History of GB Hockey

GB Women London 2012 Bronze
History of Great Britain Hockey
Recalled by Bill Colwill

The history of Great Britain hockey - which has been a roller coaster ride since the creation of the British Hockey Board (BHB) in 1948 - must start back in the London Olympics of 1908 when an English team won the Gold medal.  Ireland took the Silver and Scotland the Bronze.  The only other competitors in this first Olympic Hockey competition were France and Germany who were represented by the club side of Uhlenhorst (Hamburg).   There was no hockey in the 1912 Games in Stockholm and England again took Gold in the next Olympic tournament in Antwerp in 1920.  British teams did not compete again in the Games until they resumed after World War II in London when the newly formed BHB became affiliated to the International Hockey Federation (FIH).

The choice of London - almost press-ganged into staging the 1948 Games - was a wonderful opportunity for the Home countries to get back into the Olympics.  Although the British hockey hierarchy appeared to have no great desire to get back into the Games they were persuaded to do so; first, to make the Games a success and secondly, England was a leading hockey country who had invented the game and in the early years dominated it. So the BHB was constituted on Monday 2 February 1948 with its income to come three quarters from England and an eighth each from Scotland and Wales.  Scotland and Wales were committed to not more than £30 in any one year.

Saturday 31 July 1948 at the Guinness Sports Ground Park Royal was the historic moment for Great Britain's first game, a goalless draw against Switzerland.  Britain advanced to the final against India, at Wembley before losing 4-0 to the awesome Indians.

High drama and Committee farce preceded Britain's participation in the Helsinki games when in April 1950 the British Board voted by 4 - 3 to withdraw affiliation from the FIH which would have taken them out of the Olympics. A month later the proposal was rejected by England and Wales and it was agreed to continue with the FIH affiliation and planning got under way.  Britain remained among the medals in the Helsinki Games, which were played on a knock out basis, by beating Pakistan 2 - 1 in the third place match.  Four years later in Melbourne Britain missed out on another Bronze when they lost 1-3 to Germany leaving the team without a medal for the first time in five Olympic.  This was to be repeated in Rome in 1960 Britain losing the 3.4th place game 1-2 to Spain.

Distressing years for British hockey followed.  The Tokyo and Mexico City Olympics when Britain was not in the first eight in Tokyo and unclassified and finished 12th in Mexico in 1968 was distressing.  Much discussion now followed as to how and who was to steer Britain back to an acceptable place in World hockey.  Scotland’s Dr. Bill Vans Agnew was entrusted with the task as manager with Britain’s sixth place finish at the tragic Munich Games a vast improvement on their Mexico performance.

Eight years of bitter disappointments followed Munich. Not being selected for the Montreal Games of 1976, not even after the withdrawal of Kenya, although they had been nominated as reserve nation, was bad enough but then in the next chapter the ship sank beneath them when the British Government advocated the pull out from the 1980 Games in Moscow. Moscow would have been the first Games for GB's women in the inaugural women's tournament.

Further disappointments loomed on the horizon. The inability of the FIH to sort out the last place for the Los Angeles 1984 Games required Britain to play off with Belgium. And so the scene moved to three perplexing days at the Wagener Stadium in Amstelveen. Belgium won the play-offs by two games to one and so Britain again was to be the reserve nation.  Politics and boycotts were once again to play their roles in the XXIII Olympiad.  Following the withdrawal of the USSR when the Eastern Bloc, minus Romania, using inadequate security as the excuse, boycotted Los Angeles, Britain stepped in. Time was short for a team with no training schedule and precious little cash in the kitty.

The short story of Los Angeles is that Britain came through their five Pool games undefeated, lost by a single goal to West Germany in the semi final and then beat Australia who had started the Games as favourites, having won their five previous top class international tournaments in the run up, for the Bronze medal. It was a fairy tale come true, which captured the imagination of the whole country, lowering the colours of the Aussies with a 3-2 victory.  Britain had made mockery of the Olympic selections by winning Bronze.

