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Helen Johnson's top-level hockey experience helps Taw Valley win West Clubs Women's League title

By North Devon Journal  |  Posted: March 07, 2013

  • CAUSING TROUBLE: Taw Valley's Charlotte Beauchamp puts pressure on the Cheddar defence. Pictures: Ian Snell. To order this photograph call 0844 4060 269 and quote Ref: BNIS20130302A-008_C

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SHE HAS played at the highest level of English hockey and alongside the greatest player in the history of the women's game in this country.

She has represented England in three age groups and was at the birth of the National Women's League almost 25 years ago.

Helen Johnson, Barnstaple born and bred, and still living and working in the town, has enjoyed a long and successful time in the sport she loves. And, at 48, it is by no means over.

Johnson is looking forward to next season with "great excitement" after helping Taw Valley to promotion in her first season back at the club following a 30-year hiatus.

After more than 20 years playing in the National League, she has dropped down four divisions to return to the club she left as an 18-year-old.

"I played for Exmouth, then Exe after we merged with Exeter, but I used to play here when I started," said Johnson. "I was 15 and was with Taw Valley until I was 18. Now I've come home."

Nobody has played a bigger part in Taw's advance than the veteran sweeper.

Taw wrapped up the Sedgemoor first division title in the West Clubs Women's League on Saturday with a performance that underlined just how much better they are than the rest – defeating second-placed Cheddar 7-1.

Stunned visiting skipper Beth Gould said: "We were not expecting such a huge defeat. Taw are the strongest team in this league by a mile."

Unbeaten for 15 months, Taw have won all 14 league matches this season, hitting 104 goals.

But while leading scorers Jo Yeaxlee-Batch (23 goals), Charlotte Beauchamp (20) and Helen Thomas (14) have tormented defences, it is the relatively unsung rearguard that has been Taw's bedrock.

Cheddar's injury-time strike at 7-0 down was the first goal conceded by Taw all season at the Park Community School in Barnstaple. Away they have leaked only four.

Until Annie Pinnington's unstoppable shot, Taw's back line had looked as secure as the chain fence around the school's all-weather pitches. Johnson, as usual, was its strongest link.

"It's the confidence she gives everyone else," said goalkeeper Barbara Thomas. "All the time she is encouraging the others, telling them where they should be. She has been at the top of the game and she can see it."

The talent around Johnson, though, has not gone unappreciated by her.

"The back four or five are very strong defenders," she said. "We have had one youngster, Kate Openshaw (aged 15), join us in the last few games and she has already shown she can hold her own."

Openshaw has covered at left back for captain Nell Trotter, on holiday in Australia, lining up alongside Rhona Screech, Vicky Clark and Johnson.

"We just seem to have gelled and mopped up anything that has come at us," said Johnson.

"I think it will be a different story in the next league up."

Soon after leaving Taw, Johnson was called up by England under-21s.

"I ran out with Jane Sixsmith, which was amazing because she has gone on to do wonderful things," said Johnson.

"She is probably the best-known name in English hockey and is still in the premier division of the National League."

Sixsmith is the only woman hockey player to have represented Britain at four Olympics, captaining the side to a bronze medal in Barcelona in 1992. She earned 165 caps for England and 158 for Britain.

Johnson's career may pale by comparison but it outshines most. She represented England at over-35 and over-40 level and also played for founder members Exmouth in their opening match of the English National League in the late 1980s.

"I will always remember that," said Johnson. "It was at Leicester and it was 2-1 to them, but it was fantastic to pit myself against the best of the time."

When Exeter and Exmouth merged to form Exe in 2007, Johnson played for the new club in the second tier of the National League. But she called a halt last season.

"Mostly it was to do with age and recovery," she said. "I was getting older and the players seemed to be getting younger.

"We just seemed to be defending, defending, especially in the last couple of seasons (at Exe).

"This season we have been on the attack a lot. They are a good set of players, very talented, and it has been nice to add my experience."

Standing in for Trotter as captain, Keely Jones said the team needed an early goal.

Yeaxlee-Batch obliged after eight minutes and, with Sarah Thomas, Beauchamp and Helen Thomas quickly following, Taw led 4-0 at half time.

After the break, Yeaxlee-Batch completed her hat-trick before Helen Thomas notched her second and Taw's seventh.

They have won their first title since merging with North Devon in the mid-1990s and Jones said: "I am really chuffed with that performance.

"We were positive from the start, worked well as a team, and our movement off the ball was good. We rose to the occasion."

Can they do it again next season, in the central division?

Johnson thinks they can hold their own but much will depend on keeping the squad together.

"They go off to university, they go off and have children," said Barbara Thomas, referring to how Taw are accustomed to coping with change.

Not that she need worry about Helen Johnson. Taw's wandering star is back to stay.

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