Rob Clift looks back on Seoul 1988 and creating a team of individuals

gold seoul
Ahead of the Anniversary International in partnership with Toshiba TVs at the Lee Valley Hockey & Tennis Centre, Rob Clift recalls how it felt to win Olympic gold at Seoul 30 years ago.

The unique group of individuals and their dedicated, if quirky, management team were always going to make their mark at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. 

Rob Clift has spent the past few years developing his skills as a mental performance coach and his professional view of the make-up of the team that travelled to Seoul, and the sometimes ground-breaking training and preparation they underwent, is that they were key to the success the squad enjoyed. 

“The team was full of so many different people and so many different types of players, which we then moulded into something special. We used the strengths of each of those players to cover any weaknesses they had in other areas,” says Clift.

“If I were to be critical of today’s game, there is too much uniformity being sought in the way the game is played and the type of player we want. I realise people need to move around and play lots of different positions but what we had was a group who had strengths that we played on.

“So we had two lightning fast wingers, a centre forward who could hit the ball like a bullet and Kulbir (Bhaura) coming on and weaving some magic later on in the game. I used to act as a shield for Imran (Sherwani), that was my role. Get the ball and pass it on to Imran.

“You looked around the team and you could immediately recognise ‘yeah, they have got something’. We had a simple 5,3,2 system which we drilled hard but it was the individual strengths that made the difference.”

And then there was the coaching. Roger Self was team manager and he developed training sessions that were designed to push his players to the limits. But, the tough, uncompromising tactics worked says Clift: “Roger Self was instrumental without a shadow of a doubt. The thing that I reflect on was the way he put us under pressure. 

“He stress tested people because he knew he wanted players who could react well when under the cosh. He used to put us through exercises as a group and individually that would see if we could do something under pressure. One time, out of the blue he called my name, threw me a ball and challenged me to beat Ian Taylor in goal, while everyone watched. That was usually easier said than done but luckily I did it that time on my first attempt.”

Self and tactical coach David Whitaker also got their strategy spot on. “I remember the semi-final match against Australia. Their thing all tournament had been to score a lot of goals early in the game, so we just kept the ball at the other end of the pitch so they had no chance of scoring,” recalls Clift. “I would get the ball and bang it up the pitch. That really got under the Australian’s skin, they really hated that sort of mentality.”

In the lead-up to Seoul, the Great Britain team enjoyed a few days in Hong Kong. This was the brainwave of assistant coach Bernie Cotton and, as Clift explains, it proved a crucial time-out for the players. 

“We had really had to chase around in the three months leading up to Seoul. We had to get to Bisham Abbey three times a week, so I was leaving work in central London, getting in my car and driving around the M25 to training. Others had equally difficult journeys. 

"I have no idea how we did it, but we did and it was central to our performance. It probably wasn’t ideal from an athletic performance but we gained in other areas.

“So, just before getting to Seoul, we went to Hong Kong just to calm ourselves down. It was really just recognising that we had endured a frenetic build-up and before we entered the heat of competition, we needed to de-stress and get our energy levels back up. 

“At the time, it was an unusual thing to do but it was essential. We were able to spend time with team mates and bond together in a stress-free environment.”

Cotton’s recognition of the players' mental welfare, combined with the resilience that Self’s training instilled in the squad were to prove crucial in Great Britain’s search for gold.

For Rob Clift, the Seoul experience didn’t necessarily provide a legacy for hockey in the UK but it certainly taught the sport’s administrators a lesson. “I don’t think we left a legacy but I do think we provided a lesson – to achieve success you have to plan for success and we didn’t really do that after Seoul.

"There should have been something in place to build on the success we had in 1988 and that didn’t happen. We came sixth in Barcelona 1992 so we didn’t really maintain the performance levels and when you have been top of the tree, people strive harder to knock you down. It is something that England Hockey definitely got right with the women’s team after London 2012 and going into Rio 2016."

There is a legacy from Seoul however. That unique team spirit that was developed in 1988 proved the catalyst for the Hockey Internationals Club, something Clift is now heavily involved in. 

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The Hockey Internationals Club is open to all full internationals who have represented Great Britain and/or the Home Nations. Click here for more details.