As Britain's male hockey players aim for gold at London 2012 they will beg, borrow and steal to make it to the top
Tuesday, 29 November 2011
As Britain's male hockey players prepare for the Champions Trophy – a major step en route to London 2012 which gets underway in New Zealand on December 3 – the approach to the task being adopted by their coach Jason Lee involves more lines than Clapham Junction.
Lee, a former GB player himself who has guided the team to ninth and fifth places at the last two Olympics, knows a squad which he describes as "probably the strongest ever" is within touching distance of a place on the podium at next year's Olympics. But he also knows that factors such as the pressure of home expectation, which have weighed heavily on some of his players in the past, could prevent them ascending one of those three steps.
"The difference between fourth place and gold will be very tight, and small things could end up making a big difference to us," he said. "That's why we will beg, borrow and steal to get every small advantage we can."
Britain have Australia, Spain and Pakistan in their group at the forthcoming tournament for the world's top eight nations. The Netherlands, Germany, Korea and New Zealand complete the field in what is regarded as the third most important event in hockey after the Olympics and World Cup, and represents the last official world ranking event before London 2012.
With the Olympics only nine months away, Lee is confident about the prospects for a side that has worked its way up to fourth in the rankings.
"We have 28 players and the difference between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent is very minor," said Lee. "The home advantage of London means a few players have extended their careers or changed nationality to play for us, so this will probably be the strongest GB squad ever...I would describe myself as a pragmatic pessimist but I feel very confident for our chances."
Lee (pictured in blue) knows that if his squad is to perform to its best ability, he will need to use every means at his disposal to aid their cause. But at least he knows he is working with a willing audience.
"One of the best things about the group of players we have now is that none of them are cynical," Lee said. "Things might appear out of left field at times, but they will still go with them. We never know what might turn out to be the little thing that really makes a difference to us.
"The most obvious thing is that we have got some players who are slightly better than others, and we need to have them on the pitch fit and ready and at the top of their form.
"Some of our competitors in London have a top class base of around 70 or 80 players to choose from. We don't have that luxury, so we need to make sure our best players are available.
"But the players also need to be confident and on form. We have already done some work in our psychological preparation to prevent our home advantage from having any kind of negative, pressurising effect.
"Fabio Capello has talked about the inhibiting effect the pressure of home expectation has had on some of his players. I think that is something that is a potential threat to us."
The group has already undergone some psychological preparation from members of the Lane4 group which was established in 1995 by former Olympic swimming champion Adrian Moorhouse and which had offered consultations free of charge in return for players making appearances at their presentations.
But Lee added: "At the moment we are trying to get the best from our Lottery funding by trying to negotiate a cheap rate with people for more help with the psychological side."
One thing that is not concerning Lee is the question of whether to attend the Opening Ceremony next summer. "I can guarantee the British men will be there," he said. "We know when our first match is and we have enough time. I personally think the advantage of marching in last at an Olympics is quite a significant one."
But he is less sanguine on the subject of the way some of his team might respond if umpiring decisions go against them when the pressure is on.
"It is difficult sometimes because small decisions can be the difference between getting a medal or not getting a medal, but our job as players is to deal with it and get on with the action," Lee said.
"We've worked very hard on this but there are some that still find it a challenge. We have a couple of players who are like Wayne Rooney in the way they react to things."
Lee says that all his players are "very aware" of how significant the Champions Trophy could be in terms of selection for the Olympics. But he is certainly not piling on the pressure in New Zealand.
As the host nation, Britain have been assured of qualification since 2005, and so head into the Champions Trophy at a different stage of preparation to some of the other sides.
"I think we'll see some surprising results as some of the teams haven't qualified for the Olympics yet and we're all at different stages," said Lee.
"We're miles off our peak, so I'm guessing it will be the poorest we play all year, although we'll be driving them hard and there will be an exertion of pressure from within.
"But there are no prizes for ranking points and we're overtly focused on next summer."
Lee remains hugely determined to land a medal on the blue, blue artificial grass of home next summer. But he is under no illusions that success on London 2012 will instantly turn Britain into a hockey-crazy nation, however – something that was predicted with more hope than realism after Britain won Olympic gold in 1988.
"There was no chance of any boom in 1988 because hockey in this country then was being run by five or six people working out of a single office," Lee said. "Hockey is a minority sport, and most people involved in it are more likely to be playing than watching."
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.