those glued to their television screens were treated to an hour of wonderful action: skill, athleticism, bravery, tension, drama… and three goals that earned Team GB the right to face the Netherlands for the gold medal.
Alex Danson scored twice, the first a trademark close-range poacher’s finish, the second from a penalty stroke, just four minutes after Helen Richardson-Walsh had also netted from seven yards.
Helen left the field after seemingly tweaking her hamstring in the act of flicking the ball past the Kiwi goalkeeper, but she was far from being the only casualty, as Crista Cullen needed stitches in a head wound and Georgie Twigg was hit in the face by the ball; a high-speed and nasty-looking deflection that she had no chance of avoiding. I would reckon that Crista and Georgie will both play a part in the final, and I just hope that Helen was kept out of the remainder of last night’s game as a precaution; it would be terrible if she, or any of the squad, had to sit out the biggest game of their lives.
New Zealand more than played their part. They were a constant attacking threat, and came desperately close to scoring on a number of occasions, but the “narrow margins” which I mentioned in an earlier blog went the way of Team GB and whilst the win was undoubtedly deserved, the scoreline doesn’t fully reflect just how tight the game was until those two late penalty strokes were (rightly) awarded.
Up until the semi-final, I’d picked out a player of the match from each game during the competition, but there’ll be no selection from last night. Every single British player made a telling contribution; the girls were magnificent from 1 to… 28 (I think Nicola White has the highest squad number), and it simply wouldn’t be right to single out any one performance.
A medal is now guaranteed, but the message from both the British and Dutch camps will be that the final is all about gold. Ultimately only one nation will celebrate, but whatever the outcome, an Olympic final is the only rightful way for Kate Richardson-Walsh’s international career to come to an end.
I’ve said it before and make no apology for saying it again, Kate is just the most inspiring leader that any sporting squad could ask for. She is surrounded by players who are talented, dedicated, fit, strong and determined to leave everything out on the field for their captain. The girls will lack nothing in preparation, motivation and belief… and the same I’m sure will be true for the Netherlands. It promises to be a fantastic final, but the only prediction you’ll get from me is that whether it is gold or silver for Team GB, there will definitely be tears in my eyes.
The Team GB women’s hockey squad progressed into the Olympic semi-final with a 3-1 success over Spain on Monday night.
Spain had showed little in their opening pool games, but won through to the knockout stages with two victories—including a 2-1 win over Germany, a result that suggested the Spaniards would provide a decent test for the unbeaten British squad.
By half-time though, we were three goals to the good having produced an outstanding thirty minutes of hockey. The scorers were Georgie Twigg, Helen Richardson-Walsh and Lily Owsley, but it was the performance of Sophie Bray that really stood out. She didn’t get her name on the scoresheet, but as part of an attacking unit that is full of incredibly talented athletes, Sophie totally dominated the Spanish defence in those opening two quarters.
In a half where Team GB had made so few errors, it was noticeable that most of the mistakes came from the commentary box, as on at least five occasions, British players were incorrectly identified. I know it’s not the end of the world, but player recognition is pretty essential when you’re commentating and at the end of a long day, it just niggled me….
To their credit, Spain responded really well in the third period. They had plenty of possession, and the goal their efforts certainly deserved came from Georgina Oliva in the final quarter… and an excellent individual goal it was too.
All of a sudden, I felt just a little bit anxious. Team GB had looked so assured, but having watched the German men claim the most unlikely and dramatic victory over New Zealand, with two goals in the final 47 seconds, these Games had shown that almost anything was possible.
In truth the players were probably far more comfortable and confident than this nervy supporter; Spain did threaten, but we did well not only in defence (and I thought Sam Quek in particular had a fantastic game), but also to use those stick skills to hold onto the ball in our attacking half and run down the clock.
Six wins from six games… up next a semi-final against New Zealand, who Team GB defeated in the bronze medal match back in London 2012—what a memorable day that was!
Kate Richardson-Walsh’s side lacks nothing in belief (as well as ability), but they are also a well-grounded, professional group of athletes and will obviously take nothing for granted. That said the girls have done absolutely everything asked of them so far and now stand just one hour away from a chance of playing for a gold medal.
The British men did it in Seoul… I watched every minute of every game back in 1988 and I intend on doing the same in 2016 in the hope that our women can repeat the feat.
