Quiet heroes of senior squads step away after huge service to Irish hockey

While two head coaches moved on from the senior international setups during the summer to different amounts of fanfare, the retirements of managers Peter Jackson and Sally-Ann Fanagan were quieter affairs.

It was perhaps in keeping with their positions outside the public eye, catering to the player’s every off-pitch foible in order to deliver the background support so that they have as few worries when they don the Irish jersey.

Fanagan stepped down from the women’s post in the wake of the Celtic Cup after five years in the role, dating back to 2007, incorporating two Olympic qualifying campaigns.

Jackson, meanwhile, is a veteran of over 200 international games, be they with Irish underage teams or with the senior men’s team for whom he took on the role from Steven Hiles on a full-time basis, after a couple of stand-in roles, when Paul Revington came into the post.

When both roles became vacant in recent months, the tangible rewards were minimally listed as just a “small honorarium” on the IHA website, a voluntary role, but one which had a seemingly inexplicable but simple attraction to Jackson.

“Why do you manage? I do not know but for most in hockey and other amateur arenas we are there because we believe in our sport.

“Being a manager is not easy. It is soft and hard. It is between a rock and a hard place. There is huge personal satisfaction in success. There is huge disappointment in failure.”

Both managers were honoured at the IHA Awards night on Saturday evening to rapturous applause from the packed Alexander Court ballroom, taking centre stage for a rare occasion.

Like umpires, the regular refrain is usually that they are doing a good job if you do not hear from them. That the pair were received in such a way is a measure of how well they must have balanced their often fraught position as an intermediary between the players and the governing body.

“Managers make correct decisions. They make wrong decisions. But they strive to do the best for players at all times. Only managers know what managers do and can do. There is a high level of expectation by the organisation and players. You cannot meet both.

“It is particularly relevant in amateur sports and displaced managers away from the central hub of an organisation, outside of their control.”

It is something witnessed first hand by The Hook during the 2009 European B division when Hockey Wales found me a room adjacent to Jackson’s in Glyndwr University. The light was always on in his room of the pokey college digs, checking out alternative train bookings and such like to shave a precious few euro off the budget, as players came in and out with a myriad of requests.

“It is resource intensive. It is a huge commitment. Forget a 9-5 routine. It can become 12-18 hour day, seven days per week and unpaid.

“You are a travel agent, medical director, strategic and operational planner, catering officer, laundry and kit official, agony aunt or uncle and a pseudo official when a passport or visa is lost.

“You also have to have knowledge of passing bad and good news in all respects. Managers will stand tests of time but their tenure in post is short lived.

“Most of all, you are a friend to all. You must have the ability to negotiate. You will know the rules of everything. You will defend and organise at all cost. You must remain calm and carry on. Signs of panic transmit in all directions.”

But the memories will always be the things that prevail especially after a decade of highs and lows that have taken in all corners of the globe.

“I was privileged to manage in hockey at all levels for 10 years. It has taken me from Europe to Cairo to South America, Australia, Singapore and South Africa.

“I have seen wonderful pitches and met great people; I have been to great arenas. I now know thongs are not allowed to be worn by Men at sporting grounds in Australia. It worried me until I was informed it was Oz terminology for flip-flops!

“The most interesting tour has to be Cairo. When the Captain and Vice-Captain get the hotel bridal suite, double bed with a pink bedspread embroidered “Love”, it takes delicate negotiation at 4am!

“Being escorted across roads by 80 year-olds. Being detained at gunpoint, Cairo Celtic v Cairo Rangers, pyramids, singing Ireland’s Call to a primary school class and seeing a member of staff trying to get onto a camel are just a few memories.

“I suppose the most endemic memory was the culture shock to players. Many had never been outside of Europe. They had not seen poverty nor armed guards outside a KFC.

“They will now remember Tahir Square and Ahmed. They will also remember the friendliness of the Egyptian people and how they could recycle hockey balls in quick time from a moat around the pitch. At a nominal fee of course!”

Jackson stepped away from the management role of the senior team for personal reasons but will remain involved in some capacity as a support, his son John – the recently crowed Player’s Player of the Year – keeping his personal connection to the panel as close as can be.

Both Jackson and Fanagan’s personalities, though, will be evidently missed by the players at tournament time after years of unstinting service for the Irish cause.

Partners of The Hook