I have to admit that the sport of hockey had not registered much on my radar during my formative years. There were the occasional matches played at Wembley on ITV's World of Sport, but these were of little interest to me. Generally, the sport was perceived very much as a jolly pastime, a female activity lumped into the same category as netball, and certainly not part of PE at my local school.
Yet all this would change for me in October 1986. An event in England commenced a love affair with a sport that in truth only lasted two years; but what an enjoyable period of my life it was. Little did I know that a chance glance at a television screen on Saturday October 4, 1986, would see me begin a journey from Willesden to Seoul that in turn saw me spending many a Saturday traipsing around the less glamorous towns of Herts, Beds and Bucks. The 1986 Hockey World Cup has a lot to answer for.
However, I was not alone in boarding this particular bandwagon. As the tournament progressed, the column inches grew and grew, as England's players became household names and hockey even had the cheek to knock football off of the back pages and our television screens. It definitely wasn't as big as when football came home ten years later, but it was just as significant for hockey in the UK.
Historically England had not excelled at hockey World Cup tournaments, with only two sixth-placed finishes in 1973 and 1975 to show for their efforts. Up until 1984, it was pretty much the same story for the Great Britain team at recent Olympic Games. But a last minute entry due to the withdrawal of the USSR opened the door for the beginning of the British revival in Los Angeles. It would be the start of something special.
A thrilling run to the semi-final may have ended at the hands of West Germany, but the bronze medal won by the British team after their win over Australia was a just reward for a team that was starting to come together under manager Roger Self and coach David Whitaker. Colin Whalley assumed Self's role during the World Cup, yet the continuity of players - nine LA Olympians represented England in the 1986 tournament - meant that hopes were high.
The undoubted stars of the side were keeper Ian Taylor, and centre forward Sean Kerly. Taylor was recognised as the best in the world, and won the Hockey Writers' Club player of the year prior to the World Cup. Kerly, who would constantly be referred to as the Gary Lineker of hockey, scored 7 goals in LA, and was on his way to becoming one of the stars of the sport.
Yet there would be other heroes to emerge during the World Cup. Skipper Richard Dodds was a rock at the back; Paul Barber the short corner expert; David Faulkner came in at full back for the injured Peter Duthie, and never looked back; Jon Potter was a brilliant right half who luckily took a fine penalty stroke; Martyn Grimley, the experienced Norman Hughes, and Richard Leman were vital cogs in the team; and in exciting wingers Stephen Batchelor and Imran Sherwani, the team contained creativity. With other squad members such as John Shaw, Kulbir Bhaura, and Robert Clift, the team were seemingly well equipped as the tournament got under way on October 4.
The journey begins
The tournament took place in Willesden, North London, the first time the World Cup would be contested on an artificial playing surface, in an 11,000 capacity stadium that contained three temporary stands. Two groups of six teams would be whittled down to four semi-finalists, and despite the enthusiasm surrounding the host nation, the task ahead would not be straight forward.
The consensus of opinion seemed to be that England simply had to win their opening group matches against New Zealand, Argentina, and the Soviet Union, to stand any chance of progressing. Beyond these matches waited the real examinations; the Netherlands (European champions) and Pakistan (World and Olympic champions).
After the opening ceremony on Saturday October 4, England started the tournament with a comfortable 3-1 win over New Zealand, a Kerly brace and a Batchelor clincher answering a strike from New Zealand's star forward Peter Daji. Yet the fixtures came thick and fast, each match seemingly a bigger test than the previous.
Argentina, who had pulled off a major shock in defeating Pakistan 3-1, pushed England all the way just two days after the first set of matches. It would take an Sherwani goal seven minutes from time to give England a 2-1 win, a rare triumph over Argentina in a year where the South Americans had beaten England in the football World Cup and the Dunhill Cup golf.
The Russians are coming
"I am happy with the way things have gone, although I was a little disappointed with our performance against Argentina," manager Whalley stated prior to the next fixture in the group. "Still, it is the result that matters and if we play as we did against New Zealand we ought to beat the Soviet Union."
No one was underestimating the Soviet team, however. The 1983 European Championship runners-up were a strong defensive unit, and dangerous on the counter attack. Their matches were far from entertaining - they had already lost 1-0 to the Netherlands and beaten New Zealand by the same score - but they would prove to be effective.
England found this out for themselves. Tied up in a Soviet web, the home team could not break through the iron curtain at the back, and when the visitors took the lead through Goncharov in the 51st minute, England were on their way to a 1-0 loss that looked extremely costly.
