Craig Fulton says that with proper financial support, the Irish men’s hockey team can push to become an established top ten side in the world.
Speaking in the wake of Ireland’s fifth place finish in World League Round 3 in Antwerp and brought Olympic hopes within touching distance, the coach said that his side had produced something “special” given the relative resources available to his panel.
During the competition, Ireland had the best of a 2-2 draw with world number five side Great Britain and only lost to number four side Belgium in the last 10 seconds when they had withdrawn their goalkeeper David Harte for an extra outfielder, pushing for a late victory.
A 1-0 win against higher ranked Pakistan followed last Friday before Malaysia were beaten 4-1 to close out the tournament.
All four sides are full-time athletes. Ireland, by contrast, have nine players working 40 hour a week jobs in addition to pursuing their elite sport. To bolster the squad’s support staff, Ronan Gormley’s sister, Ciara, was added on an intern basis as an extra physio while John Jackson’s mother Jennifer – a nurse with the British army – was brought in as team doctor. The aim was to create as professional environment as possible with limited means.
Stephen Dowds – to start a new job in Belfast – and Drew Carlisle missed out on the celebrations due to work concerns while defender Paul Gleghorne took unpaid leave to compete. If the same panel is to stick together for the European Championships in August, further leave will need to be requested.
With funds beyond the Irish Sports Council and some help from Dundrum Town Centre for costs, things are fairly threadbare and these are the measures the team had to put in place to try and match the big boys.
“It’s just been a massive, massive effort from all the staff. What goes on behind the scenes, no one really knows. But we have a top notch staff and the players were superb as usual.
“We had to do something special with what we had been given to be competing with full-time programmes which go 44 weeks of the year,” Fulton said.
“We are doing it on evenings and weekends; we have nine full-time workers who owe their company leave at times or go on unpaid leave. It needs to be level–playing field and then we can surprise ourselves and go even better.
“We couldn’t have been here without the Irish Sports Council and the work [Hockey Ireland chief executive] Mike Heskin has done behind the scenes has been fantastic.”
Despite those limitations, Craig Fulton said he “always had belief” that he could get Ireland into this kind of position.
“The reason I took the job on was to make history. There hasn’t been an Irish team sport in the Olympics for 70 years or something. That was the message stepping into the job. I hope it all falls into place; it’s 90% there. The guys deserve a break like that.
“We also deserve a decent sponsor that will take us on board; throw their support behind this team because this team needs to play a few more years and is just going to get better.”
Looking back on the tournament as a whole, Fulton said there was a consistent level of performance throughout the seven-game campaign bar one exception.
“It worked out ok we had the bad Malaysia group game when we did. It wasn’t ideal but it helped us calm down later on. We tried too hard in the first Malaysia game, were too anxious and beat ourselves.
“We went individual which is never a good thing in a team sport. We got back on track, playing good games against Belgium, Australia and Pakistan – good performances even though we lost.”
Key to the success was the defensive alignment with big changes made since the first Malaysia tie. Conor Harte’s shoulder injury could have proven a debilitating factor but Johnny Bell and Paul Gleghorne playing full 60 minute stints in the last two games.
“It’s all down to preparation, the conditioning we did. We made a pact 14 months ago when I brought in a programme to get us more conditioned than ever before.
“They didn’t enjoy it in the beginning but 14 months on, they have stuck to it. All credit to them. Paul Gleghorne and Jonny Bell, Davey Harte in goal. Fantastic. Jonny saved three off the line; we’ve been working on that for a year. Today, it came out at the right time.
“We can only do what we did; to be honest, we wanted top three, thought top four was realistic but fifth, we had to get it. The pressure was on but we know the team can do that and passed the test.”