Rod Gilmour talks to GB star Ashley Jackson about Rio Olympics and beyond…
Ashley Jackson has dreaded hearing the well-meaning sentence one more time: “How was your Olympics, didn’t the girls do well?”
It is a question Jackson has shunned since the Great Britain men’s team returned from Rio firmly in the shadows of the women’s glittering success.
“I’m pretty good at taking myself away and avoiding conversations,” he smiles. “The answer is ‘yes, the girls did phenomenally well…I don’t want to talk about it thanks!’”
Jackson is speaking to The Hockey Paper on a crisp autumn day at East Grinstead, nearly three months after Bobby Crutchley’s side stuttered to a grinding halt at the group stages in Rio.
The 29-year-old is also back playing at East Grinstead, the club where he first started out, aged 14. He looks relaxed and content, the Olympic misadventure having almost been wiped clean.
Yet few know of the men’s squad’s reactions to their early exit. It certainly wasn’t meant to end like it did. Great Britain had harboured medal chances in Rio and, in the two-year build-up to the Games, there was genuine optimism. “As we got closer we beat the teams that were likely to feature in a big knock out at the Olympics,” Jackson says.
But their hopes evaporated in the very first game against Belgium, the eventual finalists. “There were a few things that happened during games that meant we couldn’t get control … people probably couldn’t control themselves really,” Jackson says of their 4-1 defeat.
“It meant we blinked and we were halfway through the group stages. The game against Belgium was fairly terrible. They were brilliant but we made it easy for them.
“I was livid, with myself and ourselves. I made it pretty clear in the interview afterwards which perhaps some were annoyed with. But I’ve never been one to mix my words or my emotions, especially after a game.
“The gist of that interview was ‘four years in the making and that’s what we’ve managed to come up with’. It was a lot of frustration for myself and us as a group.”
A draw against Spain in their final game told the story and it was down to waiting for the result of New Zealand’s game and subsequent win over table-toppers Belgium.
“Belgium saved their legs with nothing to play for and there were no gripes or hard feelings,” insists Jackson. “Looking back, we had maybe 11 first time Olympians, which is a fair number. But it’s no excuse.”
Anyone who knows Jackson, a player regarded as the most talented of his generation, will tell you he has little time for defeats and below-par performances.
Along with a few team-mates, he flew back in the aftermath of their Rio exit. “I couldn’t think of anything worse than spending ten or so days out there and then returning with the Team GB squad,” he admits. “There were a mix of athletes either having the best or worst experience of their lives.
“To be around for that was not something that interested me. Fair play to everyone who achieved what they wanted to, I just didn’t want it rubbed in my face.”
When the squad did return, there was a debrief on Rio and the whole four-year cycle.
Jackson, England and GB’s record goalscorer, says: “Ultimately, it wasn’t that productive as we needed to know what was going to happen in the future, so that everyone who was willing to put things right and be given a chance could then be put in a room. What was learned was the lessons and the mistakes.
“We’ll see how that goes when decisions on funding are decided. Until then, I have no interest in being around Bisham (where the centralised squad train).
“We did an incredible amount of good stuff in those four years. To say the programme failed would be unfair. There would have to be subtle differences and small changes to make things work for Tokyo. I just want to get cracking and make things right.”
His first task was to move back to his boyhood club, with family and friends nearby. Jackson had finished the first year of a projected five-year contract at Holcombe. But in the final throes of summer, his club future was still undecided until the deal was struck “to come back home”.
Jackson will supplement his playing by working alongside East Grinstead head coach Karl Stagno at Whitgift School three days a week.
And next month he travels to India for his third year playing for Ranchi Rays in the lucrative Hockey India League. “It’s a great place to be when you’re winning, but a pretty hostile one when you’re not,” he says.
It’s certainly a far cry from the relaxed environs of East Grinstead. “I am certainly happy to be back and around. Last year was a good year at Holcombe, the best year the club had, won the league, unbeaten in the premier league, qualifying for Europe.”
Ashley Jackson was speaking at East Grinstead’s academy school. For more information visit: www.eghcacademy.co.uk
This article originally appeared in The Hockey Paper on Wednesday 16th November.