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!