Great Britain's plans for Seoul might almost have been launched, and perhaps were, on the flight home from Los Angeles. Great Britain led a truly remarkable shake-up of world hockey in Seoul, which saw new Olympic Champions in both the men and women's tournaments.  Additionally for the first time since the entry of India into the competition in 1928, no Asian team finished in the men's semi finals. Britain survived some early alarms before they then beat the favourites, Australia, in the semi finals.  Then the defeat of Germany in that dramatic final.

Britain's success had stemmed from the long-term appointment of Roger Self, manager since 1980, it was his shrewd decision to invite the relatively young and inexperienced David Whitaker to be his coach.  He also had a group of players, a fair number of whom had tasted the bitter disappointment when their Olympic dreams were shattered with the withdrawal from the Moscow Games and who had suffered.  The initial disappointment when they did not qualify for Los Angeles.  They had also experienced the change of fortunes when after a near last minute call they had the satisfaction and joy at taking Bronze in LA.   These players had bonded themselves together, in many cases knowing Seoul would be their swansong, and had been built into a squad by Self and Whitaker. Self had at last brought a sense of purpose into British hockey.

Making their own spot of history alongside the Gold triumph were Great Britain's women in their first ever Olympic.  The honour of the first British Olympic goal fell to Scottish doctor Moira McLeod when her shot from a penalty corner at the end of the first half earned a 1-0 victory over Argentina in their opening match. In spite of a 1-5 thrashing from the Dutch, Britain's 2-2 draw against the USA gave them their first aim, that of a semi final place. The bare facts tell nothing of Britain's heroic semi final battle against the Koreans in which they were beaten 1 - 0. Indeed an inch may have cost Britain a place in the final. In the 17th minute, Karen Brown lobbed the goalkeeper at a penalty corner; tantalisingly the ball hit the Korean crossbar and dropped straight down. A fraction lower and it must have been a goal. A re-match with the Dutch for the Bronze medal and a 1-3 defeat left Britain reflecting on what might have been.

It was Britain's women who were to take the limelight in Barcelona when in extra time Jane Sixsmith, with a wonderful opportunist goal at a penalty corner in the 82nd minute was to score the winner in a thrilling 4-3 victory against Korea the defending Silver medallists.  Britain men's reign as Olympic champions ended in the Barcelona games when in their last Pool match they were beaten 0-6 by Australia and failed to qualify for the semi finals having to settle for a disappointing sixth place which brought much discussion and recriminations on the teams return home.

After successful qualifying tournaments in Barcelona (Men) and Cape Town (Women) the British squads travelled to Atlanta. Jon Copp had taken over the men’s squad from David Whitaker just eight weeks before the games started. It was an unhappy Games for the British men who in their final game  beat India 4-3 to settle for seventh place.  

Britain's women had a tough start in their eight-team round robin contest in Atlanta.   Their 5-0 victory against Argentina gave Britain their third successive Olympic opportunity for a Bronze medal. Sadly, although they came tantalisingly close, they lost 4-3 to the Dutch in a penalty shoot-out after a goalless draw.

Hosting the Qualifying Tournament Britain's women although losing in the final to New Zealand, marched safely through to the Sydney Games following a thorough preparation and impressive results in the nine-month build up hopes were high.  Losing 0-2 to Germany in their final game Britain had to settle for a disappointing eighth place.  Britain's men struggled to qualify for Sydney in Osaka.  Following disappointing performances in Sydney they were outclassed by Germany losing 0-4 in their final game to settle for sixth place.

With Britian’s women failing to qualify for the 2004 Athens Games all rested on the men.  Their preparation had been limited to about a year before the Games which included a qualifying tournament.  It was a hesitant performance with the end result of 9th place after winning a shoot out with South Africa disappointing.

Britain’s men in Athens won their first and last games.  In between things did not go well especially a 2-8 defeat at the hands of Pakistan.  So the non-qualification of the women and the 9th place for the men sparked off much discussion with the outcome that major decisions were taken for the future, which included the nominated lead Nation being responsible for the whole operation and a GB presence throughout the complete four-year Olympic circle.  Funding was acquired for a significant development programme along with efforts to ensure that no potential GB players were overlooked. 