"We are certainly not dispirited by the result," coach Whittaker commented. "It leaves the group wide open but we have a couple of days to sort ourselves." Very true. But the scary thought of England not qualifying for the semi-finals was now a reality. Lose to either Pakistan or the Netherlands, and the party would have to go on without the hosts.
It wasn't as if England's next opponents were pulling up any trees, though. In fact, Pakistan were in a precarious position. After losing their opening matches to Argentina and the Netherlands, Pakistan needed three goals in the last five minutes to see off New Zealand 5-3. Anything other than a win against England, and their title defence was over.
If Pakistan were struggling, then their neighbours India were hardly in a position to gloat in Group B. Losses to Poland and Spain were shocking, yet their 6-0 thrashing at the hands of the rampant Australians was proof that the days of Asian dominance in the sport were long gone. When the two powerhouses clashed in the 11th-12th play-off, it was scarcely believable.
So what had brought on this demise? Many felt that the new artificial pitches throughout the sport were literally levelling the playing field, with India and Pakistan unable to cope with the faster surfaces. With only two artificial pitches in India, this may have been a strong argument; yet maybe the rest of the world was simply catching up with the dominant Asians? Either way, the 1986 World Cup was very much the start of a new era in hockey.
With hockey starting to trickle into the attention of the tabloids and the general public, it was no longer a surprise to see the Willesden Sports Centre crammed to the rafters as England took on Pakistan in a crucial encounter. With the help of two Jonny Potter penalty strokes, and another goal from Kerly, England won 3-1, and lived to fight on another day.
Qualification was still very iffy, though. Another win for the Netherlands - 1-0 against New Zealand - saw the Dutch top the group on eight points, with England and the Soviet Union on six, the latter keeping another clean sheet in disposing of Argentina. The equation was simple(ish). An England win would see them through; anything else would leave them needing a favour from the Pakistanis against the Soviets.
That the Netherlands had beaten England 15 times out of the last sixteen indicated the task faced by the hosts, but in a tense affair a goal after 14 minutes by Sherwani was enough to see England reach their first ever World Cup semi-final. Cheered on by a Monday afternoon crowd of 8,720, England were reduced to ten men for six minutes in the second half after Kerly had been sin-binned, but the Dutch did not capitalise. Their miserable day was complete when the Soviet Union beat Pakistan 2-0 to qualify for the last four along with England.
Success, success, success
"It is one of our greatest achievements," Whittaker said after England reached the semis, as the success of the tournament snowballed. Come the end of the World Cup, approximately 90,000 spectators had attended the matches, with £340,000 made from ticket sales (the projected figure was £220,000), with Hockey Association President Phil Appleyard rightfully proud of what he and his organising team had achieved. "We are absolutely delighted," Appleyard said come the end of the World Cup. "We proved that we could stage as amateurs a major event in a professional manner. We expect to finish in the black."
The success of the England team, and the likeable nature of the "ordinary men" in the squad, also helped. Letters flooded the newspapers stating how football could learn a lot from the sport, what a fine example this assorted band of men were, how the squad containing amateurs played for the love of the game, as teachers, a doctor, a transport manager, and newsagent became household names.
The final confirmation of the new found popularity came on the day of England's semi-final against West Germany. The cancellation of Football Focus on BBC1 was genuinely big news, and was revisited at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year awards night in December. Taylor and Kerly took on Bob Wilson and Emlyn Hughes in a penalty flick contest in the "fun" section of the show. Hockey had definitely arrived.
I had completely caught the bug. Running around in my back garden with a makeshift hockey stick and ball - a three-iron and a tennis ball - I temporarily converted myself into Barber, Sherwani, Batchelor and Kerly. Even now, when the leaves turn brown and the nights draw in, I'm still reminded of this period in my life. Happy days.
Barber cuts the Germans down to size
If the sport of hockey needed promoting to the audience of Grandstand, then the semi-final between England and West Germany turned out to be the best possible advert. The Germans may have been less than impressive on reaching the last four - wins over Poland and Canada, along with draws against Spain, Australia and India - but the bookies could not separate the teams, with both at 11/8 and the draw at 11/4.
Most previews focused on the importance of the short corner in the match, and the danger posed to England by German star Carsten Fischer. Paul Barber, England's own short corner specialist, looked into the future on the eve of the match, discussing his role in the team: "A short corner in the final analysis can mean the difference of going through. I've got the easy part. I just have to hit the ball between those two white sticks. The push and stop players are vital."
