Fairytale, regret: Kookas’ 20-year hunt for next gold

Murray Wenzel |

Australia’s men’s hockey team won Olympic gold thanks to a goal from Jamie Dwyer (second left).
Australia’s men’s hockey team won Olympic gold thanks to a goal from Jamie Dwyer (second left).

Jamie Dwyer was meant to flick it.

Instead the Kookaburras’ star striker decided to hit the ball as hard as he could.

That decision, plus a bit of luck, sparked Australian men’s hockey’s crowning moment that, 20 years on, remains an Olympic outlier.

Netherlands goalkeeper Guus Vogels, rated the best in the world at the time, left a gap just wide enough between his legs for Dwyer’s extra-time golden goal to squeeze through.

The Athens 2004 gold medal came after three silvers and three bronze, celebrations wild and significant given it pushed Australia’s Games gold medal count to a record high at the time.

“I was going to flick it … but the runner was on me, so in that split-second I decided to hit it and it missed his foot by a centimetre or two and then went between the keeper’s pads,” Dwyer recalled to AAP. 

“The rest is history. There was a big build-up, hype, and all the pieces fell into place. 

“We smashed Spain (6-3) in the semi and should have won the final about 4-0 to be honest, but made it hard for ourselves.

“It ended up being a bit of a fairytale ending for me and the team.”

Mark Knowles was the fresh face in the side.

Mark Knowles.
Former player Mark Knowles is Australia’s deputy chef de mission next month in Paris. (AAP PHOTOS)

“Everyone says we’re the greatest team, but we didn’t play our best, just our best players were at their best when it counted,” said Knowles, who is Australia’s deputy chef de mission next month in Paris.

“Dwyer, Troy Elder, Bevan George, Brent Livermore … awesome names. I get tingles just thinking about it. 

“We had that many corners during the game and I was like, ‘Surely we’ve got to score one of these?’.

“I was prepped and ready on the bench; had the water bottle, hoiked it as far as I could and then the party started.”

That victory was supposed to break the dam wall.

Instead there has been more heartbreak. 

Semi-final losses in 2008 – 3-2  to Spain – and 2012 – 4-2 to Germany after leading 2-1 – led to more bittersweet bronze.

Beaten in the quarter-finals in 2016, Australia then lost a penalty shootout to Belgium to decide gold in Tokyo three years ago.

Silver to Australia in Tokyo.
Australia were beaten by Belgium in a shootout in the gold-medal match in Tokyo. (AP PHOTO)

“I’m upset about it. I could have easily won three,” said Dwyer, who was part of the next three campaigns after Athens. 

“Two World Cup wins were right up there, but you feel a lot more pressure in the Olympics with the media behind it.”

The Kookaburras will, like at most Games, enter Paris among the favourites as the FIH Pro League table-toppers.

The team is set to be named on Monday, with Tokyo Olympian Tim Howard understood to be among the unlucky omissions in a nod to the brutal competitiveness and terrific depth of the side.

Eddie Ockenden, 37, will be on the list, set to create history as the first Australian hockey player to compete at five Olympics.

He brought up 400 international caps last year and has no plans to retire. 

Eddie Ockenden.
Eddie Ockenden is set to become the first Australian to play hockey at five Olympis. (Andrew Cornaga/AAP PHOTOS)

But when he does he could finish as the most-capped Australian in any sport.

“I was at that prime age,” Ockenden told AAP of his 2004 memories. 

“Sixteen, sort of realising I might be able to do it and wanting to do it.

“It was awesome for hockey, I was so stoked.

“And to walk into the change room only two years after, with absolute legends of the sport.”

Ockenden was distraught after the Tokyo near-miss, but said he never truly contemplated retirement.

Five-time world player of the year Dwyer, who has been helping the side as a goal-shooting coach, marvels at his former teammate’s mental and physical resilience.

“More than anyone he (Ockenden) deserves it,” Dwyer said of the Tasmanian. 

Jamie Dwyer (left) and  Eddie Ockenden (right).
Jamie Dwyer (left) was on hand when Eddie Ockenden (right) became the most-capped Australian. (Richard Wainwright/AAP PHOTOS)

“I roomed with him when we lost in 2012. We went for a walk and both of us were pretty devastated to lose the semi … and that was 12 years ago.

“To stay mentally involved it’s pretty hard with three kids, a Dutch partner, no family in Perth (where the Kookaburras are based).

“It’s so hard to find a balance: train, put in the effort. Do you stick around with the boys or go home and take the kids to school?

“If you’re in AFL or cricket you’re earning millions of dollars as one of the best players, and in AFL you’re not even leaving the country.

“Hockey you’re away a lot, earning 25 grand a year. It’s quite difficult.”

Dwyer considers Australia a strong golden chance in a tournament he rates as the most evenly matched in memory.

“They’re going to be tough to beat, but things need to fall our way,” he said.

“Australia has the best penalty-corner attack in the world, great keeper, penalty-corner defence. Win those areas and it’s looking very positive.”

Knowles, busy planning his side’s 20-year reunion on the Gold Coast later this year, and Dwyer both agree the sport in Australia is overdue for its next “moment”.

“The rugby sevens women, I love the sport, but before they won (at Rio 2016) there was barely any girls playing, and now they’re a powerhouse of women’s sport,” Knowles said.

Dwyer splits his time between Queensland and Western Australia.

‘We’ve got a lot of sports in this country that aren’t at an Olympic Games and have more funding than the Australian Olympic Committee,” he said.

Australia has about 125,000 registered hockey players, roughly three times less than the Netherlands, where Dwyer says there is a waiting list to join a club.

“It’s hard. I love those sports (football codes) as well, but what I say about hockey … you can play from the age of four until you’re 80 and go anywhere in the world and play,” he said.

“It’s just a good sport, but we do need success and Hockey Australia to be able to help promote it as well.”