It’s been a brilliant Olympics for Team GB so far, but whatever has happened or may yet happen elsewhere in Rio, a medal for this inspirational squad would be extra special.
Keep it going girls… and good luck!
Player of the match… Sophie Bray
It was another memorable day for Team GB at the Rio Olympics, with more gold medals won in athletics, cycling and rowing and the likelihood (in fact a guarantee in the men’s sprint cycling) of more to come.
The start of the athletics has brought some of sport’s most recognisable names and faces to our screens, and these events are of course going to dominate the BBC coverage; but tucked away on the red button at 10pm last night was the fifth and final pool fixture for the GB ladies’ hockey squad—as I’ve said several times before, my “team to follow” for the Games.
The opposition was the USA, who (like GB) were unbeaten in their opening four matches… and with a better goal difference. Both teams had already qualified for the quarter-finals, but the outcome of this game would determine the group winners, and the reward would be lower-ranked opposition for the start of the tournament’s knockout stages.
On paper, it looked like the stage was set for an enjoyable and fiercely-contested hour of Olympic hockey action—and that’s what these two fine sides produced.
That the scoreline was 0-0 at half time was down to one player, the USA goalkeeper Jackie Briggs. The 28-year old did well to keep out a couple of goalbound efforts from penalty corners before producing a remarkable save from Sophie Bray just twelve seconds into the second period. Sophie ran at the defence and skilfully dribbled her way into the circle before unleashing a shot that looked to be flying into the far corner of the net, but ended up going over the bar.
At full speed it was hard to see exactly what had happened, but the shot had actually struck the keeper’s stick and the deflection was enough to deny Britain’s no.19. I suppose it could be argued there was an element of fortune in that the ricochet could have gone almost anywhere, but to actually be able to get something in the way of the shot was incredible and sometimes you make your own luck in sport.
Those saves looked even more crucial when USA took the lead with a strike that had some similarities with the only other goal the British girls had conceded from opening play during the competition. Once again the goal came against the run of play, right through the centre of the GB defence. This time it was a long ball from the back which was flicked on and Michelle Vittese cleverly nudged the ball past Laura Unsworth and drilled an unstoppable shot past Maddie Hinch. It all happened in the blink of an eye and it was a great finish.
That goal still separated the teams midway through the final period, but as they showed in last year’s EuroHockey final, this squad is incredibly fit and full of belief and when the equaliser came, it was from a really well-worked short corner routine.
Hannah Macleod flicked the ball across the circle, but instead of shooting, Giselle Ansley hit the ball straight back to Hannah, who acrobatically knocked the ball across the face of the goal for Sophie Bray to deflect home. It was only when you saw the goal in slow motion that you could appreciate the skill it took to create and finish—1-1 with seven minutes to go.
The game’s decisive moment came inside the final five minutes when Sam Quek drove the ball into the circle and Alex Danson, holding the stick in her outstretched left hand somehow managed to get the faintest of touches to nudge the ball into the net.
It needed a quick review before the winner was confirmed, but it was yet more proof (as if any were needed) of Alex’s ability and desire in front of goal.
This was undoubtedly Team GB’s best performance at Rio thus far. The USA are a class outfit and to come away with a victory—especially after being a goal down—must give the British girls both momentum and confidence going into tomorrow’s quarter-final against Spain.
My player of the match was Sophie Bray, who was magnificent throughout; Lily Owsley was another to catch the eye, but this win was very much down to the squad as a whole. I keep saying this is a very special group of athletes… tune in if you can at 10pm tomorrow, and hopefully you’ll see for yourself.
Keep it going girls!
What a fantastic night for Team GB at Rio! Olympic golds in kayaking and diving, bronze medals in cycling, shooting, judo and gymnastics, a dramatic golden point victory in the rugby sevens against Argentina… and all kicked off by a thrilling win over the same country by the ladies’ hockey squad.
That victory made it three wins out of three for Kate Richardson-Walsh’s side in what was a pulsating encounter played against the backdrop of great vocal support from the large Argentinian contingent in the crowd and worsening weather conditions that resulted in a good old British downpour in the latter stages of the game.
Argentina, known as “Las Leonas” (I’m no expert, but I reckon it translates as “the Lionesses”) came closest to opening the scoring in the opening quarter when a shot rebounded of the left-hand post, before a sudden descent from the sublime to the ridiculous….
