Trust the venerable Wagener Stadium to thrust hockey back to what it does best in the traditional 11-a-side game.
After a few weeks of FIH Congress conjecture, Pro League longevity talk and Hockey 5s controversy, it was a balmy, bonkers Tuesday in Amsterdam which put the 10-day European Championships back at the top of the sport’s pedestal as a format which continues to provide drama and anxious Pool permutations aplenty.
We even saw the novel sight of a team, in Spain, boldly playing for 15 minutes with no goalkeeper to keep their tournament alive. But, ultimately, England squashed Spanish hopes with an outstanding first quarter performance as they qualified for their first Euro semi-finals since 2017 after a timely hat-trick from Sam Ward, another astute defensive play and, in goal, Ollie Payne’s reactionary glove work which has surely secured his Olympic place as GB’s No.1 goalkeeper.
Ward scored his first goals in an England shirt since his PC double against Scotland at EuroHockey 2019, as their 3-2 win left them not only facing either Holland or Germany in Thursday’s final four but also stamped their passage to the 2023 World Cup in India.
After 11 goals in the two earlier matches – where Belgium and Germany also secured World Cup tickets – the sight of Phil Roper’s shot finishing the wrong side of Quico Cortes’ post after a lovely Liam Ansell central run early on suggested we were in for another humdinger, with PC accumulation to match.
Sure enough, Ward, dealing skillfully with a bobbling trap, opened his EuroHockey account with a low slinger past Cortes. Then two minutes later, before the hooter, Ward put aside a second unclean trap to fire to Cortes’ left for a two-goal cushion.
With England then down to 10 in the second quarter after Zach Wallace’s yellow, Spain responded, along with adrenaline-fuelled Xavi Lleonart’s vocals, as they were awarded a PC which Pau Quemada, their drag flick specialist, then slammed into England’s net.
By now, Spain needed three goals to oust England and progress. You could sense too that many of the Spanish cohort were likely playing their last Euros, with four stalwarts over 35s.
As England reached the end of the third quarter with a one-goal cushion, Cortes, the oldest at 38, was pulled off for the fourth as they attempted to match Germany’s earlier comeback.
Their plan hatching with an extra outfield player in their armoury, Lleonart’s run and lob for a fortuitous Spanish leveller left them needing two in the final 10 minutes.
Spain were still left with plenty of ball retention and only rare forays from England upfield. That changed, though, in the final two minutes with successive PCs. The first ended with a heated melee and a Tom Sorsby yellow card for a needless elbow push before the masked Ward flicked high into the net to suggest that he will be one of the main corner takers in Tokyo.