Hockey: England learning to expect success
Two years ago, Britain's men's hockey team faced a win-or-bust Olympic qualifying tournament in Chile. Fail to win the tournament and Britain would miss Beijing 2008 altogether. They would most likely lose a hefty chunk of funding, too. Head coach Jason Lee admitted the situation was "as pressured as it can be".
A remarkable change has since occurred. Britain beat India to reach Beijing, finishing fifth at the Games, and the England team (which forms the vast majority of the GB squad) went on to stun their rivals by lifting the 2009 EuroHockey Nations title. They came from behind to beat Germany, the current world and Olympic champions, in the final.
Now, England are through to the last four of the World Cup for the first time since 1986, and are once again pitted against the Germans. After years - if not decades - in hockey's doldrums, even a World Cup semi-final caps a commendable reversal of fortunes.
Lifting the World Cup title is a tantalising prospect this week, but just two years ago it appeared unthinkable.
All smiles for England - it wasn't like that two years ago. Photo: AP
"I remember you," sighs the England (and GB) team's performance director, David Faulkner, when I mention interviewing him at a freezing cold Reading Hockey Club before that all-important Olympic qualifying tournament.
Pressed on reasons for British hockey's perilous state at the time, Faulkner had told me to be patient - the sport needed two four-year Olympic cycles to be "fixed", and Beijing represented the halfway mark, he said. Now, with that in mind, does Faulkner feel vindicated?
"I wouldn't use that word, but we have moved on after Beijing," he says. "The Olympic qualifier in Chile was an experience in itself and, combined with Beijing and the Europeans, that has made this group of players stronger and stronger.
"But we're still in a developing phase. I don't want people to get too carried away. By all means get excited, I like that, but the job is not done yet. Will it ever be finished? I doubt it."
It hasn't all been plain sailing since Beijing. England finished last in December's Champions Trophy - admittedly a tournament involving the world's top six teams, of which England are ranked sixth, but coming last never looks good.
"Winning the European title was brilliant, then at the Champions Trophy we changed the team around a bit and took a couple of younger guys," explains England captain Barry Middleton - who, at the age of 26, already has well over 100 caps for England, and many more for Great Britain.
"We finished last but we didn't look to peak there, we looked to peak at the World Cup instead.
"One of the problems with world hockey at the minute is it's very busy. It's pretty hard to peak for two tournaments in three or four months, especially during our winter. We always said the Champions Trophy wasn't a true reflection of how good we can be."
Middleton made his international debut in 2003 and has been part of UK hockey's rollercoaster ride ever since. He insists his team always knew they could reach the last four of the World Cup - "nobody really believed us, but we felt we could do it" - and argues, like Faulkner, that the team's upswing can be traced back several years.
"After 2004, things changed a lot. Most of the guys playing now got their first caps then and, over the last couple of years, a lot of the youngsters coming through have been very talented. We have more technical ability than we've ever had before in the squad.
"In the last two years we've been given the freedom to play a different hockey than England teams have played in a long time. Now we play fast, attacking hockey; we want to entertain and put pressure on other teams.
"For the three or four years before that, we looked to contain teams, stay in a game, defend well, and maybe that would get us through. Now we look to attack."
Nor will that change against Germany, according to Middleton, despite their opponents' impressive array of trophies: "Our game plan has been the same for the last two years. We know it inside out, it won't change. As long as we play as well as we can to our game, then we can beat them, so we won't do anything special."
But while Middleton's focus rightly extends no further than the next game, Faulkner needs to contemplate the two fronts on which he must now sustain hockey's momentum.
The first is the playing staff. The crop of players first brought together in 2004 is reaching a pinnacle at this World Cup, but the team is older than some, and will need replenishing with new talent sooner or later.
England's Under-21 team suffered a disastrous Junior World Cup in Malaysia last year, earning some damning press back in Britain, in which Faulkner was quoted as bemoaning a "void" where young, British talent should be. He says he is still in the process of plugging that gap.
"The oldest player in the German team here is, I think, 26," he tells me. "Their average age is 22. They can do that because they have a system, and our target is to have the same system, but it'll take another two or three years to develop."
Since another two or three years will take us past London 2012, it is correct to assume the England team you watch face Germany on Thursday will closely resemble the British team that will play at a home Olympics in two years' time.
"In men's hockey, if you're not in the current GB group, you'll find it very difficult to break into that," adds Faulkner. "The current lads are making it even more difficult with the performances they're putting in.
"But everybody knows the most successful nations in the world are looking at the next Olympic cycle while in the current cycle, and I've started doing a lot of work on hockey post-2012 already."
That work extends off the pitch, too, because hockey rarely gets an opportunity like this to generate buzz around the sport. Hockey players and supporters mutter darkly about a lack of coverage in Britain, and this competition represents the sport's best chance in years to rectify that.
Faulkner reached the World Cup final in 1986 as a player, then won gold at the Seoul Olympics with Britain two years later, playing alongside the likes of Sean Kerly and Imran Sherwani - names etched into the memories of a generation of British sports fans.
He knows what happens when hockey catches the public eye, and wants the sport to seize the moment this time.
"The big difference between the success in 1986 or 1988 and the success now is that we are prepared for it. What I'm hearing from back home, and reading from articles sent to me, is that there is a lot of consistency with what we saw 20 years ago in terms of coverage back in the UK.
"I understand Ashley Jackson's goal against India was on the BBC 10 O'Clock News - hockey doesn't do that, and hasn't done for two decades. We want to capitalise on that profile.
"What we have to be clear about is how we make our players household names. Before we came out to India we held a press day, which we've never done before. The sport needs to be geared up - maybe a campaign of 'Are you ready for 2012 hockey?', because we will have a profile we've never had before."
Savvy marketing alone, however, won't cut it. Everyone inside the team knows sustained international results are hockey's only hope of grabbing headlines with any regularity.
"We know it's going to be hard," Middleton admits. "The Spanish have missed out this time and they're ranked third in the world. There will be more and more teams who miss out.
"This squad is only going to be together for two, three, maybe four years from now, and it's going to be hard to consistently do it. The Germans have done it for 15 years, the Australians have done it for 20.
"It's hard to get the system right to produce people who can do this all the time but, once you can do it, it's easier. Hopefully we can at least do it for the next three or four years."
England v Germany in the men's Hockey World Cup semi-finals will be live on the red button from 1235 GMT on Thursday, 11 March. Join me on the BBC Sport website at the same time for our live text commentary of the game.