by Stephen Findlater
When Susannah Townsend raced through from midfield, swapping passes with Sophie Bray and Nicola White before sliding in to score, it was not simply a beautiful goal in England’s 5-2 win over Argentina to land bronze in July’s World League Semi-Final. After nine months on the sidelines, working on rebuilding her knee after surgery, it provided a moment of belief that she could put in the hard-running yards that she is famous for.
“Everyone in world hockey knows mine is a running game and I pride myself on getting from D to D,” she said of the moment. “I’m a power athlete really so it was good for me to feel, at the end of a long tournament, I could still do that.”
Prior to the tournament, she had only played a handful of matches following the Rio Olympics where she played a big role in landing gold. She went to Rio managing the injury, effectively a hole in the cartilage, using injections to get through the situation with the plan “sort it out when we got back” but “because of the hype, sort of forgot about it”. Townsend subsequently moved to Belgium to play with La Gantoise for the season, something of a “thank you” to a club she played for as a teenager. She felt the club provided the pathway to go from being a “good club player or go on and be an international player” and so wanted to play for them again to give something back for the boost they gave her.
In the end though, she could only manage three games before the knee issue recurring in a warm-up last October. She called her coach and surgeon instantly and was being operated on four days later. Mid-May was set as the target by the English coaching staff is Townsend was to be considered for selection for the summer’s tournaments, something she sees as vital in a new-look side bedding in for the new Olympic cycle very much in mind.
“We wanted to have the rehab go as fast we could without pushing it. I really wanted to make it because of Tokyo.” She hit that deadline, getting in some match-time during a camp in Madrid before playing in a memorable homecoming weekend in Lee Valley against Argentina in June. “Coming back, it was about seeing if my knee could hold out. I got selected for Jo’burg and while it wasn’t my best tournament by far, it gave me a lot of match practice which I haven’t had for months.
“It was mentally quite good to see that my knee could cope and also know for me to add from my fitness levels and skill levels as well.” With Townsend back and firing, it means England have a dynamic presence that has played a key role in elevating their level, winning the 2015 European Championships and the subsequent Olympic gold.
Since Rio, lots of experienced faces moved on like Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh, Sam Quek, Christa Cullen, Hannah Macleod and Georgie Twigg stepping back. It opened up places for tournament debutantes in South Africa like Anna Toman, Hannah Martin, Emily Defroand, Amy Tennant, Jo Hunter and Grace Balsdon. With those new faces bedded in, Townsend says they can now kick on and make a big impact in Amsterdam.
“We are at a stage where we had youngsters who hadn’t played in a tournament before who have now done that. Going to Amsterdam, it will be a different ball game. They will know what to expect, have played a lot of the teams before. For us, it’s a new Olympic cycle. We went over to Johannesburg trying to be as successful as we could and came back with third, learning valuable lessons that hopefully we can use to retain the European title.”
They will arrive in the Netherlands with different expectations on their shoulders than in previous times, being the team to beat rather than having any sense of being an outsider. “Talking to Laura Unsworth a couple of weeks ago, she was saying she has 200 caps but for the first four years of her career, she was losing semi-finals. Now, we are getting to that stage and we are expected to win them and then go on to win finals. It shows the strength England has going into this Europeans.
“We want to consistently become the number one side. It’s different because we are no longer the underdogs but a team that everyone wants to beat. For me, this is a great place to be in and one we haven’t been in before.” They do face a mini-Home Nations in the group stages, meeting Scottish and Irish sides – along with Germany – who would like to do nothing more than take them down a peg or two. “It is a case that everyone in world hockey will want to beat us. For me personally, I love that. The Irish, the Scots or whoever else. They are another team to play so we stick to the same processes that we have already done. It is a bit of a Home Nations and the spectators will get behind that. Maybe some other countries won’t understand the rivalry but we will try and look at it the same as we normally do.”
Their opening tie against an Irish side whose performances put them on the precipice of a first World Cup spot since 2002 and Townsend is not under-estimating the importance of that August 19th date. “It’s always feisty clash [with Ireland] which we both relish. They played well in Johannesburg and have some quality players like Nicci Daly and so on. “No one can say that the first game of a tournament is not an especially important and we will put ourselves under real pressure to get a result.”