On a night of high drama, driven by fervent passion and the desire for gold medal success, England and India played out a thrilling and, at times, excruciatingly tense Commonwealth Games semi-final in front of a packed Major Dhyan Chand stadium.
Even before the match evolved agonisingly through golden goal extra time to penalty stokes, it had been packed with action and incident aplenty in a magnificent advert for the sport.
Ultimately though, England lost the match 5-4 on penalty strokes after drawing 3-3.
“It’s very, very painful,” said captain Barry Middleton afterwards. “It’s not just about the penalties though. We were 3-1 up and hit the bar. We had chances. We’ve worked so hard, for this tournament in particular. It was in our hands and we’ve lost it.
“Most people have given up jobs to be part of this [the England and Great Britain teams]. We came here to win medals.”
After falling behind to a goal midway through the first half, England’s Ashley Jackson restored parity on the stroke of half-time with a low penalty corner and the World Young Player of the Year put England ahead from a trademark drag-flick just after the break.
Reading forward Simon Mantell made it 3-1 soon after, again from a penalty corner, and it could have been game over but for Jackson’s next corner effort ricocheting back off the crossbar.
Having ridden their luck with Jackson’s effort, India’s confidence grew and they scored two goals in the space of five minutes as the game entered its final ten minutes.
Having come from behind, India went into golden goal extra time with their tails up and but for the heroics of England’s Cannock goalkeeper James Fair the match might have been settled well before the penalty shoot-out. Twenty-nine-year-old Fair had already pulled off two spectacular saves in the last ten minutes of normal time and made two more crucial blocks in extra time to send the game to penalties.
Loughborough Students’ Richard Smith and Reading’s Richard Mantell got England off to a good start, scoring their penalties. As did India’s first two takers, Saravanjit Singh and Vikram Pillay, although the latter’s action was later brought into question by England’s players who felt there was double movement.
Barry Middleton explained afterwards that England had not chosen their penalty takers in advance; simply they had asked after extra time who felt they could take one. Five hands went up.
East Grinstead player and England vice-captain Glenn Kirkham was England’s third taker. He stepped up and flicked his penalty to the left but Chetri in the Indian goal guessed correctly, diving to his right and gloving the ball away to safety.
When Sandeep Singh rifled the next flick home India seized the advantage. Despite both Ashley Jackson and Simon Mantell scoring, Arjun Halappa and Shivendra Singh also found the net, sparking wild scenes of celebration in the stands and consigning England to the bronze medal contest.
Afterwards, England head coach Jason Lee explained that England were unhappy with two of India’s penalties.
“At least one of the penalties was a double movement and one was a drag. There could be some debate and discussion about it but that’s international hockey. The players have done exceptionally well tonight. At 3-1 we hit the bar; if that had gone in it would have been game over.
“We had a 17-year-old in the squad tonight [Harry Martin from Ipswich] who was playing under-18 hockey two months ago and Richard Mantell who has just come back from breaking his ankle in the World Cup.
“I thought we played excellent hockey and we’ll have learned a lot from tonight.”
England’s men can still win the bronze medal, something they have not done since 1998 on hockey’s Commonwealth Games debut. They take on New Zealand at 9.00am on Thursday.
England’s women meanwhile are in bronze medal action on Wednesday, taking on South Africa at 10.30am.