The sublime came from Gabriela Aguirre, who showed some absolutely incredible skill to dribble out of defence, leaving three GB players in her wake, before releasing a pass that sparked a lightning fast counter-attack. The ridiculous was the sin-binning of Hannah Macleod who was unceremoniously pushed to the ground while turning to run back and face a free hit, only to be dismissed for two minutes for what I can only assume the umpire saw as not retreating.
It wasn’t to be the last bizarre card brandished in a general British direction.
By half-time, Team GB found themselves two goals to the good, with Helen Richardson-Walsh netting twice; the first courtesy of a superb deflection from a penalty corner, followed soon after by a neat close-range far-post finish after brilliant approach play from the excellent Susannah Townsend (pictured at the foot of the page). I’m not sure if Alex Danson deserved some sort of credit for the way she leapt to avoid the goal-bound shot, but if she hadn’t been a hockey player, she may well have been a pretty successful high jumper….
Sophie Bray made it 3-0, somehow managing to find the ball under the Argentinian goal keeper’s body and firing home—Sophie had scored a similar goal in last year’s EuroHockey final—and at that point, we were in complete command.
To me it seemed the South Americans play a lot on emotion. They’d been well contained for forty minutes, but one defensive error offered a chance that was expertly taken and suddenly the mood on and off the pitch changed. A minute later, Argentina won a penalty corner, and despite one superb save from Maddie Hinch the rebound was lifted into the roof of the net. All the momentum was with Argentina and, roared on by their fans, an equaliser looked almost inevitable.
The three-quarter break came at just the right time and allowed the British girls to regroup. Indeed they had a golden opportunity to close out the game when Alex Danson was “fouled” (and I use the term advisedly… it was almost an assault) and a penalty stroke awarded. Unfortunately the keeper guessed correctly and comfortably denied Helen Richardson-Walsh her hat-trick, and the single goal lead made for a really tense final ten minutes.
The British cause wasn’t helped by two more players being sent to the sidelines—Sophie Bray’s yellow card was a joke. I’m not sure there was even an infringement in the first place, but Sophie clearly didn’t hear the whistle over the din coming from the stands and took one more touch of the ball… and that was enough for Britain’s no.19 to be invited to sit out the next five minutes.
This was a stern test for the nine/ten/eleven players on the pitch and they passed with flying colours. Wonderfully marshalled by Kate Richardson-Walsh, the British girls repelled everything Argentina threw at them. It was only a pool game, but it had the feel of a medal match. There are plenty of very strong squads in the tournament and medals may well be decided by very small margins... that being the case, the British squad showed last night they can make good decisions and play really good hockey under intense pressure—maybe, just maybe those could be the “small margins”…?
Player of the match – a tough choice, but I’ve gone for Maddie Hinch
With Team GB narrowly missing out on medals in the men’s team gymnastics and the women’s rugby sevens on BBC1 and BBC4 last night, I had to tune in to the Red Button to watch the majority of the British ladies’ hockey squad’s second pool game.
For the record, the Virgin “Big Kahuna” package is bloody slow and without the remotest hint of exaggeration, I would probably have had time to fly over to Rio and watch the game in person quicker than the little box decided to stop buffering and actually show me some pictures.
The good news is that Team GB duly made it two wins from their opening two fixtures with a 3-0 success over India, a result made even better by Australia’s loss to the USA, which leaves the “Hockeyroos” bottom of the group.
The bare scoreline suggests a relatively comfortable win for the British girls, and in many respects that was the case, although it took quite a while to break down an Indian side that right from the outset was set up to defend and play on the break; and after a goalless opening quarter, there some signs of frustration crept into in our play, with possession being conceded through careless or bouncing passes on several occasions.
That said this is a quality GB squad with real depth, and once the deadlock was broken by Giselle Ansley (from a penalty corner), the eventual result was never in doubt. Nicola White added a second from close-range (although she was mistaken for Lily Owsley in the commentary box… not the first such blunder from those behind the microphones) and Alex Danson’s second goal of the competition made the game absolutely safe in the third quarter.
The lack of ambition from the Indian side was a bit of a surprise given the standard of hockey they produced at the beginning of the final period. They played with pace and no little skill and had Britain on the back foot for six or seven minutes; and although there were no goals to show for their spell of pressure, they showed enough to make me wonder why they didn’t start the match with such positive intent.