The short corner would indeed prove the difference between success and failure. In a nerve-jangling encounter, all appeared to be going swimmingly for England, with Kerly's opener after 17 minutes giving the home team a half-time lead. But never has the expression "don't write off the Germans" sounded so true as the second half ticked on. Fischer equalised in the 44th minute, and when Heiner Dopp put the Germans in front 12 minutes later, England were well and truly on the ropes and one punch away from falling to the canvas.
Time ticked by so quickly, with England throwing everything forward, and the Germans dangerous on the break. With just a minute left on the clock, England had a short corner, and were booking a table at the last chance saloon when the ball landed at the stick of Barber. As the England full back drew back his stick, I sat at home praying that this story would have a happy ending. In the blink of an eye, Barber was celebrating his equaliser, and extra time loomed.
The drama did not finish there. In the first period, Dodds was forced to clear a Dopp effort off the line, and even after Barber had given England the lead in the second half, the Germans pressed relentlessly. Taylor saved twice from short corners and Schmidt-Opper hit the post in the buttock-clenching conclusion to the match. Frankly, after all that I needed a week to recover. Yet with the final just the next day, there was hardly any chance to draw breath.
With one major sporting rival defeated, England were now faced with another old enemy: Australia. Easily the most impressive team in the tournament, the Australian progression to the final was frightening. A 6-2 win over Canada gave an indication of their fire power, and after a 2-2 draw with West Germany, the Aussies steamrolled the rest of the group. Two 6-0 wins over Spain and India, along with a 4-2 victory over Poland, set up a semi-final with the Soviet Union played after the England-West Germany tussle. Australia's 5-0 win, including two goals from the man of the tournament Richard Charlesworth (an Australian MP), highlighted the task ahead for England.
Sunday October 19: as ticket touts reportedly charged £150 for £12 tickets outside the stadium, fans gathered to see if England could win a World Cup twenty years after a very famous national triumph just a few miles up the road. A Terry Walsh goal after just five minutes gave Australia the lead, and when John Bestall scored slightly against the run of play in the 24th minute, the match looked a step too far for England. Australia generally had most teams beaten by half-time at Willesden, and England were clinging on grimly.
The second half was a different story, though, with England putting in a rousing display. England probed and pushed, desperate to score the goal that would get them back into the match. With Australian captain Bell sin-binned briefly, the pressure began to tell. A Jonny Potter strike seven minutes from time gave England hope, but try as they might they could not find the leveller. Barber went close on a couple of occasions, yet there was no repeat of his semi-final heroics. England had come so far and gone so near.
"England were all over us," Australian coach Richard Aggiss later revealed. "With seven minutes to go, we were trying to close up the game. But it didn't work." Whittaker could not hide his frustration, stating that his players were "bitterly disappointed", but also stressing how proud he was of their achievements. "We served notice to the world," Whittaker noted, adding that he hoped the exploits of his team would inspire a generation of hockey players in Britain.
"One felt for all the English team, at the end," wrote Simon Barnes in The Times. "They have given us all so much and such surprising pleasure; they have introduced us all to a new and stunning game; they have got the cheers of the nation behind them." Barnes was accurate in so many regards. Despite the glorious failure, hockey and the England team had received so much positive publicity during the World Cup, and it felt like the start of something big.
Momentum seemed to be building behind the sport in Britain. With talk of the sport entering the school programme for boys, coaching classes, and more artificial pitches throughout the country, the 1986 hockey World Cup had proved to be an ideal centenary present for the Hockey Association. The England team continued to excel, losing the 1987 European Championship final on penalty flicks to the Netherlands, and by 1988 the Great Britain team was ideally placed to claim the gold medal at the Seoul Olympics.
With eleven members of the 1986 England World Cup squad, Great Britain won the gold medal in unforgettable circumstances, gaining revenge over Australia in the semi-finals, and defeating West Germany in the final that contained Barry Davies' famous "Where were the Germans?" line. The BBC Sports Personality Team of the Year award followed, and although the men's national team never reached the same heights as the 1980s, no one who witnessed the rise of the team will ever forget their moment in the spotlight.
"It's just a phase," my old-fashioned dad commented when I asked for a proper stick for Christmas in 1986, questioning whether he wanted his son to play this sport that some still thought was just for girls. However, it was something that occupied me for five years. Celebrating Great Britain's 1988 Olympic win and joining my local hockey team, my love affair lasted until the early nineties. By then we both agreed to go our separate ways, drifting apart amicably. But I'll always have Willesden and Seoul to remind me of the good times.