With the Olympic Games just a matter of days away from beginning, all attentions will be on London as the world descends on the nation's capital for three weeks of elite sport. While Great Britain are expected to medal in the usual disciplines, one sport in particular, Hockey, has the potential to throw up some surprises for Team GB. Both men's and women's teams have had contrasting fortunes of late, but both are hoping to fulfil their potentials and go into these games as serious medal contenders.
The men's go into the competition with a world ranking of four, while the women will be heading to the Olympic Park with the confidence of victory in May's test event. We caught up with Sean Kerly, a key member of the 1988 Olympic gold medal-winning Great Britain side, to get his thoughts on our chances this summer.
Team GB Men
With Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands the only countries ranked ahead of Great Britain heading into the games, the men's side stand a good chance of making an impact in London. A group featuring Australia and Spain though present some dangers, with Kerly commenting that "the hardest task will be for the GB men to qualify for the semi-finals." The last Pool A game for Great Britain is against the fifth-ranked Spanish, and as Kerly continues, they present a huge threat. "Spain have always been a difficult team, even dating back to 1988 and my time in the team," he said. "You could describe them as Great Britain's bogey team. I think the last pool game will have a semi-final place riding on it." Victory over Spain during the final pre-games competition will provide the men's side with a much needed confidence boost and could spur them on, during what could be a crunch clash.
When the squad was announced last month, there were some shock omissions including those of Richard Alexander and Richard Mantell, two strong and experienced players. Kerly, admitted his surprise at the decision to leave out such names, but underlined his faith in head coach Jason Lee's vision of playing aggressive and attacking hockey. "Lee has been quoted as saying, 'we've built a team to win and not just do well.' The only way to combat the likes of Australia, Germany, Holland, and Spain is to play aggressive and attacking hockey and that is what Great Britain hope to do," Kerly said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was Alexander missing out on the squad. Kerly described Alexander as "a real fighter, who has less finesse than the likes of [Ashley] Jackson, captain [Barry] Middleton, and [Ben] Hawes, but someone who you would want with you if you came into trouble down a dark alley". Unlike the experienced Alexander and Mantell who have not made the squad, there was a place for the 19 year-old 'wonder-kid' Harry Martin, who lacks experience at this level, but offers Lee's side another dimension, something Kerly corroborates. "Martin is very mature for his age, has brilliant skills, and is definitely coach Lee's selection gamble. The inclusion of young Martin sends a clear message of the attacking mentality Lee and the GB squad will be hoping to display."
Ultimately the measure of this Olympic squad will come down to success, and it is very difficult to talk men's hockey without drawing parallels with the 1988 squad. When asked to compare the generations, Kerly said: "The 1988 squad was built on a strong defence and was already an accomplished team having won silver at the World Cup. The England squad won the Euros in 2009 but there have been a few new faces added to the squad since then. I think true comparisons can only be made to the 1988 squad if the men claim gold in London."
Team GB Women
The Great Britain women's side head into these games after a mixed run of form. Victory in the test event in May, which included beating the number one ranked side Argentina, was followed by serious injury to two of the squad's best players. An ankle injury to defensive stalwart Crista Cullen and a shoulder problem for star forward Alex Danson started a race against time for them to be fit for the Olympics.
At the Investec London Cup, the absence of Cullen and Danson was noticeable, as Great Britain struggled and eventually finished fifth. Kerly offered encouraging words for the women's side, but admitted that the absence of Cullen and Danson was crucial. "The girls created lots of chances at the London Cup, but without Cullen they couldn't convert their short-corners, and without Danson there was no-one to put the ball in the net as the ball kept flashing across the D," he said.
Their absence showed just how much the two stars mean to the team and there was no surprise when both Cullen and Danson were selected in the final squad. "Cullen is immense," said Kerly. "Immense as a personality, athlete, woman, and human-being." The keys to Great Britain's success at the Olympics will no doubt be down to the fitness of the pair, as well as captain Kate Walsh.
The women go into the Olympics as Kerly's third favourites behind Argentina and the Netherlands. The big task for the team will be to beat the Netherlands in their Pool A match-up which would then give them an easier semi-final draw and would hopefully only meet the strong Argentinian squad in the gold-medal game.
Ultimately though, Kerly said that if the two squads stay fit and the ball bounces the right way, then they both have a real chance to claim a medal at the home games.
Sean Kerly, alongside other past feted Olympians, is an ambassador for the 'Join in Local Sport' charity. The charity is funded by the government and also has support from Lord Coe. With interest in sport likely to reach fever pitch over the next month, the 'Join In' campaign hopes to take advantage of people watching the Olympics and use their enthusiasm to get people into sport. Local sports clubs and communities will open their doors over August 18/19 to encourage people to try various sports out. Local sports groups will be able to take advantage of this unique moment by creating a shop window within their community to garner interest, support, and membership.