120 years, 120 stories (Part 23): Great Britain’s historical gold medal win in hockey in 1988 Olympics


Seoul 1988 Olympics is to British hockey as Wembley 1966 World Cup is to English football. The triumph was something first for the British in the sport at that level, which led to amateurs being made into instant heroes, who prior to the Olympics were barely known even in their own streets.

However unlike that of 1966, the triumph in 1988 Olympics was achieved on foreign soil and in the climatic conditions of South-East Asia, which were completely different from that of the British climate. The hockey team comprising of Sherwani and others overcame high temperatures and excessive altitude as they reached the highest points in their sporting careers. It is little wonder that the people are still being reminded of their triumph in Seoul in 1988.

The British hockey seemed to be in decline after the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. After having secured a silver and a bronze medal in the last two Olympics, the British side failed to win medals in Melbourne in 1956 or in Rome in 1960. Things started going further downhill as they finished eighth in Tokyo while they ended up twelvth in Mexico in 1968.

They showed some improvement in Munich four years later where they finished sixth however their slump reached the rock bottom when they could not even qualify for the 1976 Montreal Olympics, despite 25 African teams withdrawing protesting the sporting links of New Zealand with South Africa. The team did not get to play in the 1980 Olympics as well since the British Government decided to boycott the event.

However things started to change for the better from 1984, and it all started with a bit of luck. As per rules only the first 12 teams were selected for the Olympics. Britain were ranked 13th at that time and were surely to miss out an Olympic once again. However the USSR and a lot of its Allies boycotted the game citing the commercialisation of the Olympics. Great Britain hockey team was one of the beneficiaries of the boycott and were promoted to the magic dozen. What followed then was a show of gritty display and never give up attitude saw them unbeaten through their five pool games. They were beaten by a solitary goal in the semifinals by Germany, and they beat one of the favourites Australia 3-2 to win the bronze medal. It was a stunning performance from a side short on preparation but clearly not lacking in belief.

More success followed as the British team finished second as hosts in the 1986 hockey World Cup losing to Australia in the finals. In 1988 Olympics, the team were in a buoyant mood at the back of their successes in the last four years. They looked for nothing other than a gold medal at Seoul. As Imran Sherwani says, “Our thoughts were firmly fixed on winning gold.”

However they faced a setback early in the tournament as they were held to a 2-2 draw against South Korea. However they bounced back with a victory over Canada. But they lost to West Germany in the next game, with the winning goal being scored from a dubious penalty. A second defeat against West Germany in as many Olympics could have been the end of the journey for the team, but they recovered well by beating USSR and India to proceed to semifinals against top seeded Australia.

Sean Kerly who had scored seven times in the 1984 games became an overnight hero for the nation as he scored a hattrick as Britain defeated Australia 3-2. Such was his performance that he put Gary Linekar from the spotlight following his failure in the Euro ’88.

The manager and the coach had instilled confidence into the team that the gold medal can be won with a victory over the team to which they had succumbed to defeat in the last two times at the Games. Along with belief there was also a tactical plan. The Germans were expected to play with a blanket defence in which 11 players would be placed behind the ball in a narrow, compact formation. The strategy as decided by the British to counter this plan was by attacking from the flanks.

This strategy reaped early dividends for Britain when Sherwani scored in the first half to give them a lead by attacking from the left flank and moving past two defenders before striking into an open net. Kerly doubled their lead in the second half with his eighth goal of the tounament while Sherwani scored his second to give Britain a 3-0 lead. That goal led to one of the most famous lines in TV commenatary by Barry Davies, “Where were the Germans? And frankly, who cares.”

Heiner Dopp scored one for the Germans but it was nothing more than a consolation, and Britain were the 1988 Olympics hockey champions. The entire team returned to the nation as heroes enjoying great moments in the national spotlight.

“It was great fun,” added Kerly given his perks of celebrity included being paid £2,000 for reading out a few words at a dry-cleaners’ conference shortly after the Games.

Seoul was the result of an eight-year dream that was turned into a glorious reality and the team broke up soon after. A few of the players retired while others who continued to play did so at a lower level. Sherwani helped Leek hockey club reach domestic league status while Kerly still turned out for Canterbury’s sixth team at the age of 52.


Will the British hockey team be able to display another stupendous performance to clinch their first Olympic medal in hockey since 1988 Olympics? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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