England Hockey are the ultimate team. They know what it takes to turn a negative into a positive, how to snatch a victory from the jaws of defeat and, more importantly, they fight for one another when the road becomes rocky.
Being crowned 2015 European champions in front of a home crowd at the Olympic Park is just the latest chapter in their story. Having gone 2-0 down to world and Olympic champions, Holland, England produced a comeback just shy of a miracle.
After so many near-misses in major tournaments, the contribution from goalkeeper Maddie Hinch in the penalty shootout epitomised everything about England Hockey: namely, a squad brimming with leaders who connect beyond team strategies or player combinations.
England captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, who had competed at the London Olympics with a broken jaw, recalls the moment everything came together through a collective effort of sheer resilience. “I looked at the Dutch players and their faces were saying they had done enough, two goals up, they thought they had cracked it. With 15 minutes to go we thought we could take them, we had the belief and confidence in one another to do it,” she said.
With eight minutes of regular time to play, England had fought back to force the game to penalties, and Richardson-Walsh felt secure in Hinch’s ability to secure the gold for the team. “I had never felt so calm standing there with my arms around the girls because I knew how much work everyone had done in practising those penalties and how much preparation Maddie had done.
“It was just a surreal moment and when Maddie saved the last penalty we all went wild. I couldn’t tell you what I did because all sane thoughts and common sense went out of my mind. We just jumped around, danced around and sang. I was back to being five years old, not 35 years old.
“Winning the gold medal was indicative of everything that we do as a team. Standing on top of that podium, it was 18 girls, but there were a lot of girls at home, and in the greater GB squad, who helped us get on to that podium,” she said.
The popular captain, having been voted in by her team-mates, owes the success to the make-up of the girls within the squad. “They are all unique, individual, strong and fabulous young women. They are intelligent and smart, vivacious and everything that I want to be.
“I am just so proud to lead them. We do a lot of work with schools and talking to girls in particular about believing in themselves and having confidence in what they do. We try to cocoon the younger players in the squad to bring the best qualities out of them. It’s the best support network I have ever been a part of,” said Richardson-Walsh.
The European gold meant so much to so many. Kate’s partner, Helen Richardson-Walsh, underwent back surgery in 2013 and 2014, and, after a difficult recovery process, found herself stepping up to take the first penalty in the shootout.
“When I scored it felt like 16 years of emotions came out of me. I had suffered from slight depression throughout my time away from the pitch and there were many days when I thought, ‘I can’t do this’,” she said. “Many people don’t realise that your back is involved in every activity that you do, so it was really hard to believe in my ability to bounce back when I was struggling to get up from the sofa.
“I wanted to really drive and push, to never give up. You sometimes don’t realise how strong you are until you find yourself in those tricky situations. It’s the highs and lows that make me who I am today and make me a European champion. When we celebrated with a pile-on, I remember thinking, ‘I hope my back is OK’.”
The celebrations continued well into the night. “All of the team went out in their kit afterwards, which is a tradition for the winning team,” said captain Kate. “But nothing was open on a Sunday night in East London so we ended up in a casino. Alex Danson discovered she still had her gum shield in her sock during the celebrations. It was a funny moment and one we will never forget.”
The hero of the shootout was undoubtedly goalkeeper Hinch. But she had left little to chance and was spotted on the pitch checking her hand-written notes before facing the penalties. “I did my homework on each penalty-taker and I remember looking at the Dutch girls and thinking, ‘In their heads they have lost this’. I remember looking at our girls and we looked so confident.
“The final save is still a bit of a blur to me, but I looked at the girls and thought, ‘Is that it?’ Then I ran towards them and they ran towards me. The next thing they were on top of me and it really hurt!” she said.
“We believed right until the final minute and we wanted to have no regrets. Not for one second did we fear the Dutch because we just wanted to put on a good show for hockey.
“The culture is good within this team and we are very together. We have been through the tough times and we have been through the good times. Lifting the trophy sent out a message to the rest of the world that we are here to compete and are very much going to go to Rio and see what we can do there.”
— Action Woman (@BTSportAW) November 10, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Megan Joyce is an English Literature graduate from Queen’s University, Belfast, with an MA in Sports Journalism from St. Mary’s University, Twickenham. She covered all sports for a variety of media organisations while in Belfast, and currently blogs for BT Sport Rugby and writes for The Rugby Football League. Megan is reporting on Chelsea Ladies football team this season. Megan’s latest articles.
England Hockey has been nominated for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year 2015.
During the voting process for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year, the Mixed Zone will be publishing exclusive interviews with all 10 contenders to help you make your choice.
The winner will be decided by public vote, which closes on Monday, November 23, and will be revealed live on the Action Woman of the Year Awards show, presented by Clare Balding on BT Sport 1, on Tuesday, December 1.
For a full list of the 10 sportswomen in line for the prestigious title – and details of how to vote CLICK HERE.