How hockey united the Home Nations
Creating a British football team to play at London 2012 makes hosting the rest of the Games look like child's play.
Leading figures in the sport expressed anger bordering on disgust following the British Olympic Association's announcement, on Tuesday, that a "historic agreement" had paved the way for a GB football team.
Former Scotland manager Craig Brown said any Scots who chose to play in that team would be "selfish", adding: "There might no longer be a Scottish team."
He, and many others, fear a united British team at the Olympics may see the home nations' teams subsumed into Great Britain for ever more.
Others, like Northern Ireland boss Nigel Worthington, took a different view. "I understand players wanting to play in an Olympics and they shouldn't be criticised for that," said Worthington on Thursday. "As an international manager I would have no problem with players wanting to be involved."
But while the debate over how to field a British football team has raged for years, hockey, which has a similar structure in the United Kingdom, reckons it has an answer which solves the political quandaries and boosts its chances of Olympic medals.
This article, originally published in April 2010 and now updated, examines what the sport of hockey has done and what relevance that has to football's current quandary.
The logistics alone are mind-boggling: which players play where, and when? Who do they train with? To which international competitions will a British team be sent instead of the home nations? Who picks, and coaches, the British squad?
It will come as no surprise that hammering out solutions to these problems has taken hockey decades. But those solutions now exist, and appear to be keeping officials, coaches and players happy - certainly within the British squad, which has to be the sport's focus given the cash and exposure an Olympic medal brings.
Up to and including the Beijing Games of 2008, there was no such thing as a British hockey team until the final year of each four-year Olympic cycle. Then, like magic, a GB set-up materialised and did its best to piece together a British squad. After the Games, that would disband for the next three years, until another frantic year of Olympic preparation, and so on.
That has all changed thanks to an agreement signed between the English, Scottish and Welsh federations in 2006.
"I think British hockey really has got its act together very well," says Richard Leman, the current president of GB Hockey.
"We must be unique compared to many sports as we've got England, Scotland and Wales to sign a piece of paper agreeing to a system. We've concentrated on putting the athlete first and there are many other sports who struggle to do it.
"It was difficult, though. We spent just over a year in discussions, negotiations, talks, all conducted in a very professional way. But if we wanted to start winning Olympic medals then we had to get rid of the system where GB only came into existence for the last year of the four-year cycle.
"That's a disaster from a performance perspective. Now, we can put on a GB team at any time, which makes a huge difference to the players."
The agreement made a British team a permanent fixture in hockey, but that means employing people to organise and run it, and deciding on a squad of players drawn from the home nations. So, it was concluded, the home nation ranked highest in the world would become the "nominated country" whose staff called the shots at British level.
That nominated country is, and is likely to remain, England for both the men and women. The English men's team are ranked sixth as of April 2010, with the Scots 23rd and Welsh 27th, while the women's picture is very similar - England seventh, Scotland 23rd and Wales 28th. The English are in no danger of being usurped.
"The important thing about England being the nominated country is there is an opportunity for the others, it's not a closed shop. It's important, politically, that other countries realise there is a chance to get that nomination," Leman argues - even if that chance is slim at best. He concedes Scotland and Wales are not exactly knocking on the door.
"Not at this moment in time, but you just don't know where we'll be in 10 years. You've got to think of this as an agreement that will stand the test of time. There's a chance for them to do it, but it's important that if one country is leading the way, you can plug into that sort of skill base and expertise."
Scotland and Wales are now feeling the heat for their relative lack of performance compared to England.
"The home nations can still play to world level (even with a British team in existence)," explains David Faulkner, the British hockey performance director charged with masterminding a bid for Olympic gold.
"And if they do then GB can be stronger. What we'd like to see is Scotland and Wales higher up the rankings. A stronger home nations group will give us a stronger GB group."
Getting an agreement in place that creates a permanent British team, and populating it with staff, is only one side of the coin. You also need players, and a squad is precious little use if they only ever see each other for matches (which was the initial problem). So Danny Kerry, the English women's head coach who duly took over the British women's programme, devised a solution.
