Saved by Spurs, Olympic agony & hockey history-maker

As part of our Hidden Figures series for Black History Month, Rosie Sykes says: “It was up to you to sort yourself out and try and get match fit. Tottenham came to the rescue and my headteacher said ‘you have the day off, you go and sort yourself out'”

Last Updated: 29/10/20 12:20pm

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Rosie Sykes on being the first female black athlete to play for England after making her debut for the hockey team in 1978
Rosie Sykes on being the first female black athlete to play for England after making her debut for the hockey team in 1978

Viv Anderson made history and headlines in 1978 becoming the first black footballer to play for England.

But Sky Sports News has discovered that months earlier, another black athlete had already broken this new ground and donned an England shirt for the very first time – this time on the hockey pitch.

Her name was Rosie Sykes, dubbed by a newspaper recognising her achievements months later as the “Black Rose of England”.

She doesn’t mind the nickname. Having moved to Kent from Nigeria in 1957 at the age of five, Sykes was familiar with standing out.

She said: “I was used to being in an environment where there weren’t any other black faces – there weren’t any other black faces in my school, I didn’t have any black friends, I didn’t know any other black people except my own family.

“I was used to it and so I didn’t really think about it very much.

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Rosie reveals her concerns at the lack of diversity, highlighting that school rules over needing astroturf pitches is holding the sport back
Rosie reveals her concerns at the lack of diversity, highlighting that school rules over needing astroturf pitches is holding the sport back

“Looking back now it means more, but at the time I was always the only black person there so it was just ‘here we go again’. It was the hockey I was interested in.”

As it turns out, this history-maker nearly didn’t make any history at all, after injuring her knee shortly before her England debut.

It was only thanks to the sports-mad headmaster at the school where she worked as a PE teacher and a little help from a certain north London football club that she was able to earn her first cap at the age of 26.

“I was terrified that I wasn’t going to be fit enough to play. We didn’t have physios so it was up to you to sort yourself out and try and get yourself match fit,” Sykes added.

“Somebody suggested contacting the professional football teams as they had their own physios. Tottenham came to the rescue and my headteacher said ‘well you have the day off, you go and sort yourself out, I want you playing on Saturday.’

The 1979 World Cup was the perfect stage for someone as talented as Rosie (Credit: The Hockey Museum)
The 1979 World Cup was the perfect stage for someone as talented as Rosie (Credit: The Hockey Museum)

“They gave me physio and told me what I needed to do for the rest of the week and I was able to play. My knee was heavily bandaged, but I was able to play in Wales. We beat them and I don’t think I played too badly!”

It was the beginning of a successful international career with 51 England caps and four for Great Britain between 1978 and 1984. That includes a one-year break in 1981 to have her first daughter.

Olympic heartache

Sykes remains the only player to make a comeback after having children. Her GB caps tally would also have been much higher if she hadn’t had the misfortune of missing out on not just one, but two Olympics.

The GB hockey teams were part of the group of athletes not sent to compete at Moscow 1980 due to the boycott led by the United States. Four years later, the team were informed just two weeks before the Los Angeles Games that they hadn’t played enough qualifying matches and couldn’t take part.

Rosie made the paper headlines as she went on to play for England 51 times
Rosie made the paper headlines as she went on to play for England 51 times

“It was devastating and after Los Angeles, I decided that I couldn’t go for another four years, it was just impossible,” Sykes said.

“Life goes on – you’re doing other things, my teaching career and taking on extra responsibilities there and having a family. You can’t wait forever to go to the Olympics.”

BAME inspiration

Despite blazing her trail more than 40 years ago, there is currently just one BAME player on the GB setup across both the men’s and women’s squads and Sykes remains just one of only two black women to ever play hockey for England and Great Britain.

The other, Joan Lewis, has revealed she was inspired to go all the way after seeing Sykes play at Wembley.

Sykes said: “It just shows you that it does happen – people do get inspired by seeing someone who looks like them playing a particular sport. My only disappointment is that there haven’t been more black players coming through.

Former hockey star Joan Lewis meets her idol Rosie Sykes
Former hockey star Joan Lewis meets her idol Rosie Sykes

“[Joan and I] met for the first time at the World Cup in 2018 and we did say to each other – ‘could we have done more?’ I don’t know what we could have done but I do feel now there might have been a way to have done more. I do regret that.”

The game has changed significantly since Sykes first started playing at secondary school on muddy grass pitches where often, she laughs, “the ball wouldn’t move, it just stopped in the water”.

Now hockey is predominantly taught and played on astroturf pitches – something that Sykes believes has developed the game for the better but actually hindered the improvement of diversity in the sport.

“If I was just starting to play hockey, coming through and was at school now, I would not have had that opportunity because my school would not have had the funds to have an astro. So we’ve got to try and get around that problem somehow.

Rosie graced the international arena many times, but never at an Olympics
Rosie graced the international arena many times, but never at an Olympics

“You’ve got to go into schools in poorer areas as well as the richer areas and the only way we can do that is through the clubs. They’ve got to try and get into those schools and get the children to the club where the astro is.

“It doesn’t mean it’s impossible for hockey. We’ve got to work harder at it and I do think we haven’t, I do think we have sat back a little bit.

“I won’t say ‘not thought about it’ but haven’t been made to think about it maybe until now. I think it’s a good thing now that there is some focus on that.”

Black History Month

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Source : Sky Sports