For the second game in succession, Laura Unsworth was my player of the match. She looks so assured at the heart of an experienced GB defence, and as well as having an important role in set penalty corner plays, Laura also found her way into the Indian D to very nearly finish off a wonderful flowing move in the latter stages of the game. Sam Quek was another to impress and the defensive unit really does look very strong indeed.
At the opposite end of the field, Susannah Townsend made a telling contribution; and Alex Danson must thoroughly enjoy being able to play alongside the incredibly gifted Lily Owsley and Sophie Bray, who just looks the consummate athlete.
Given the nature and tactics of last night’s opposition, I’m not too sure how easy it is to measure how far the squad has improved or progressed since their opening fixture, but in both games we have coped well when put under pressure, managed to create chances from open play, and (to the best of my knowledge) not sustained any serious injuries—by this stage of London 2012 Kate Richardson-Walsh had been hospitalised with a broken draw.
Overall then, it’s a great start from my “team to follow”, and I can’t wait for the next instalment.
It really doesn’t seem four years since London 2012, but the Rio Olympics are now underway and I’ve already spent the first of what I know will be many hours glued to the television screen expecting to see some amazing sporting action and hoping for another great haul of medals by Team GB.
Despite claiming twenty-nine golds in London, my personal highlight of the Games was the bronze medal won by the British ladies’ hockey squad. Their performance in defeating New Zealand after a heart-breaking semi-final defeat to Argentina was as courageous as it was emotional; bitter disappointment being replaced just days later by unrestrained joy, which was wonderful to watch.
It was clear that under the inspirational leadership of Kate Richardson-Walsh, something very special was being created. The squad’s skills, desire and determination were never in question, but if there were any lingering doubts about the players’ ability to “get over the line” in the big games, they were quashed in spectacular fashion (albeit in the guise of England) during last year’s EuroHockey Championships when the hosts cancelled out a two-goal last-quarter deficit in the final against the Netherlands, the reigning Olympic and world champions, before comfortably winning the subsequent penalty shoot-out.
The celebrations were truly amazing, and the victory only served to heighten the anticipation for the Olympic tournament which, for Great Britain, got underway at something resembling stupid o’clock our time.
Team GB’s ladies faced a real test in their opening match, with a group clash against an Australian side to whom they had narrowly lost a six-test series in February. Chances of an eventual gold medal wouldn’t be determined by the outcome of this one fixture, but the result was arguably of more importance than the performance, as both sides will surely improve as the tournament progresses.
Despite a bright start from Great Britain, I felt that Australia looked the more dangerous side (occasional misplaced passes apart) for most of the first half, however the goal that separated the sides at half-time came from the team in red….
A long ball out of defence was twice deflected forward (by Shona McCallin and Sophie Bray—I think… it happened so fast) straight to Lily Owsley, who scored with falling backhand flick. It was a wonderfully taken goal, perhaps slightly against the run of play, but to pinch a couple of words from Barry Davies: “Who cares?!”
The second half felt a bit scrappy. Britain forced their first penalty corners, but Australia looked strong at the back. The British defence had also coped well against a skilful Australian attack, and it took a fine Georgina Morgan strike from a penalty corner to finally find a way past the excellent Maddie Hinch and level the scores.
Exactly ten minutes later though, Britain went back in front with another fantastic goal. Laura Unsworth (who would have been my player of the match) pushed the ball forward and Susannah Townsend looked to have laid a goal on a proverbial plate for Alex Danson. Alex’s first touch wasn’t as good as she would have hoped, and it looked as though the chance had gone….
I should have known better. Alex got the ball under control and, despite pressure from the Australian goalkeeper, fired a bullet backhand shot into the net—it was a world-class finish from a world-class player.
Britain held firm in the final quarter to complete a hugely important win. They weren’t at their best, nor should they be; this was the first game of the tournament and they will only get better. That said, they looked a tremendously fit, well-drilled and cohesive unit and the girls will surely gain confidence from restricting Australia to just one penalty corner goal, whist netting twice from open play themselves.
I’m sure the Olympics will throw up some remarkable stories over the next couple of weeks… and maybe the exploits of the GB ladies hockey squad will be one of them; this was certainly the perfect start….