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Take a Girl Like You

Julie Welch interviews England's Denise Marston-Smith in OSM

If you thought women's hockey was the preserve of jolly public schoolgirls, Denise Marston-Smith hopes to change your mind. With a World Cup to look forward to this year, the David Beckham of her sport insists it's young, trendy and non-elitist

Ten months ago, Denise Marston-Smith did a photo shoot to promote her sport. Nothing unusual in that you might think, except that her sport is hockey and she did the shoot topless. It was her way of addressing a central issue. 'Hockey's got an image problem,' she says. 'Outsiders just think it's old birds in knee-length skirts. But it's young birds with short skirts now.'

If so, Marston-Smith would seem to be the ideal person to set the record straight. She's 24, has a model's figure and has been described as the David Beckham of hockey (though that's not strictly true: while she has more than 50 caps to her name she doesn't captain the national side, has yet to make her first million and her club, Clifton Ladies, are top of the league). One look at Marston-Smith and the realisation sets in that the popular perception of raw red knees and bellowing games mistresses is completely misguided. Far from being the preserve of ageing public-school girls, hockey in the 21st century comes second only to football as the mass participation sport for 13-to-17-year-old girls and ranks similarly for 18 to 34 year olds. Not only is it, in Marston-Smith's words, 'played by young, glamorous girls who wear tight Lycra kits, travel the world and get paid to go to the gym,' but the women's national side is packed with youngsters introduced to the game at their local comprehensive.

'You're looking at individuals from a C1 and C2 background, the new suburban middle class,' says Ian Thomas, marketing director of England Hockey. 'That and the E class - university students. But what was happening until fairly recently was that the game was run by predominantly middle-class people who promoted its own Joyce Grenfell, jolly-hockey-sticks myth. These days it's far more blue collar than white collar.'

And who would have expected a hockey player to share an agent with Paul Gascoigne? Marston-Smith does, though it wasn't Mel Stein who instigated the topless shoot, which was for the England kit manufacturers Kookaburra. Last January, they signed the sport's biggest ever sponsorship contract - a quarter-of-a-million pounds over three years - in more than a decade, and have since seen British sales increase by 30 per cent.

'Sex sells,' Marston-Smith says candidly. 'At the end of the day, people don't want to see a photo of someone standing there with a hockey stick. And if it helps, I'm happy to be the face of English hockey. Anyway, I had my back to the camera. I wouldn't have considered it otherwise. For a start, I don't think I've got enough up here. Not unless I was young, confused and desperate for money! And even then I'd have to invest in a boob job first, so I'd have spent the profits before I'd earned them.'

It was the shoot that brought her to the attention of Stein, and she has since been featured in Hello! modelling a range of high-street fashion and is awaiting the verdict on a screen test she did for Sky. That she has become the public face of hockey is hardly a surprise. From her early days she had a reputation for dolling herself up, hence her nickname 'Dolly' as in Dolly Bird. 'When everyone else is slumming it in trackie-p's [trackpants] I'm curling my eyelashes and putting on the slap,' she says.

'Denise works very hard, she's a picture of athleticism and femininity,' says the England coach Tricia Heberle, 'and she's been the first to get the limelight. She's a good role model for hockey and comes across as very natural and confident in a nice way, not an overbearing way.' However, Heberle points out quickly, it's not just Denise Marston-Smith. 'I don't like singling people out. There's a whole heap who are like Denise.'

And even Marston-Smith herself is slightly ambivalent about her place in the limelight. 'I was very nervous,' she says of the Sky screen test. 'So nervous I just sat there. After I'd been through it once, I just wanted to get up and go. But they were really nice to me. They said they're not expecting you to be perfect first time, so I had another try. I still felt very nervous but I'd love to do sports presenting or something eventually because you can't play hockey all your life.'

She can this year, though, and like David Beckham she has a World Cup to look forward to. It's in Perth in November. As with the footballing men, the hockey women have the benefit of a foreign coach, Heberle having been recruited from Australia after the Sydney Olympics. The hope is that both men's and women's hockey can recreate the glory days of 1988, when the men's team - remember Sean Kerly? - took gold in the Seoul Olympics.

That allowed the sport to create a national league, but establishing itself as a major force in the world game has since proved tougher. While the men have risen to fifth in the world after their performance at the Champions Trophy in November, the women are ranked ninth, though they did cruise through to qualify for the World Cup, winning all eight matches - an unprecedented feat by an England women's team.

Like Mr Eriksson, Heberle is famed for her pragmatic approach and is not one for making bold predictions. In fact at the moment she is not focusing on the World Cup at all, but on the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in July.

But can we beat Australia?

