The 2009 EuroHockey Championships left me seriously peed off.
A decade or more covering England and Great Britain, with their high hopes and false dawns, and as soon as I move 10,000 miles away, they actually go and win something. I was in Perth, Australia, which is totally beautiful and mainly tranquil. England’s men were in Amstelveen, that pulsing, thriving home of Dutch hockey, silencing the Oranje hordes and coming home with European gold for the first time. Typical.
There had been signs something was brewing and I was lucky enough to see the bulk of the squad playing as Great Britain during the 2008 Olympics where they finished fifth and but, for a silly yellow card against the Dutch in a group game (Holland promptly scored), might have squeaked into the semi-finals.
“We came away pretty happy with that, which might seem a bit funny for a team which went on to win a gold medal the next year and reach the semis in London,” said Jonty Clarke, the former Reading striker.
“But we had gone into the tournament ranked around ninth in the world so finishing fifth represented good progress. Beijing made us feel close to the top teams, we knew we were there or thereabouts.”
The Olympics are usually a watershed for international teams as players step down to pursue careers outside the sport or retire, not wanting to commit to another four-year cycle. However, the lure of London 2012 was strong and coach Jason Lee was able to retain the majority of his squad, and make quality additions like Iain Mackay, Adam Dixon and Richard Smith.
“There was continuity but also some new blood to keep things fresh,” said Clarke. “A lot of us had been together in the Under-21 squad which went to the Junior World Cup in 2001 – I think Ben Hawes, Richard Mantell, Glenn Kirkham, Barry Middleton, Richard Alexander, Rob Moore were all there – so by 2009 most of us had been playing four or five years of international hockey and it all seemed to click.
“London was just around the corner and nobody wanted to miss out on that. I think for a lot of other teams there had been a significant changing of the guard.”
England opened their European campaign with a 5-0 win over Austria and followed it up by drawing 4-4 with Germany, the Olympic champions. England trailed 2-1, led 4-2 and were then pegged back as Christopher Wesley grabbed the Germans’ equaliser four minutes from time.
Despite letting that victory slip from their grasp, there were no holds barred against Belgium, who were demolished 8-2, Ashley Jackson grabbing a hat-trick and Clarke scoring twice. “We hammered them – which would be unthinkable given their standard now. Back then they were a decent side, but we played really well that day,” said Clarke.
That clinched England’s spot in the last four and a semi-final against their Dutch hosts. Holland had finished outside the medals in Beijing (beaten by Australia for bronze) and, playing at home, had much to prove.
For Clarke however, way more nerve-racking than playing for his country in a massive European match, against a side roared on by a packed stadium, was the wait for the results of his final accountancy exams.
The match was a corker (more about the exams in a minute), going to extra time before England struck the killer blow for a 2-1 win in the 87th minute. Jackson converted the vital corner, England held on and recorded a superb win.
“My memory of that game was actually sitting on the bench with my phone as the others warmed down,” said Clarke. “They were doing a lap of the pitch and I was waiting for a text message to say if I had passed my exams.
“I had put my accountancy career on hold for Beijing but had done three final exams – the last exams of my life, thank goodness – just before the Europeans. I was so relieved to have passed them because it meant I knew I had a career to fall back on after hockey.
“If I’d not had a game that day, I would have been pacing around being a nervous wreck!”
Of the 18-man squad, two would miss out on selection for the final, with only 16 allowed in the match-day team. Clarke had missed the group game against Germany after picking up an ankle injury and had joined Nick Brothers, the No2 goalkeeper in the stands.
“Jason said he would come to the hotel and tell whoever was missing out the bad news, so we all went back worrying who would get the knock on the door,” said Clarke. “I was in my room when there was a knock on the door … I opened it, thinking I was going to get the chop … but it was Ali Wilson asking if I had some stick tape.”
It was Alistair Brogdon who had to join Brothers watching from the sidelines as England secured a most extraordinary triumph.
What a final. Jackson struck, Germany levelled. Hawes scored, but then Germany forged ahead 3-2. However, England, resilient to the core, won two penalty corners – both converted by Richard Mantell – and delivered the coup de grace for a 5-3 win courtesy of a Jackson penalty stroke.
England collected gold and Jackson was named the 2009 FIH Young Player of the Year, the first time the honour had gone to an Englishman.
The group went on to London and reached the semi-finals before getting tonked by the Dutch. They then lost out on bronze medals to Australia.
“We came away from that one feeling we didn’t do ourselves justice when it got to the business end of the tournament,” said Clarke. “I think that sense of frustration is something felt by just about everyone who was involved.”
It’s so hard, in elite sport, to finish on a high, to retire while at the summit of the tallest peak. It’s all about that journey, so I can understand Clarke and Co being happy with fifth (in Beijing) and then disillusioned going one better, in London.
However, it’s a shame if a squad who delivered arguably England’s best men’s result should finish their international careers reflecting on a disappointment rather than reminiscing about a triumph. After all, at least they were there, winning, in Amstelveen. I was in bloody Australia.
ENGLAND: James Fair, Nick Brothers, Glenn Kirkham, Richard Alexander, Richard Mantell, Ashley Jackson, Simon Mantell, Matt Daly, Jonty Clarke, Rob Moore, Ben Hawes, Adam Dixon, Ali Wilson, Barry Middleton, James Tindall, Iain Mackay, Alistair Brogdon, Richard Smith.
This feature orginally appeared in a previous print edition.
Subscribe to our print or digital edition. Find out which subscription suits you best. Sign up now!