The famous firsts keep rolling for Irish hockey following a breakthrough 2015 in which the men’s national team qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time since 1908.
They followed up that success with a bronze medal at the European Championships in London. It has led to the sport receiving its first nomination for RTE awards in both the team of the year and coach of the year – Craig Fulton.
In addition, Shane O’Donoghue – for Rising Star of the Year – and David Harte – in the goalkeeping category – have become the first Irish men ever to be nominated for world player of the year awards.
For O’Donoghue, he hails his nomination as “a massive achievement and something I never imagined before”, admitting that it came as something of a shock despite a brilliant year in central midfield.
“In the bigger picture, it is great for Davey Harte and myself, as well as the team, to get that bit more coverage on what we have achieved. I hope I get to win it but I am just chuffed to get nominated as world rising star of the year.”
His form saw him win player of the tournament at World League Round 2 in San Diego before being the anchor in midfield in World League 3 in Antwerp and scoring the final penalty stroke in a 4-2 win in London to rubber-stamp the Euro bronze.
Speaking about what raised him to such a level, O’Donoghue says that his move to play hockey on a full-time, professional basis with the Dragons club in Belgium was a crucial factor.
“Obviously 2015 was a successful year for the team. For myself, individually, making the move to play professionally over in Belgium was a big part of it.
“I was in a squad, playing a big role, with world class players training at a really high level every week. That gave me a good foundation for 2015 and allowed me to express myself and play some of my best hockey to date in the World League and the European championships.”
He said that this was a catalyst to become a more central figure in Fulton’s panel.
“I took it upon myself to become one of the key players in the team, using the confidence of being a key player with a big club team in Europe to get there.
“I have been in and around the Irish scene since I was 17 but really have got into it in the last few years. When I was in as a youngster, you do try and keep the head down and maybe hold back. But your natural talent and ability is why you are there in the first place.
“With the more international games you play and the training you do, it makes a big difference. Being scouted by Dragons was a big thing and instilled a lot of confidence in me to perform well for both club and country.”
“After an initially tough transition, after you see the way the guys train and play, you see there is no reason I can’t do it and I backed myself to be as good as anyone in the team – physically and mentally – and make the games.
“When you are full-time, focussing fully on the game is the only way you can do it. It is a nice lifestyle to play the sport you love and devote yourself fully to it.”
O’Donoghue was on the sidelines back in 2012 when Ireland agonisingly missed out on Olympic qualification against Korea in Dublin – a squad he was trying to break into at the time.
While he was on the fringes, he says that seeing the pain his fellow players went through and the work rate that went into coming so close was inspiring to be around and something he was keen to emulate.
“You see how much they sacrifice and how much they devote to the sport. At the time, a lot of them were doing what I am doing now – playing professionally, keeping in tip-top condition and giving their all.
“Even for a guy on the edge of the squad, it was hard to see those guys who had given so much in the years before it and it was difficult to take. They couldn’t have come any closer. It’s nice to see those senior guys now get their reward.
“Since then, the one thing Neddy [coach Fulton] has really instilled in us since then is that mental strength; self-belief and confidence is a massive thing and that has really got into us. Especially so for the senior guys who faced that disappointment in 2012. The group has a really strong mindset because of it.”
** The Rising Star of the Year and Goalkeeper of the Year awards are decided by public vote via the following link: http://fih.ch/global-stars/hockey-stars/. Voting is open until January 26.