Heberle laughs. 'We've got the opportunity to play them in the Commonwealth Games and it's always going to be tough. We're ranked ninth in the world and they're ranked third.' Marston-Smith is bolder. 'We can definitely beat them,' she says.

Denise Marston-Smith first played hockey at the age of 12, at the Gordano School, her local comprehensive in Portishead, near Bristol (a school, somewhat surprisingly, renowned for its hockey). The daughter of a financial adviser (dad) and an IT worker (mum), she took to it immediately. 'It was a social thing with my friends,' she remembers. 'And a good idea for me. It's teamy. I saw it as a friends thing. Kept me from kicking a can around the streets.'

Naturally athletic ('I'd done gymnastics, trampoline, the high jump') and a hard worker, she made rapid progress, and within a couple of years she had been selected for her county and England. A key figure was Pete Attwell, her coach. Attwell told Marston-Smith that if she was prepared to put graft ahead of girliness then she could make it to the very top.

'He'd get us all together in a group and ask: 'What would you like to do in hockey?' You'd always say: 'Get to the Olympics,' because everyone says that. Although I never really believed it. But he said I could.'

And she did. With the help of Attwell and the Great Britain coach Jon Royce, Marston-Smith made it all the way into the national team for the Sydney Olympics, an opportunity that gave her what she still describes as 'the pinnacle of my career' - when she shot Great Britain into a 1-0 lead against Australia in the opening match.

'It was a set move, a corner,' she says. 'I was just shaking, shaking. It was like no one else was there, I was so focused, I'd blocked everything else out. It was a peach. I didn't see it go in, just the end bit of it when the ball was in goal, because it went straight through the top of the legs of a girl running out of goal, it must have been inches away from not going anywhere. I remember screaming and screaming, and not being able to come up for air because all the girls crowded round me and there were all these sticks in my face.'

England's lead lasted all of two minutes before the Australians equalised and went on to win 2-1, but for Marston-Smith the moment remains a magical one. 'It was my first Olympics, my first Olympic cap, my first Olympic goal.'

In other sports Marston-Smith's combination of talent and looks would already have brought their financial rewards, and if she reminds you of anyone it is surely Anna Kournikova - those long legs, that blonde ponytail. But instead of making millions as a tennis player, she has to make do with the £8,000 lottery-funded grant that she and her England team-mates receive. She refuses to let the comparison bother her. 'I believe in fate and stuff like that,' she says. 'Everything happens for a reason. If I'd played tennis, I'd have been a lot lonelier. Hockey's different. Friends all the time around you.'

All the same, she admits that it is a struggle to make ends meet, though her parents are generous and supportive. 'It isn't an income. Unlike Australia, we're full-time committed but half-time funded, if that. The grant is lower than the minimum wage. You could work in a simple job and get more than that. So you play it for love of the game.'

She is in her final year of a degree in leisure and business management at the University of Gloucester and lives in an all-girl flatshare with another hockey player.

In the past, relationships have been difficult to maintain - the travelling commitments, the training regime. Now, though, she's got a new partner, though she won't name names. 'He's a rugby player - a very good one. We both play sport at a high level so we understand each other's commitments. Early nights. Training. Eating the right things. What you drink when you go out - soda and lime, mainly. But we don't train together. I think it's a bit geeky to train with your bloke. Anyway, me with my little hand weights and him with his whole rack - I wouldn't look so good.'

Who does he play for?

She isn't saying. 'No! No! That would be far too much information!'

Having spent some time with her, I get the feeling that Dolly and Denise Marston-Smith are two distinct characters. Dolly does the bubbly, extrovert stuff. Denise is graver, more private, old beyond her years.

It's a fair bet that she had to grow up very quickly when, barely into her teens her mother, Margaret, suffered a stroke. 'She was quite sporty and was very young to have one. It happened my first year with England. It's hard to come to terms with when that happens to your family. My older sister, Nina, looked after me. It makes you grow up very quickly. You learn to look after yourself because no one is there to do it for you. It makes you independent.'

Her mother still holds down her job and has taken up t'ai chi to get involved in sporty things again. She wept with joy when she saw her daughter's goal against Australia. 'I don't really have a role model, only her,' says Marston-Smith. 'How strong she's been.'

She jumps up from her seat, turns round and flips up her T-shirt to reveal a tattoo in Chinese script low down in the small of her back. 'It says, 'To Live For Every Day'. It's my perspective on life, my philosophy. With what's happened to my mum, not a lot gets to me. This is to remind myself. Make the most of every day.'

© Observer, reproduced with permission, from www.Observer.co.uk

Studio photos Andre Bieganski, © English Hockey

Action photo Ady Kerry, © Ady Kerry

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