Great Britain : Richard Leman recalls how it felt to win Olympic gold at Seoul 30 years ago
Photo Credits : Getty Images

“I was on the gold medal-winning bus in 1988 as a player and I was on the gold medal-winning bus in 2016 as President of Great Britain Hockey.”

When it comes to gold medal stories there is a poetic symmetry to Richard Leman’s experiences. The midfielder – who won 228 caps for England and Great Britain and captained the team from 1988 to 1990 – then moved into hockey administration, reaching a pinnacle in that sphere of the sport too.

With a bronze medal in 1984 and a gold medal in 1988, plus a silver at the 1986 World Cup in London, Leman has a full set of medals in his collection.

Of all the characters involved in the 1988 Olympic adventure Leman, who was awarded an OBE in 2018, is one of the players who has remained fully involved in all aspects of the sport.

He was on the Board of England Hockey for a number of years following his retirement from the international scene and he became President of Great Britain Hockey in 2007 – overseeing London 2012 and Rio 2016 – before stepping down in 2017.

When it comes to recalling the heady days surrounding the Seoul Olympic Games, Leman’s over-riding memory is of the pressure the squad had to soak up.

“In 1984 there were no expectations on the team to do anything and we won a bronze medal. In 1988 we were seeded at number two so we were expected to win the silver medal, so my two Olympic experiences involved very different pressures and emotions.

Seoul ’88 put a very different test on the team and the coaches. Pressures crept into the situation and it was up to the management and the team to cope with that.

For example, there was a training match before the Olympics, five versus five, and the full-back, Paul Barber, and the centre-forward, Sean Kerly, were almost squaring up to each other because we were all so ready to go.”

Just how very different Olympic sport was 30 years ago was highlighted when Leman returned to his club, East Grinstead, just a week after receiving the gold medal.

It had been so exciting and we were so very satisfied that we had achieved what we had set out to do, but I got back to my club and was brought down to earth instantly.

My teammates at East Grinstead were more concerned about how I was going to pass them the ball. There was no room for egos, that was squashed instantly.”

The 16 players and the management were very much amateur sportsmen. They worked all week and trained in the evenings and at weekends.

There was also no real structure offered by the governing body – a far cry from the situation today. So how did a group of amateur hockey players manage to become world beaters?

Leman is convinced it is all down to the characters involved. “We were a group of people who got on very well both on and off the pitch. Even today, that bond has never been broken. We get together and the banter starts instantly.

I think the team was a special collection of people but credit has to go to the manager, Roger Self. He was a real Brian Clough type of character. With him you were never sure which way the wind was blowing.

One of the skills of a manager is to handle, manage and motivate the people who have been in the team some time. He was very good at managing people. He was a strong leader and he was a one-off.”

Training sessions with Self were always entertaining, if sometimes a little quirky. Leman recalls one session where the manager was throwing bollards at the players.

It might be crazy but it might work as well. When you are playing for real, the opposition will be throwing everything at you, so a few bollards is good preparation.”

The team of 1988 may have brought home one of only five gold medals for Great Britain from the Seoul Olympics but they received very little attention from the media on their return.

However, for a generation of hockey players they became heroes. Leman agrees: “If you were a hockey player at that time, it was the story of the 1988 Games and it made every hockey player in the country a little bit prouder of their sport.”