Irish coach Craig Fulton says his men’s team need to generate significant additional income to the tune of between €100,000 and €230,000 to give themselves the best possible chance of pushing for a medal at the Olympics.
It follows the announcement in March that Hockey Ireland was granted €530,000 from the Sports Council for 2016 across both the men’s and women’s programmes at all age groups – a level similar to 2012.
While grateful for this level support, Fulton says in order to match his preferred programme and reach its fullest
potential, the team will need to fill that financial gap by whatever means possible.
“We rely heavily on the Irish Sports Council for our funding so we are thankful to them. At the same time, we have other challenges,” Fulton said of the situation.
“We are trying to work against a deficit and get whatever corporate sponsorship that we can. We will do fundraisers ourselves to get this together.”
That such a gap exists is heavily to do with timing. Ireland played their last Olympic qualifying game in July 2015 in Antwerp but, due to the vagaries of the system, they only found out if they had formally qualified in October with the completion of the Oceania Cup in New Zealand.
A further five months passed before the official funding notification for 2016 came through, giving Fulton a clear number to match against his plans.
To this end, he prepared a couple of scenarios for his build-up for Rio in the wake of the World League tournament in Antwerp but only this month saw the difference in available funding.
Currently, his Irish side are working on a “semi full-time” basis with the Belfast and European-based players commuting to Dublin on Sunday evenings for double-sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays before returning for work or study for the second half of the week.
At the Games in August, however, Ireland have been grouped with India, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands and Argentina, all of whom are currently in full-time set-ups.
Bridging that gap requires cash to be raised to help the Irish players out of their day jobs and into a full-time plan, at a minimum, for May, June and July in the lead-up to Rio.
Fulton says: “We have a decent programme designed but we need to get everyone into the programme. That’s our challenge. A lot of these guys are still in work and we are trying to get them out and we are looking for help to get them full-time.”
Roughly half of the current 26 player panel is in full-time employment but looking to sort out a method to go full throttle for the Olympic dream.
Mitch Darling, for instance, took legal exams before Christmas and will now take an unpaid sabbatical until after the Games to play professionally with Rotterdam and then Ireland in the summer.
But it is a tough decision for each individual case, especially with just 16 places at Rio from the original panel of 35 – a couple already stepped away, unable to give up work with the financial and career implications weighing too heavily.
For comparison’s sake, Great Britain are working off a budget of €6m. This has allowed them to centralise players in the greater London area on a full-time basis for the past four years for collective training.
Ireland’s players, meanwhile, has a number dispersed around Europe. Some are students, some full-time workers and others combine semi-professional contracts in the elite leagues with day jobs.
World goalkeeper of the year David Harte doubles as a biology teacher in addition to playing with SV Kampong in the Netherlands; Ronan Gormley is a health food marketing executive on a freelance basis so that he can play hockey as well for Crefelder in Germany.
Gormley gets “a meagre amount of money” to play with the club, “enough to live on and they helped with accommodation” and so the job is a necessity.
He does add that his aim was never to get rich from playing the sport he loves but to give himself the best chance to go as far as he can go.
“My aim was always to be a full-time sportsman rather than actually being a professional for a wage, being able invest your time in sport and improve,” he said at a recent Q&A session in Trinity College that acted as a fundraiser of sorts.
“I don’t really believe in looking forward too much because what I am doing now and aiming for the Olympics is what I really wanted to do.”
Indeed, for the past six years, this has been a side that has had to find ways around non-ideal situations. Famously, the Hockey Ireland withdrew the national team from the Champions Challenge in Argentina in 2011 when Gormley was captain only for a public campaign to raise €60,000 within a week to overturn the decision.
Ireland went on to finish third at that tournament, surpassing their pre-tournament ranking. For the World League semi-final, 2015’s Olympic qualifiers, costs were shaved with Gormley’s sister Ciara offering her physio services free gratis while John Jackson’s mother Jennifer – a medical officer in the British navy – acted as team doctor.
Such savings help eke out availability for another couple of international fixtures into their programme. In 2015, Ireland played more matches than ever before – 44 in total – in a calendar year and produced their best ever results.
This year, they have a similarly ambitious programme, starting with three games against GB in April, another three against Germany in May. Korea and Canada are set to visit Ireland before Ireland head to Valencia for a Six Nations event. There will be 35 games between January and August
Speaking about the schedule in recent years, Fulton adds: “It is an expensive exercise, running a squad of 26 and it comes at a price. At the same time, it’s a similar programme to what got us qualified.
“It’s new for us. We always wanted to be an Olympic team and tried really hard to get there. We try and get the current squad together as much as possible and, on Monday mornings, the atmosphere is amazing.
“We are up against teams who are five days full-time and have been for the last three or four years. They get 44 weeks of the year for four to five years. We are only getting there now. It is hard but we are having a lot of contact time but the bonds that we form during this time will always be with us.
“Now, we have to just concentrate on getting better, every day, every week – that’s our priority.”