30 years ago today. Barber looks back on Gold in Seoul

Great Britain's men's gold medalists in Seoul 1988
Self-deprecating and emotional are probably not the first words that would spring to mind if you were one of the forwards who had ever found themselves on the wrong end of a Paul Barber tackle, but like every other member of the 1988 Seoul squad, the burly striker is far from one dimensional.

The epic training ground tussles between the mercurial forward Sean Kerly and the no-nonsense defender rank high among the memories of the other squad members but Barber laughs and says with a hint of embarrassment that the stories are far over-played. “You need niggles and competitiveness in training. We weren’t the only ones who would have a bit of a go, but Roger (Self) would like to stoke it up a bit.”

The rivalry stemmed back to the two players’ first meeting at Crystal Palace. Sean Kerly was a member of the U21 squad and Paul Barber was an established central defender with the England team. In the ensuing match, Kerly was out to prove a point and Barber was there to stop him. 

There is nothing but admiration in Barber’s voice as he says: “I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Sean was very focused as a centre forward. he had to be selfish because that is what great strikers are. As a defender it’s different, you have to look at the whole team.”

It was these training ground tussles that made the team bond even stronger, says Barber. “We had a very strange bond - strange because we were so diverse. Now, when we all meet up, that bond is still there, although more balanced now and more rounded.”

Looking back at his playing days, Barber says his greatest strength was his ability to marshall the defence. “I wasn’t the most talented of players so I had to make up for that in other ways. I used to stand at the back and tell everyone else what to do. As has been said many times, it was a very diverse squad, with many different strengths. I lived on adrenaline, the more skilful players lived on their skill.”

For Barber, the success of 1988 was the culmination of 12 years as an international, many of them very difficult times. The culture that Roger Self instilled in the team can be traced back to the 1978 World Cup in Buenos Aires when, says Barber, “a shadowy figure appeared in the background.”

That figure was the future team manager Roger Self and over the following years he began to build a team culture at the higher levels of hockey in the UK. Working with the Wales national side and Southgate Hockey Club before he took on the England and Great Britain role, Self’s ethos was built around creating a team that was resilient enough to see a tournament through. 

Barber admits that he didn’t always get on with his manager, whose tactics for motivating players seem extreme today. “There was one event, the last tournament before the Olympics, and he didn’t select me. I was broken because I thought ‘last tournament, that’s it, I’m not going to the Olympics.’ But that was his way of winding me up and motivating me. He would put us through some strange tests, but the aim was to build a squad that was robust enough to cope with Olympic pressure. He compared us with soldiers all the time and that was what he wanted – players who would lie down and die for each other.”

In Dave Whitaker and Bernie Cotton, Self had the perfect foils. “David would be the one who would put his arm around your shoulder,” says Barber. “And Bernie was the guy who moulded everything together. They had all worked together at Southgate, so they all knew how each other worked before they became the GB management team. Roger wanted to change the way hockey was managed and played. 1988 was a long time in the making but he knew what he wanted and he knew how to get there.”

The Seoul Olympics was Barber’s last outing as an international. He says, as he stood on the rostrum, a wave of different emotions washed over him. There was relief, because of the high expectations upon the team to deliver; there was the elation of winning; and there was the sadness that it was all coming to an end.

“There was a sense of ‘job done’. That success was a long time in the making. We had finished eighth at the 1982 World Cup and that was horrible. But you have to experience the bad times and then, when you get into the good times, you know not to waste it. That is where we were when we stood on the rostrum.

“I knew I was retiring after Seoul. I had put my career on hold for a long time and I had a young family. And, if I am being honest, going through the whole process was emotional and the stress and pressure left me totally drained. I was on a high but I was also emotionally drained. All I wanted to do was get on the plane and go home to my family.”

A brief spell as team manager to the national side was Barber’s last major involvement with international hockey. On returning to England and playing for his club he found that competition had lost it’s “spice”, and, he says, "I didn’t want to be the person who kept playing when he wasn’t at the top anymore. Leaving Seoul with a gold medal was the perfect way to end my international career."

It's not too late to secure your seat for the Toshiba Anniversary International as Great Britain take on Belgium on 3 October. Click here for more information.