Interview: Olympic men's hockey hopeful Ashley Jackson
PUBLISHED: 03:16 28 June 2012 | UPDATED: 21:33 20 February 2013
There are high hopes for medal success when the English hockey teams meet their rivals at the Riverbank Arena. East Grinstead's Ashley Jackson is a team hopeful. Words: Stephanie Temple. Pictures: John O'Brien
Mens hockey made its Olympic debut in 1908 and since then has become a much-loved spectator event with millions of followers all over the globe. Unlike many other sports there is no offside rule, substitutions can be made at virtually any time and theres the ever-present element of danger due to a small, hard ball being fired around the pitch at tremendous speeds, up to 100mph if struck correctly.
Hockey started from humble beginnings and was originally played on patches of grass with makeshift goals and wooden hooked sticks. Over the years, the game has progressed to sand astroturf pitches and more recently, the water-base pitch is commonplace in hockey clubs around the country. Like a pair of football boots or golf club, a players hockey stick is an extension of their body and must be chosen very carefully. Due to advancements in technology, sticks are now made from fibreglass, kevlar, carbon fibre and wood, all of which are light and powerful and can prove costly, as more often than not a new one is needed for each season.
Put 70 minutes on the clock, add 22 players to the pitch including two padded goalkeepers, two umpires and a spherical ball made of hard plastic (similar in size to a cricket ball) and the scene is set for an intense and skilful game. Unbelievably the only protective equipment available is gum-shields, shin pads, gloves and face masks for short corners; no helmets or padding, except for the goalies. Luckily most players are skilful enough to avoid serious injuries. Whats refreshing about this sport is the distinct lack of diving and writhing around on the floor waiting for the umpire to take notice. Yes, obviously astro burns are enough to put most players off hurling themselves onto the surface, but even on water base pitches, which are far more forgiving, diving is just not part of the game. Not only does this make the game faster but it also means that players, at whatever level, have the utmost respect for umpires.
In just over a month, 12 mens teams and 12 womens teams, each consisting of 16 squad members will battle it out at The Riverbank Arena. Medal hopes for England are high but tough competition in the mens pools awaits, as the team face fierce sides including Australia and Pakistan in the preliminary stages. One man who knows more than most about what to expect is 24-year-old Ashley Jackson.
Ashley Jackson first picked up a hockey stick at 9 and in the last 15 years has become one of this countrys highest capped players for his age. His career highlight was three years ago when he won gold at the 2009 European Championships, beating Germany to the top of the podium. Ashley is a sure favourite for the squad this summer the official team lists have not been confirmed, but if I was betting woman, I know which way Id go...
After joining Tunbridge Wells HC at 9 and then moving to East Grinstead six years later where he made his first team debut at the tender age of 15, Ashley really has made his mark on the game, locally, nationally and internationally. I played at county level from under 11 and then worked my way up to the regional squads before I was selected for the U16 and U18 junior national sides. My senior national debut was in November 2006 against Holland, a day that I will never forget, says Ashley.
East Grinstead HC has been Ashleys home for nearly a decade where he has been guided and coached to help him become the player he is today. The club was founded in 1897 and is one of the most successful clubs in the country. It has a state-of-the-art water-base and 3G pitch and fields six mens teams and four womens teams every Saturday, both of which have celebrated recent successes on the pitch. Most notably, the mens sides have produced 19 international honours and not just for this country but Germany and Australia too, including Barry Middleton who plays for England and who has captained the GB squad in many tournaments.
For the last six years in a row, the men have been crowned National Indoor League Champions and EHL Premiership Division winners for the 2011/12 season.
Ashley is a forward/midfielder, both of which require excellent ball carrying skills and distribution. Fitness is vital for these positions, you have to be able to support your team in attack and also get back to help the defence if the play suddenly switches. Its exhausting but for me, its the most rewarding position on the pitch, explains Ashley.
The Olympic test event took place at the Riverbank Arena recently and Ashley was astounded at the support from the spectators. There has been some controversy about the pitch being too slippery and causing unnecessary injuries, but by his account, this is not the case at all. For the first time at the Games, the pitch is blue and not the traditional green, but rumours that its not good to play on are just not true. I played on it and yes, because its new it is a bit slippery but with a bit more wear over the coming weeks, it will be a fantastic surface to play on. I hope to be there representing my country in front of the home crowd.
As with all sports, the risk of injury is never far away. In hockey, the variety of injuries is staggering from broken noses to snapped shin bones, to broken feet and hands. Hopefully our boys and girls will be firing on all cylinders next month to score their way to gold. I know the chosen side will not be dreading playing anyone although there are some teams who will be harder to tackle like Germany and Australia. The team will need to beat one if not both of these countries to have a hope of winning the gold but it can be done and they will be ready for this; the biggest challenge of their careers, says Ashley.