Irish Hockey Association chief executive Mike Heskin said that the senior men’s national team was “simply not gelling” with coach Andrew Meredith, a situation that led to his departure last Friday evening after 14-months in charge.
With reaching a first Olympic Games the primary target, Heskin felt that not enough progress was being made toward and, with the qualification route beginning in earnest in early 2015, the time was right to part company with Meredith.
Ireland came agonisingly close to reaching London 2012, falling to Korea in an Olympic qualification final 3-2 in Dublin, conceding the vital goal with less than ten seconds remaining.
Meredith took over the side from Paul Revington six months after that tournament with an impressive CV including two Olympic gold medals as Germany’s assistant coach.
His tenure started well with a bronze medal at the Champions Challenge I in Buenos Aires but, following that success, Ireland stagnated. A seventh place finish in Rotterdam at the World League semi-finals saw Ireland miss out on the World Cup while, despite strong showings in the group phases, they just about scraped clear of relegation in August’s European championships.
Heskin felt that, following reviews with the players and the coaching staff after the Europeans, there was not the right formula in place to reach Rio.
“From the start, the aim is to reach the Olympics in 2016,” he told The Hook. “We came close to doing it 2012, so we had to put together a team that could be even better and achieve our goal.
“We were performing quite well [under Meredith] but we were not gelling. We were moving forward from month to month but we weren’t getting the momentum we needed to move on to the next level.
“We went through a number of reviews during the year where we made tweaks and changes to see if we could get what we wanted out of it. Progress was adequate but whether it was going to move us on, possibly not.
“During this period, we had discussions with Andrew at all levels – and we worked well together I have to say – and in December when we discussed it, we were probably not showing the potential to achieve our aims from our perspective.
“From his perspective, I suspect that fulfilling the programme from his perspective was proving a strain so we thought the best possible way to move on was to part ways.”Asked why the chemistry between the players and the coach was proving difficult, Heskin said its was “simply missing an X-factor”.
“A lot of people were working very hard. It may be a simplistic answer but it was missing an X-factor. You can see it from sport to sport where a player’s game blossoms from club to club or deteriorates quite quickly.
“The same is true with coaches and sometimes things dovetails into momentum. Other times it just goes slower and I think it just hadn’t gelled. Everybody was working hard and we could have persisted with it but we want to reach the Olympics.
“We are holding our position in the world ranking and are reaching our targets on certain levels of performance but, let’s be honest, it was not going to get us to where we want to be and everyone was on the same page on that issue.”
From the reviews, it was subsequently requested that Meredith spend more time in Ireland viewing players in club and interprovincial action.
While he fulfilled this brief, attending a number of league games in Leinster and Ulster as well as taking in the boys’ interprovincials, spending time away from his family in Germany proved a strain.
“When we reviewed in the summer at areas that needed improving and that was part of it. As you saw, there was a response and he was in Ireland much more in Ireland in the latter part of autumn.
“That was causing issues, though, as he has a young family and is not married that long so it was difficult from his perspective.”
Asked whether budgetary factors were considered, Heskin said they were discussed but were not “a dealbreaker” in spite of vastly limited resources.
“In fairness to both national coaches, they have taken a realistic approach to the resources they have. Even on a much-reduced budget, we did fulfill our obligations internationally, playing in World League rounds two and three and the Europeans.”
In addition, the chief executive feels that the timing of Meredith’s departure was right with 2014 a low-key year on the international calendar.
They have just one world ranking tournament on the agenda – the Champions Challenge I in Malaysia in April – before Ireland start their qualification bid in 2015 in Lancaster, USA.It gives Meredith’s successor time to sculpt their high performance programme with a long lead-in to the Olympic push. Heskin confirmed that the IHA will start the recruitment process for the new coach in January.
“Making the change now does give the opportunity to build a programme without being under strain. There’s no question last year was difficult for everyone involved.
“Elite hockey demands a structure that wasn’t really in place and it caused a burden for both national coaches to put together their programmes around the Champions Challenge, World League II and III and the European championships. 2014 doesn’t have that level of pressure on it and gives a chance to build that structure.
“Finally, I’d like to say I had a good working relationship with Andrew. We were both honest and got on well and I wish him well.
Meredith, meanwhile, will continue to work with FC St Pauli in a sports analysis role.