Anatomy of a bronze; Fulton’s charges play waiting game after epic 18-month rise

And now the wait commences. October 25 is the date almost indelibly marked on the minds of the Irish hockey public after one of the most thrilling years for the sport.

Craig Fulton celebrates with David Harte. Picture: Frank Uijlenbroek

Craig Fulton celebrates with David Harte. Picture: Frank Uijlenbroek

Craig Fulton’s side have “done all we can do” to achieve a first ever Olympic qualification thanks to their exploits in Antwerp last month and followed it up with a maiden bronze medal at the European championships.

Now they must wait to see if either Australia can win the Oceania Cup or South Africa win the African Cup of Nations and duly turn down the Olympic offer due to the wishes of SASCOC, the Olympic committee. The finals of both competitions are on that fateful date in October.

Reaching this point, though, could not have been further from Fulton’s mind 20 months ago. Leading up to the parting of ways with Andrew Meredith in late December 2013, a number of players were humming and hawing about their international future.

The 2014 World Cup bid in Rotterdam never built up a head of steam while, despite some good group showings, the European championships came perilously close to relegation but for Stu Loughrey and John Jackson goals in the last 11 minutes against the Czech Republic.

Fulton, a former assistant coach with the side from 2006 and 2009, had to work quickly to try and address the situation on arrival, putting together his first panel for Champions Challenge I in Kuantan, Malaysia scarcely a week or two into the job.

“Half the team had stepped away so we made the Champs Challenge semi-finals with an unknown team,” he said. “There were four debuts – Mossie at 30 making his debut.”

Indeed, from a tournament that could have been a recipe for disaster, Fulton says the performances there were to start rebuilding the faith.

“It took a while to get all the senior players playing but guys like Mick McKinnon and Jonny Caren and co kept things going. We did well [in Malaysia] so guys looked in and saw that. So we started to build a plan. Getting to the final of the Investec Cup last summer, drawing there and losing in a shoot-out. It was building. We got a group of players together and it was the catalyst.

“In 18 months, the first games I played as coach were 6-0 and 3-0 against England; now, we beat them 4-2. That’s the progression.”

That critical early period of restoring faith in the system was a massive spur for the side. Beating England in the summer of 2014, a first win in 12 years against the auld enenmy, was another marquee moment while beating a then higher ranked South Africa and drawing in regular time with England in the Investec Cup final were further boosts.

Kyle Good celebrates with family in the crowd. Picture: Koen Suyk

Kyle Good celebrates with family in the crowd. Picture: Koen Suyk

It set an upbeat base for a hectic 2015 with three major tournaments. A near faultless World League Round 2 gave the tone in the spring while Round 3 was the one which really saw the world stand-up and take notice with a thrilling ride to fifth place overall.

The Euro bronze is now likely to see Ireland to rise to 12th in the world rankings once the points are processed, a whisker away from Spain in 11th, and yet another high. Ireland were rated outside the top 20 less than a decade ago.

If it surprised many on the outside, the coach – whose nickname Ned stands for the ‘never ending dream’ – has visualised this success and his belief Ireland would medal on Saturday was unshakeable.

Indeed, he had already practiced for the victory moments. “Before the game, we were really confident. I came into this interview room and had an interview with myself that we had won the game. This is how we played and this was how we won.”

He made one mistake in his premonitions: “We had scored two out of three corners. Today we scored three!”

He did pay tribute to what was incredible effort from his players, many in adversity, to go above and beyond.

“Ronan [Gormley] couldn’t slap or hit the ball [due a wrist injury]; he could only play it off his reverse side. He had to do stints in there at right back and help. Gleggy [Paul Gleghorne] has a grade two tear in his shoulder but there was nothing that could stop him from playing; I couldn’t pull him off the field.

David Harte dives to make a stop. Picture: Koen Suyk

David Harte dives to make a stop. Picture: Koen Suyk

“When you have that belief and commitment in the group, you can do amazing things. It’s just reward for the performances from the guys.”

And now the waiting game but there will be no sitting back. Fulton is already plotting the next move and says it is one the whole Irish sporting public should be getting behind.

“We need to put together a long-term plan depending on how the decision goes on October 25. We have one plan but we need to build a further one that is sustainable not just to Rio but to Tokyo. It’s an inspiring performance for the rest of Ireland to get involved in.”

Partners of The Hook