Mas­ters at work

Sarah Jug­gins meets Kath John­son, part of GB’s bronze medal team 25 years ago

The Hockey Paper - - NEWS -

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

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