Sean Kerly: The Living Legend of the British Hockey talks about Beijing Olympics

My interview of Olympic gold medallist Sean Kerly published in Kentish Gazette of the Kent Messenger Group on 31 July 2008

This is the Olympic year and both the GB hockey teams, men and women, have qualified for Beijing.

In this country, for almost every sports follower in general and a hockey lover in particular, the mere mention of ‘GB hockey and Olympics’ always evokes memories of the Seoul Olympics of 1988—the finest hour of the GB hockey- when they won the gold. And name of one member of that golden side became synonymous with hockey, Sean Kerly.

Someone rightly said, “Sean Kerly was the first hockey player to achieve household notoriety in this country”.  In fact, until today, he is also the last.

Kerly achieved many individual distinctions: he not only scored a hat trick in GB’s 3-2 victory against the hot favourite Australians in the semi final but also netted once in the 3-1 win over the Germans in the final.  In his international career lasting from 1981-92, he retired as the Great Britain’s all time leading goal-scorer with 64 goals while for England he scored 45 goals. Sean Kerly, who has been called the ‘Gary Lineker’ of hockey, was awarded the MBE in 1993. Apart from his ’88 heroics, he is also remembered for his exploits at the 1984 Olympics. At Los Angeles, where GB hockey ended the medal draught at the Olympics for this particular sport after 32 years, Sean scored the winning goal in 2-1 win in the bronze medal play-off against Australia.

Other than the Olympic medals, Kerly also has a World Cup silver (1986) as well as a silver and a bronze from the European Nations Championships.

Kerly was a complete centre forward. He had speed, strength and a fierce shot. Possessed that striker instinct to be aware of his position vis-à-vis goal and defenders– to be in the right position at the right time. But he was not merely a poacher, and was also blessed with sublime stick work and great acceleration.

An out and out Kent Man: Sean Robin Kerly was born January 29, 1960 in Whitstable, educated at Chatham House Grammar School, played for Canterbury as have all his three daughters, and presently lives in Herne Bay, running a graphic art and marketing agency.

This talk is primarily focused on Olympics: ’88 and ’84 successes, and Britain’s prospects at the Beijing.

-What were the main factors which contributed towards that great era, especially the 1988 success?

Team was experienced, we believed in each other and blended well. Then we were continually on the up: bronze in the ‘84 Olympics, silver (as England) in the World Cup ‘86 as well as at the European Nations Championships ‘87. So, you might say that we had just peaked at the time of the ‘88 Olympics. We were not the best set of individuals but were really good as a team. Individually, players from Germany, Holland and Pakistan were more skilful.

The ‘84 bronze was really important. It was a fairy tale as we had not qualified and were the reserve country. Without the ‘84 success, the ‘88 gold might not have materialised.

– England had finished last in the 1988 Champions Trophy in Lahore. Did it have any effect on the morale of the team before the OG?

No, though Champions trophy is an important hockey event but it is held every year and is not a title tournament. Teams often take it as a preparation for the Olympics and the World Cup especially if the Champions Trophy precedes either of the events, the same year. Then in 1988, many of our regular players including myself were absent from the Champions Trophy for one reason or the other.

– How you describe the role of Roger Self (manager) and David Whitaker (coach) in those successes?

David mainly worked with us on the training ground with drills, organising defence, attacking patterns, etc. But in my opinion, Roger was the key person. He was determined to build us mentally strong and supplied the ‘hockey intelligence’. He used to make and break us, again and again. It was not much fun but we realised afterwards, how important it was.

– Did you quit your job to prepare for the games?

Yes, I left my job three months before the Olympics to concentrate fully on the training. After the games, I was mainly engaged in part time jobs and got full time employment after one year.

-But it is also said that the gold medal success not only made you a celebrity but also rich financially. I read somewhere that Kerly was at the centre of it in 1988 as hockey’s most marketable man. These were the days when the centre-forward could pick up a few grand for just walking on to a panto with a hockey stick in hand.

Ha! ha! Well, I did make a few bucks but definitely not good money. I did public speaking, TV work, etc. after the Olympic success but what I earned was not much different from my average monthly income from the previous job. After six months, it was back to normal.

– After the 88 success, the team got a lot of Media as well as Public attention. Tell something about it?

