Masters at work
Sarah Juggins meets Kath Johnson, part of GB’s bronze medal team 25 years ago
We meet two of the game’s top golden oldies
Kath is one of the kindest, most gentle people. But get her in a competitive environment and she would leave every last drop of herself out there
Afew months before the Great Britain women won gold at Rio, Helen Richardson-Walsh was sitting in the stands at the Olympic Park watching a club match. She was deep in conversation with the women next to her when a young girl approached nervously with a match programme for Helen to sign.
Helen signed it with a smile and then said to the girl, “Really it’s this lady whose autograph you want, she has an Olympic medal.”
Kath Johnson laughs as she recalls the story. “I don’t get recognised much,” she says. “I did for a little while after Barcelona, but it was very different back in 1992. The coverage the squad are getting now is tremendous for the sport, it makes people want to play and watch hockey – to be honest the Olympics has been brilliant for women’s sport generally. I go to the gym and see young girls doing boxing because of Nicola Adams.”
When Kath started out on her international career she also had a full-time job. To attend training camps she took annual leave or unpaid leave, and evenings would see her driving from work in west Norfolk to Chelmsford, where she joined up with the GB players based in the East of England – a 180 mile round trip.
Things got better over the course of her time with Great Britain. “It was a a bit better for 1996 because my work helped out financially a little and for Sydney I was able to take a year off because the BOA supported us financially by paying someone to do my job.”
In these times of centralised programmes and sponsorship deals it would be understandable if there was just a touch of the green-eyed monster from a player who was the mainstay of the Great Britain and England midfield for three Olympic cycles, but anyone who has met Kath will know that could never be the case.
In fact, speak to anyone who has played with or against Kath and the sentiment is the same: “She is the nicest person you could ever meet… off the pitch.”
Kath is full of praise for the current crop of players. She played with Helen and Kate Richardson-Walsh in the Sydney Olympic cycle and says: “They were really quiet back then but they have grown into masters of the game. Kate is just so commanding and Helen – well, when she took that penalty stroke in the final [Olympic gold medal match], you just knew there was no-one better suited to playing under that sort of pressure.”
There are some sharp words about one aspect of coverage the squad received following the Games. “Where is Danny Kerry in all of this? He has been brilliant and should have received far more recognition. I scanned the papers for his name on the New Years Honours list and I couldn’t believe it wasn’t there. I am so pleased for all the players but, really Danny was the lynchpin of the whole success.”
Kath turned 50 this year and it is 25 years since Great Britain women won bronze in Barcelona. The midfielder earned herself the moniker ‘Lion of Barcelona’ because of her mane of reddish-gold hair and the courage and aggression she always brought to her game.
The mane of hair is tamed slightly, but the aggression on the pitch lives on. “I play with girls of 15 and 16,” says Kath, who still turns out for Norfolk-based Harleston Magpies. “They are really nice.” She pauses...“too nice really. They need to be much tougher on the pitch.”
She recounts a game she played at the weekend to illustrate the point: “We were 1-0 down for most of the match but we came back really well and scored an equaliser with five minutes to go. So I called for us to sit back and defend the point, but they all charged up the pitch in search of the winner. Of course, the opposition broke and scored and we lost 2-1. And I got sent off for doing a lastditch tackle.”
I wasn’t certain if the irritation she showed, 24 hours after the event was real – but of course it was. With Kath, it doesn’t matter if it is an Olympic medal match or a game in the back garden, she always wants to win.
After an international career that includes a gold medal at the 1991 European Nations Cup, plus that bronze medal from the Barcelona Olympics, Kath now plays for England Masters. This year she will be playing in the Home Countries tournament in Dublin in June and the European Championships in August. “I really enjoy playing Masters hockey,” she says. “Last year we went to Australia and came back with a silver medal. We will be after gold in Europe. Getting silver is never quite enough and it always hurts when you lose to the Aussies, whatever age you are. “I am squeezing as much hockey in as I can,” she says, revealing that she has arthritis in both hips. For someone used to leading a physically active life the debilitating nature of arthritis has been hard to accept but Kath has applied her own logic to it. “I can’t train like I used to, so I train differently. I don’t run on the roads or treadmill, I just run in hockey matches and do my other training on a bike or in the pool.” And her approach to the game has also changed: “Now I use passing more, I try to read ahead of the game a bit more, I think carefully about my positioning.” She laughs at my suggestion that she is a more intelligent player as a result. “I was never much good at reading the game, that is why I will never go into coaching. I can’t break things down and analyse them, I just go with my instincts.”
While Kath might not be keen on taking a coaching role, there are still things that today’s internationals can learn from her. “I hope the players keep their feet on the ground and stay focussed,” she says. “There is a danger that the public interest will drop away, although this time around there do seem to be a lot more people interested. But look, it is a long game. Kate and Helen started 17 years ago and now they are finally getting recognition. My mum rang me up the other day and said, ‘Quick put the television on, Kate is on ITV,’ that sort of recognition doesn’t come overnight.”
I asked Andrew, Kath’s partner, if her will to win had diminished over time. “Anyone will tell you that Kath is one of the kindest, nicest, most gentle people they know. But get her in a competitive environment and she would leave every last drop of herself out there. No, she hasn’t changed and I don’t think she ever will.”
In the thick of it: Kath Johnson playing for England Masters