No one wants to follow a legend. Comparisons are inevitable and often not favourable. When it comes to Great Britain women’s hockey, following in the footsteps of Kate Richardson-Walsh is probably the hardest job of all.
The person with that responsibility thrust upon them is current England and Great Britain captain Alex Danson. You could be forgiven for thinking she had been given something of a poisoned chalice. However you’d be wrong. Danson has risen to the challenge of leading her country. Her predecessor in the role says so herself.
“She’s always been a leader by example but now she’s playing the game in a way that brings other people into it. I wanted them to get that win against the USA on her 200th cap so badly. I think they all did. They’re playing for Alex because she is that sort of player.”
When you ask people about Danson a number of themes emerge: Phrases like “role model” “inspiration” and “leader” are prevalent, sentiments Richardson-Walsh echoes:
“She’s given everything to this game; she’s an incredible role model for international hockey and for the hockey family. She is everything you’d want from your captain. I’m so pleased to have played with her and now I get to watch her, too.”
Despite being on the same side out on the pitch, Richardson-Walsh had the unenviable task of marking the No15 during training. Even for an experienced and decorated player like her, it was, as you’d imagine, a chastening experience.
“It’s tough playing against her. You know she wants to go to her backhand but she’s so difficult to mark. You’re taught to push them to that side but it means she’ll unleash one of those ridiculous shots and you’ll get shouted at by the goalkeeper. She’s tenacious, she’s around your ankles fighting for the ball and making life difficult for you. She never gives up and has a winning mentality. ”
“When you used to get the teams on Wednesday night for the Thinking Thursday sessions I was praying Alex was on my team. If I had her I knew I was onto a winner.”
The hard work on the training field pushed both players to become the best they could be. You hear time and time and again from athletes about the value of playing against the best on a daily basis and it is clear to see Danson vs Richardson-Walsh pushed both to the levels of greatness we associate them with.
Richardson-Walsh captained the side for over 15 years, with Danson present for the lion’s share of those matches. Looking down the line pre-match and seeing the No15 in the ranks was always of great comfort for the former captain.
“You don’t want anyone else there in that centre forward position. She will give you mind, body, soul and every last bit of her effort. I’ve seen her pass out after a game in Delhi at the Commonwealth Games from sheer exhaustion. She comes off the pitch and she has nothing left because can give you no more.”
“She is the best person to look down the line and see. You think “We have the best striker in the world in our team.” It gives you so much confidence. When I used to take corners it took a bit of pressure off me because I knew I didn’t have to score if Alex was playing!”
If you ask Richardson-Walsh to sum up Danson, she is visibly emotional, bursting with pride at her friend’s achievements.
“She is exceptional. In every way. As a friend. As a captain. As a striker. As a role model. Just exceptional.”
No arguments here.