His main concern was that Scottish and Welsh players, going back to their respective national sides in the mid-20s of the world rankings, would miss out on the top-class experience the English receive thanks to the quality of their opponents and team-mates.
"I've done what I've done with the programme here to overcome that very issue," he tells me, having just seen his Britons lose 3-1 to China, the second time the Chinese have beaten them in three days.
"The English girls are very fortunate, they play at world level consistently, in big games against big teams. There's no substitute for that kind of experience, you have to be involved in those games. That's what these matches against China are about."
We are standing on the pitch at the Bisham Abbey National Sports Centre, off the M40 in Buckinghamshire, which is now the home of Great Britain - of which Kerry is proud. He believes he now oversees a fully fledged British programme comparable with other Olympic sports, like cycling.
"Years ago, I started saying that if we wanted to win medals at the highest level then the players had to train full-time, together as a team, not as disparate units around the UK.
"It's taken a long time to get here, but all of the players have relocated. Now, they come in to Bisham for three days a week and do strength and conditioning for the other two days."
All three - Leman, Faulkner and Kerry - admit they would rather simply have a British team and get rid of the Home Nations, even if they don't quite couch it in those terms.
Kerry says the current situation is "not ideal"; Faulkner says a GB team on its own would be his "performance preference"; Leman believes that is the best "no-compromise, performance-only approach" but a "step too far" for hockey to conquer.
"It's a cross we have to bear in these isles," adds Leman. "The agreement of at least getting GB the ability to play throughout the four-year cycle is a significant step. I don't think we'll ever get GB all the time, but this is a major improvement."
It certainly is, and the reasons why reform cannot go further are obvious. Turkeys will not vote for Christmas, and nobody at the English, Scottish or Welsh federations is going to take themselves out of existence for a greater British good.
But, though the British officials speak highly of their colleagues, the continued presence of the home nations must be a thorn in their side. The three federations all need money to run (and beyond staffing, think of things like separate kits, publicity, websites and so on, all of which are replicated several times over). Plus, trying to promote the home nations and Great Britain is a marketing nightmare.
Leman perfectly exemplified the confusion when speaking about the women's Champions Trophy, a prestigious international tournament coming to Nottingham in July 2010.
"The ladies' team hosting the tournament is great for this country," he said. "I think GB have a chance there."
Well, no, they don't, because they're playing as England. Any immaculately suited marketing consultant will tell you having one, strong brand to push always beats selling several weaker ones.
If GB Hockey isn't sure who's playing where, it's hard to expect the public to know what's going on or how it all works. But the mistake is understandable, isn't it? If you chop and change teams all year, the boundaries are going to become blurred.
This may be the factor that dissuades the home nations' football associations from going down a similar road for London 2012. There will almost certainly be a British football team there, but it is expected to be no more than a temporarily rebadged England side.
The likes of the Scottish FA are terrified (as exemplified by Craig Brown) that, by being absorbed into a British set-up even for just one Olympic appearance, the Fifa special exemption which allows the home nations to exist as separate footballing entities will be washed away.
Any blurring of boundaries there, and the home nations will have horrific visions of Wayne Rooney, Craig Bellamy and Kevin Kyle up front for Britain at the 2014 World Cup.
Football's worst nightmare is hockey's ideal way forward, and it would be hard to realistically suggest football follows hockey's lead. The two operate indifferent worlds: one with the vested interests of millions of highly partisan fans to take into account, the other desperate for Olympic success to keep the funds flowing.
The last word goes to Alex Danson, 24-year-old forward for Britain and England.
"Things have changed massively and we have the most fantastic opportunity now," she says.
"Previously we just didn't have the contact time together. Now we have that and we have the best facilities, here at Bisham. It's really exciting because we're all driven by one goal: we want to be there at 2012, competing for that top spot."
Getting the population of the UK to unite behind a British Olympic team in 2012 is going to be a big challenge. Hockey highlights how the concept of Britain can work in practice, but it is showing up some of the pitfalls too.