GOLD COAST — “I’ve stood there myself and, in my eyes, just to take one means you are a hero. The silence that descends in the stadium is epic. Your legs are starting to shake and you’re like ‘come on umpire, blow the whistle’. But they all still do it.”
With adrenaline still surging through the England captain, this was Kate Richardson-Walsh’s assertion on those who avoided wobbly legs following her side’s slender win – after succumbing to a late goal and then surviving a shoot-out – over New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games women’s semi-final four years ago.
Yet England were still 24 hours away from a match which had a seismic role reversal. Leading 1-0 in the final, Australia – those dastardly then world No.2 Hockeyroos – equalised with seconds to spare. Search match reports and there are different score times: 16 seconds, 17 seconds, 18 seconds left on the clock. The latter looks the best bet as the penalty corner zings about in the D for six seconds before passing Maddie Hinch. It was the last strike in anger of normal time.
Richardson-Walsh is right on the silence. Of all the theatrics created by the shoot-out from the 23 metre line, that day will be remembered for Glasgow’s easterly wind and barely another sound as each player undertook their eight seconds to try and cast away nerves and make the backboard as one of the next noises heard.
The loss proved devastating for England, yet there was significant pride in defeat. This was a team still nursing the shock of finishing way down the pecking order at that summer’s World Cup in the Netherlands, which saw the exit of Jason Lee as coach and the appointment of Danny Kerry as interim coach for Glasgow.
Nearly four years on and midfielder Susannah Townsend believes that those few months in The Hague, then in Scotland, paved the way for their subsequent and rapid injection of success with their 2015 European gold and unbeaten Olympic qualification campaign.
“Initially it was devastating, as we were that close to a gold medal but looking back on it, it really set us up for the next couple of years, to be a lot more clinical at the end of game and to make sure it didn’t happen again,” she says.
“Yes, we want to go to a Commonwealths and win a medal but we looked at the stats afterwards and we didn’t have enough chances to win the game outright. So on reflection a silver medal was a fair result. But we are now a much better team with what we built with Great Britain and now back with England here.”
Giselle Ansley, meanwhile, was playing her first major final after failing to gain inclusion for the World Cup squad. Who knows the outcome if England had reached the podium in the Netherlands? Would the firepower of Ansley have been in contention for Glasgow?
The Surbiton defender is all too aware.
“There are real fine lines with selections and non-selections,” she admits today. “The main thing is to make your team mates look good and fitting in within the team. There’s no point you as an individual trying to be a super star – that’s not how you will get in the team. It’s about everyone.”
So to recollections of the final against Australia. “There were points where we controlled the game and times where we were under the cosh. I remember running from side to side and throwing aerials down the pitch. That was my first experience of a major final like that and we learned so much from that period and what set us up from those moments. With 10 minutes and five minutes to go, it showed that you are never out of the game.”
They had been leading through a fine strike by Lily Owsley in Glasgow. One year later, when cutting their teeth into the Dutch with a memorable, surging late double to then secure the Euro title in London, below, Kerry and Co talked about those last few minutes in the Commonwealth final.
“We talked about not sitting on a 1-0 or 2-1 lead, but really finishing it off,” recalls Townsend, who says she is approaching her peak once more after knee surgery and recovery back to the international fold. “You don’t sit and take the pressure. When you’re 1-0 up with 20 seconds to go, and with an inexperienced team after the World Cup it was a case of ‘we’re so close, let’s hold on’. So, yes, we learned a lot from it.”
Ansley says: “It’s about how you grind out results and potentially when you’re not playing well as a team or the other team is playing brilliantly. Tournament hockey is about winning and how you do it. Sometimes it’s not pretty.”
With the Gold Coast sun beating down and England favourites to reach the final – which would mark their fourth in the six Commonwealth editions, with gold yet to be sealed – there is a bigger prize to be landed this year in the World Cup. So Ansley is keen for England to get one over their green and gold rivals heading deeper into 2018.
“Australia have had a big turnover in a rebuilding phase. They will be strong and will be desperate to back up their Glasgow win. It’s all about gaining momentum against those teams but also how they will play ahead of the World Cup as well.”
After Rio retirements and an influx of new faces, coupled with the wise, international savvy heads already embedded at Bisham, Townsend is also optimistic for what the rest of the year yields.
“We are a very attacking team but we are also the best defensive team in the world. Something I learned at a young age was that you had to be very good in defence to be good in attacking. That’s one of our strengths and our pace in midfield but defensively we are good in those areas which sets us up for the attacks.”
And this time they hope to make hay with those forays up field and by delivering the goods in normal time.