Hockey shootout stars etch their names into history books
Hockey

Hockey shootout stars etch their names into history books

20 August 2016 / 07:00

We in Great Britain have a fairly uneasy relationship with penalty shootouts – too many times have our national football teams let us down on the big stage.

But here at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro – Team GB’s women’s hockey team had no such qualms.

The shootout, or ‘shuffles’ to give it its colloquial name, hold no fear for Danny Kerry’s side, for one main reason – they have the best goalkeeper in the world.

Maddie Hinch, playing in her 101st game for her country – was the decisive factor in Team GB’s historic gold medal win on Friday night.

That is not to demean the efforts of the entire squad who have all played a pivotal part in their run into the record books.

Skipper Kate Richardson-Walsh has been leading her nation to this achievement right from her international debut 17 years ago, Alex Danson finishes the tournament as their top scorer and Hollie Webb held her nerve for the decisive score in the shootout, to name but three.

But when the final whistle blew to end normal time and the game went immediately to penalties – every Team GB player felt confident that victory was theirs. Some went even further than that.

“Some days you know you're going to win,” said head coach Kerry.

“We know we're good at shootouts. We have some tough characters taking them and we have probably the best goalkeeper in the world in penalty shootouts. As soon as it went there I knew.”

There are external factors to consider, after all England had already beaten Holland last year in a penalty shootout to claim victory in the EuroHockey Championship final.

So the mental edge was theirs – and in Hinch they had a player who had been inspired throughout the gold-medal match.

From the moment she saved a penalty stroke in the first quarter from Maartje Paumen – the top goal scorer in the history of the Olympics no less – it was clearly going to be her day.

Time after time she was at full stretch to deny the all-conquering Dutch – a side that came into the clash without an Olympic defeat since Athens 2004.

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And with Lily Owsley, Crista Cullen and Nicola White at their predatory best up the other end, Team GB - bronze medallists in London - had worked wonders to get to the shootout.

Once you get to that stage, conventional wisdom would have you believe that a shootout is a lottery – but don’t believe a word of that says Hinch.

With a trusty red notebook full of pointers on every international opponent she has ever faced, and a water bottle with yet more notes scribbled upon it – Hinch could not be better prepared.

She even found time to update her notes on the Netherlands after they came through their semi-final in a shootout and had noted they had changed their takers.

“I am glad we are making our nation proud in penalties at last – but we have done well as a team in them for a while," she said. 

“Over the years – I am constantly keeping my database up to date. Under pressure the players resort to what their strengths are so I just come up with a plan that I think will counteract that strength of theirs. Thankfully the Dutch did what I thought they would do.

“I just narrowed it down to one plan for each player, then I go out and execute that and hope it will work – and thankfully it did all four times in the shootout.”

Hinch along with both Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh will all be playing their club hockey in Holland next season – they should not anticipate too warm a reception!

But what a perfect way for the married couple that form the backbone of this side to sign off their international careers – although Helen has yet to officially confirm hers.

They become the first married couple to win gold for Britain since Cyril and Dorothy Wright, who took the 7m sailing class in Antwerp in 1920, while they also helped Great Britain to their first hockey gold for either men or women since Sean Kerly and co took the men's title in Seoul.

“To win an Olympic Games is special, to win the Olympics with your wife standing next to you – your wife who scored a penalty in the shootout – is something else – we will cherish this for the rest of our life,” said Kate.  

What a career they have both had – as Helen put it: ‘full of plenty of highs and lows – more lows than highs probably’

They better than anyone else have seen how far the sport has come on these shores.

Since their debuts back in 1999, an eighth-place finish in Sydney 2000 through to bronze in London and now the pinnacle here in Rio, they have seen it all.

British hockey - with its state of the art national centre at Bisham Abbey – is in rude health and in Kerry they have the man leading them in the right direction.

When he was reinstated as head coach in 2014, England had slumped out of the World Cup in 11th place but now look at them.

His tactical nous has been key to their revival but away from the pitch the focus on fitness work and novel approach to building team culture – the players rave about Thinking Thursdays - has made all the difference.

Let us leave the last word to Kate, on the occasion of her final international cap:

“Two years ago we sat down and came up with our vision – and our vision was to be the difference, to create history and inspire the future and I feel like we have done that”

They most certainly have. 

By Charlie Talbot-Smith, Sportsbeat

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