In just a few short week on the 23rd July we will (hopefully) fall back under the spell of the Olympic games which are due to open in Tokyo.
As our GB mens and women’s hockey teams prepare for the Olympic experience kicking off with the GB Men vs South Africa at 10:30am (UK Time) on the 24th July- (the perfect curtain raiser to our 7’s tournament that will follow!)- it seems a good time to look back to one of our great Olympic moments.
It is fair to say that there is not a lot of hockey literature out there, the worlds of Football, Rugby and Cricket provide a plethora of books, autobiographies and even novels to indulge the armchair fan. Hockey has a more limited oeuvre but with thanks to Neil Murphy- last week I was introduced to the story of Roger Self and our GB Olympic Gold winning team of 1988 in the form of Seoul Glow.
Written by journalist Rod Gilmour it charts the story behind the scenes of GB’s hockey gold. I confess to being 4 years old at the time of this historic sporting moment and recall nothing of the adulation, fame and excitement that this team caused. Yet Gilmour does a good job of evoking the heady atmosphere of the tournament and it’s build up.
I was introduced to the character of GB coach Roger Self in an interview for this newsletter (coming soon) with John Shaw. It’s fair to say that players had a love/hate relationship with Self, who ruffled feathers wherever he went and has earned himself the reputation of being ‘the Alex Ferguson’ of Hockey. Gilmour freely admits that his coaching style wouldn’t work today. Self frequently left his players in tears in the changing rooms after delivering the ‘hairdryer’ treatment. Yet the book suggests that all was done with an almost clinical detachment designed to unlock the individual players potential.
There is one illuminating incident before the final against Germany when Self before the game called senior player Paul Barber over and instructed him to lead the pre-match talk – and in it he was instructed to lay into the coaching staff- himself included for their errors in the games that led up to the match. Barber’s speech galvanised the team against the coaches but also united them as a unit- and we know what happened next.
Southgate Hockey Club pops up on almost every page with Southgate players forming the backbone of Self’s squad. Kerly, Batchelor, Dodds, Clift and Bhaura all feature heavily and even John Willmott who makes a surprising cameo as the teams fixer who ended up organising not just the squad celebrations at The Hyatt Hotel but then also the main party for the entirety of The GB Olympic Team which included ‘a Fatima Whitbread blind date’ and a Hawaiian band…surely one of the great nights!
Two things above all stand out in Gimours account. The first is the portrayal of the team as the last of the great sporting amateurs. Amateurs here not meant in any derogatory sense rather an acknowledgement that each and every member of the squad had had to negotiate time away from work- often requiring repeated calls from Self to employers various. The olympic sacrifice was a 4 year not a 4 week one.
That sacrifice is seen never more clearly than in team GB’s Scottish reserve goal keeper Veryan Peppin who was in the RAF and spent the 4 years in the build up to Seoul commuting a somewhat eye popping 3 times a week from Scotland to London to train and play (and warm the bench for first choice keeper Ian Taylor). In 8 years for playing for GB, Peppin played just 16 times including the last minute of the final which Self arranged on the fly to ensure Peppin qualified for a medal.
Peppin later said, ‘We had absolute clarity as to why we were there doing it’. There was Gilmour suggests no financial support from the association and players had very little support beyond the elusive and eccentric support of Self- they had to be self sufficient to a level few elite sportsmen could imagine today.
The image that has stayed with me is that of Southgate Captain Richard Dodds sat in the dressing room after the game with a bottle of Whisky and a cigar shared with goalkeeper Ian Taylor who would never don his pads again. Gilmour lingers on the post match depression that followed some of the squad- the massive anti climax that follows such moments of sporting success but is rarely spoken of. It reminded me of the feeling actors get at the final curtain of the final performance in a long running, successful show. An invisible chord that connected that group- almost to the point of becoming family is severed, once that curtain comes down to the audience cheers and adulation the actors simply clear their dressing rooms and head out into the night. Often many will never see each other again for years.
This GB team however struck a chord, and the game and the spirit of the team caught the mood of the time, it followed Ben Johnson’s failed drugs test and the Olympic spirit was seen to descend with force upon this ‘bunch of amateurs’ from the UK who encapsulated everything the games were meant to embody. Hockey had never had so much coverage- Barry Davies immortalised the team with his commentary and Sean Kerly and the team became national heroes.
We can hope that this years GB squad led by SHC past player Danny Kerry can follow in the footsteps of the class of ’88. As for the book with a critical eye one could accuse the book of history being re-told with the rose tinted hue of nostalgia some of the sharper edges knocked off. Yet Gilmours book reads almost like a treatment for the next great British sports film- it has all the ingredients to be a classic.
Now it just needs a theatrical type to produce the thing…