As soon as we landed at Heathrow, we were taken into a small room for an interview for breakfast television. That was just the beginning. We went to Buckingham Palace as well as 10 Downing Street to see the Queen and Margaret Thatcher. At the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Show in 1988, the hockey team won the team award for the second time, having won it in 1984. Moreover, I was nominated for the individual award. There was a galaxy of sporting stars around us and we felt exalted in such a great company.

It was surreal. For around three months, it was a fantastic fun for us. I wasn’t out of a dinner suit. Almost all the other boys had gone back to work. I was without a job and did all kinds of celebrity things like Sporting Triangles on the TV . There were numerous other TV appearances and The Sun even ran a story on “20 things you never knew about Olympic hero Sean Kerly.”

-What were the reasons of the immediate decline after 1988? We never reached even the semi final of Olympics/World Cup.

As an organisation, we didn’t plan properly for further success. The focus was only on 1988. Matters were also not helped by the GB squad breaking into the home countries immediately after the Olympics. Everyone takes his own path. Moreover, many players as well as the coach immediately retired from the international game. There was a complete new management and there was no interaction between new and old teams. It will not be wrong to compare it with the victorious English soccer team of the 1966 World Cup or, more recently, the rugby team which won the 2003 World Cup.

However, I must stress that if comparable success is achieved today then we should be able to build on it, as nowadays we have a professional sports administration working full time.

-What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current GB squad?

I have not seen them closely during the last four months. On the basis of what I saw at the Euros and in the Olympic qualifiers (on TV), they look quick especially on the counter attacks. The deep defence including the goal keeper is solid. The forwards are scoring goals. The poor conversion of penalty corners is a grey area.  The boys appear to have started believing in themselves. More importantly, they have that lean and hungry look so essential for success.

-How you rate Great Britain’s chances at Beijing?

As compared to the Athens’ this time the team is better settled. Apart from the Euro 2007, they have done well in major tournaments in recent times—good show at the World Cup qualifier and a commendable 5th position at the World Cup itself. More importantly, their show at the Olympic qualifier makes me optimistic. In fact, not qualifying early has been good for them as they’ve experienced the pressure of what it’s going to be like. Unlike the sides ranked above them, almost all of whom are regarded as the favourites, the team GB will be under no such pressure. They should be aiming for the semi final spot, at least. For this it is important, that they earn the full points against the three weaker sides in their pool, Pakistan, South Africa and Canada.  And hope for the best against Holland and Australia.

-The records tell something different. Britain has won just five in 43 against Australia and five in 40 matches against Germany. So isn’t it a case of false optimism?

My answer is what my team mate Dodds said after the victory against Germany in the ’88 Olympics final. When asked if he realised this was Britain’s first defeat of Germany in 20 years. “They can keep them all,” he responded. “We have what we came for.”

-Who are the key players?

The midfielder Barry Middleton should play an important role. Richard Mantell’s distribution at back is good though not very quick. Goal minder Alistair McGregor is also a source of strength.

-Which countries you consider as the favourites for the Olympic title?

Holland, especially after their show at the Euros; Germany, they are still the no.1 ranked team. I regard them as a wounded tiger for they had to go through the Olympic qualifiers after the Euro disappointment. Australia is a very strong side and they are also the defending champions. Spain is fully capable of spoiling the party of any of the above three.

-Hockey has been transformed into a glamour sport in Holland.  There is soccer like atmosphere in the Dutch league with thousands of people in every game. Players enjoy great fan following and get good money. Why not in Britain?

There are quite a few factors. Holland has been a top team for last 10 years winning all the major titles. Had we been performing as well then hockey would have got the similar attention in GB as well. Look at cycling and rowing. They are getting good profile these days because of the success in the international arena.

Barring soccer, hockey does not have any competition in Holland. On the other hand, apart from soccer, we also have other sports such as rugby, cricket and even horse racing, which are very much professional and enjoy keen following.

Then the club structure in Holland is better established. Their clubs are specific hockey clubs with membership running into thousands. Hockey’s status in Holland can be compared with that of rugby in England.

– You have also been commentating on hockey. Are you still involved with it?

Yes, I am. I did that for the BBC at European Nations Championships last August at Manchester and I will also be going to the Olympics in Beijing.

Will we see the fairy tale of 1988 or even that of 1984 repeated in 2008? Like Kerly, every hockey fan of the land yearns for that.  If yes, then we may at last also see the next hockey celebrity after Kerly himself.

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