The Beijing Olympic Games was the most spectacular in living memory and provided a hockey venue the best the world has seen, to date. Both GB teams had quite different preparation and programmes going into Beijing which, in itself, provided some significant challenges.

The women’s build up began with internationals against Argentina where they won the second test 4-2.  They then moved on to Ireland to the Setanta Trophy which they won by beating Germany in the final 4-1. Later that month, they went to the Four Nations Women’s Trophy in Amsterdam, as part of the Men’s Champions Trophy, and finished 2nd to the Netherlands but they did beat Holland 2-1 in their pool game.

In their final preparation in Macau and Beijing they had practice matches against New Zealand, China and Holland.  Their finish of 6th in Beijing was the best position since 1996 and it climbed England one place to 8th in the World rankings; whilst also qualifying England directly to a Champions Trophy for the first time since 2003. 

Notably during the Olympic Games, Mel Clewlow won her 250 international cap, Helen Richardson her 150 international cap and Alex Danson and Crista Cullen their 100 international cap.

With our men following qualification in Chile, their preparation started with internationals against Germany and Spain in May which were very close games and, along with the women, attended the Setanta Trophy finishing in 3rd place by beating Ireland. 

They beat New Zealand 1-0; a match that was played in Nijmegen in Holland.  The men’s final preparations took place in Macau and Beijing and included matches against New Zealand, Germany and Korea.  By finishing 5th in the Olympics it was the men’s best position since 1988 and climbed England two places to 6th in the world rankings and also qualified England to the Champions Trophy for the first time since 2000.

Notably, it was Great Britain’s first win against Pakistan in an Olympic Games since 1952 and Great Britain’s first win against Korea since 1990.  Personal achievements were Ben Hawes who won his 150 international cap, Matt Daly his 100 cap and Ashley Jackson, at such a young age his 50 cap.

Good progress has been made which has laid a platform for our 2008-2012 programmes.  The GB Board thanked all the athletes and staff for their dedication and commitment throughout the programme - it was appreciated not just by the Board but by the whole nation.  It is worth noting that, of the 33 Olympians that took part in Beijing, 27 of them were at their first Olympic Games.

Planning for the 2012 Games was well advanced even before the British squads left Beijing with their fifth and sixth places.  The coaches, both with Olympic experience, the men’s coach Jason Lee set for his fifth Olympic experience, three as a coach and two as a player, were in place.  Funding for a Home Games was well established and appeared generous and without having to worry about qualification, which with a home games was automatic, the coaches could plan their four-year programme as they saw fit.  Finally, the England squads, which were likely to form the baulk of the Olympic teams, were reaping the benefits of their National programmes.  The future was promising.

Before the GB squads could concentrate exclusively on the Olympics the National squads were required to focus on two European Cups and a World Cup, Commonwealth Games and in addition three Champions Trophy tournaments.  Results throughout were encouraging.  The women took Bronze medals in two European Cups, Commonwealth Games and World Cup and whilst their performances in the Champions Trophy events were variable they did finish with a very creditable Silver medal in the 2012 Champions event after being beaten by host Argentina 0-1 in the final.

The men’s performance was just slightly less consistent which was disappointing after England’s splendid Gold in the 2009 European Cup in Amstelveen.  Fourth places followed in the World Cup and most surprisingly in the Commonwealth Games.  Sixth place finishes in the 2009 Champions Trophy by England and the 2011 Trophy event by GB were also a little perplexing.  England then returned to the Trophy rostrum with a Bronze medal in the 2011 European Cup.  Except for the fine-tuning the stage is now set for the 2012 Games with hopes and expectations high for at least podium finishes.  The lights are shining brightly but we must retain our focus.  The preparations could not have been more comprehensive. 

To see a Timeline depicting the development of hockey over the last 4 centuries go to The Hockey Museum website here. For more information about The Hockey Museum and what it does contact Mike Smith at curator@hockeymuseum.net.