Hockey star Unsworth believes England will entertain in Birmingham

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Laura Unsworth during the game between England and India
Laura Unsworth during the game between England and India

Hockey legend Laura Unsworth believes England have loosened the shackles at the perfect time to become the ‘entertainers’ at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Britain’s greatest-ever hockey Olympian has played her part in countless stoical defensive displays en route to three Olympic and three Commonwealth medals.

The Birmingham native, 34, has seen it all with a stick and ball but new head coach David Ralph’s gung-ho philosophy has given her a new lease of life.

“David’s philosophy is more attacking than any England or Great Britain teams have ever played,” she said.

“We’ve always been one of the best defensive teams in the world and that has been the focus but now we’re adding this attacking threat.

“For me, it’s about playing with the mentality of ‘I’m just going to go for it’ rather than be cautious and be safe. Let’s be brave and take on something.

“The game of hockey is changing and we need to change our game to stay in contention and compete for the medals.

“You always wanted to be the front-runners tactically and for example in a way of pressing, you want people to be saying 'we would like to press like the English'.

“I think it’ll be great to watch in Birmingham, the fans will love it. They like aggressive, attacking hockey.”

This summer, Team England, supported by funding raised by National Lottery players, will comprise of over 400 athletes, and having secured her place on the squad, Unsworth is looking to capitalise on the once in a lifetime opportunity for medal success in her home country.

Commonwealth hockey tournaments are white-knuckle rides, made up of close match-ups between nations, anathema to its reputation as the ‘friendly Games.’

Both England’s semi-finals and final were decided on penalties at Glasgow 2014, when they took silver, with Unsworth a veteran of the chaotic Delhi Games in 2010.

England exited Gold Coast 2018 at the hands of New Zealand in a semi-final shootout, going on to win bronze.

“There’s always late drama, last-minute goals,” said Unsworth. “It’s good for our sport but hopefully we’re on the winning end of them, not the losing end.

“I’ve been fortunate to come into the team during a golden period when we’ve been constantly challenging for these medals.”

Unsworth watched on wistfully as the curtain closed on the Gold Coast and the baton was passed to her home city of Birmingham.

“I remember watching the handover video and thinking, ‘it’ll be great to go and watch it and cheer on the girls,” she said.

“I didn’t think I’d be going but Covid happened and it was a blessing in disguise because it has probably prolonged my career. It was a no-brainer to carry on to Birmingham.”

Unsworth is one of more than 1,100 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing them to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support.

The Sutton Coldfield star started county hockey training at under-11 level at King Edward’s Birmingham, a stone’s throw from the university venue for this summer.

She is a big believer in the potential of the Games to inspire and regenerate the region.

“We’re seeing new pitches and new grassroots facilities pop up all over the city,” she said.

“I think it's great for Birmingham, because sport can be so powerful. It will keep you fit and you will make so many friends from it.

“I'd like to think there's going to be loads of schoolchildren and people of all ages thinking they will get back into sport.”

Unsworth has previously been lukewarm on the prospect of a fourth Olympics in Paris, when she would be 36. It seems her mood might slowly be turning.

“Paris is always there in the back of my head,” she said.

“When you're in this environment, you always want to be in. This is the best - it's not really a job - it's the best hobby you can do.

“I'm incredibly fortunate to be able to do this and you don't want it to ever end. So Paris is obviously there in the back of my head, albeit I'm not getting any younger.

“It’s just about how well I can keep my body going and keep improving. And if that's the case, then I'd like to think that I can give Paris a good shot.”

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