For a sport which oozes gender parity compared to others, there is an undoubted media profile mismatch when it comes to the Great Britain men’s side. The behemoth created by the GB women’s gold, and then last summer’s women’s World Cup, continues to leave the men firmly in the media shadows.
For if sports editors at England’s national newspapers treated hockey – with its high participation and history over the years – with the same love as those on the continent, where general sports are given due credit, then it is certain that the wider British public would be more in tune with the unerring skills of Ashley Jackson, regarded as Britain’s best player of his generation.
Column inches would be written on his fallout from the GB programme after the men finished ninth in Rio. There would be stories on other top athletes mixing two sports at the same time, as Jackson has achieved with his field and ice hockey. Instead, for those outside of the hockey bubble, the 31-year-old slowly drifted out of the limelight.
In Britain at least, it takes a major title to garner attention (or a few days in December when the men won through to the World Cup semi-finals). But Jackson is back (though nearly 70 per cent of our readers thought he would never return to GB colours) and he says today that he has nothing to prove. “I don’t feel like I have to write any wrongs,” he states.
Ironically, his returning game after a near three-year international hiatus came against the Dutch, while his first major tournament will be on the continent at the European Hockey Championships in Antwerp, a 90-minute drive from where he has honed his skills and fallen back in love with the game at HGC in the Hoofdklasse.
The international game, he says, has changed considerably since he ‘quit’ in 2017 and there is a feeling that the Pro League has played a part in his decision to return to the UK. “You don’t want to be stuck at home preparing for a tournament months on end. As a player that’s all you want to be doing,” he says.
“It [returning] was different to how I remember it, but that’s the nature of the Pro League. I remember hearing about it before Rio. My first reaction was great, you play a meaningful match and you don’t want to be stuck at Bisham for a three-match Test series.
“The Pro League has changed it. That’s the biggest difference. For six months of the year you play and prepare for the game in front of you.
“The longest the guys have been at Bisham is three weeks. It’s a first experience for everyone and how to approach it. It’s brilliant from what we had in the past. The Pro League is great for the programme.”
As the GB women basked in gold throughout the autumn of 2016, so Jackson took a backseat from Bisham. “I realised I enjoyed not being part of it,” he says.
His hand and stick skills sought the attention of two English ice hockey teams in Kent and Basingstoke and the cross-sport challenge breathed life into Jackson. “I enjoyed being on the ice as much as I could. I would recommend it for anybody if they fancied giving it a go, not just ice hockey but anything to put yourself in a situation. There were plenty of times where it was pretty uncomfortable and you find a lot out about yourself that you didn’t know.”
As he was adjusting, he received a surprise call from Paul van Ass, the coach he had worked with in his previous stint in the Netherlands. “I don’t know how he knew or found out,” admits Jackson of his decision not to return to the programme.
The call was perfectly timed. As soon as the conversation finished, it became a real option and discussed with his wife, Ella (the couple married last summer). “Once it was realised that Holland was the only place to play hockey, we jumped in and went over together.”
He admits that “panic set in” once it dawned that Van Ass was asking him to go back to be the player he once was but hadn’t been for a while. And Jackson says that without doubt he would be combining hockey and ice hockey but for Van Ass’ call.
Last summer proved a first for Jackson, his first proper pre-season. “It was a nice experience to work through the summer, then it was a case of crossing my fingers,” he says. He didn’t have to wait long. Jackson was set up in a lovely two-pronged move as he struck the net. Relief for the Englishman.
At HGC, Jackson and Seve van Ass were largely given a free role in midfield, responsible for one man off the ball. “It was nothing like I had ever played before and it was part of the fun. On the ball, Paul wanted me to be my creative self and I had licence to do that, as did Seve. The way we both see the game and the fun we like to do have meant it was dead easy to form a connection with each other.”
Since last autumn, conversations had been ongoing with men’s coach Danny Kerry. “He was positive on how he sees the game, wants to play the game and changes on how people see or play the game in comparison how they may have played it for a long period of time in the programme.
“We are seeing plenty of change from under previous coaches and I’m going to enjoy playing it. There are plenty of things which go up with age but I’m just happy and comfortable in my game.”
That much was evident in his first games back at Lee Valley and The Stoop. Still fresh in the memory are several visionary passes forward, both aerial and piercing, incisive ones into the D to team-mates. Once GB can find the links with Jackson back in the side, the signs certainly look good.
The EuroHockey Championships will also mark a decade since England’s last major success at the same tournament. Jackson played a lead role in the 2009 semi-final thanks to his 87th minute goal to beat the Dutch and then a brace in their 5-3 title win over Germany.
A smile flickers across Jackson. “Those memories of the overtime goal in the semi-final and then the final whistle and jumping into Ben Hawes’ arms, it was an unbelievable moment. Any opportunity to try and recreate those feelings and emotions with other players in the team, I’m all for it.”
The Euros will usher in less than a year to go before Tokyo 2020 and Jackson’s chance to atone for Rio. He says that he “fully intends” to rejoin HGC at the earlier opportunity following GB’s hopeful place in Japan. For now, one senses that Jackson’s mind couldn’t be more connected to the cause.
He says: “I will take any responsibility like that on the pitch and if other guys are looking to you to perform then your performances day after day will speak for themselves. We have some strong leaders. It’s nice to come back and carry on, enjoy yourself and just play good hockey.”
This article first appeared in our August print edition