“Are you a logistics manager as well as a coach?” comes the question from Peter Sweeney, one of a couple of journalists assembled for a press briefing with Craig Fulton and David Harte in midweek.
“You are juggling the whole time that you to get the best out of the programme,” Fulton replies. “It’s not as straight-forward as having 25 players and I can have them whenever I want. We are currently good but could be so much better.”
Three months out from a first Olympic experience in over a century, it is a frank statement on where the Irish men’s hockey team sit currently. While the majority of other teams bound for Rio are full-time, Ireland’s 27-man panel straddle an awkward middle-ground, attempting to compete at elite level with non-elite funding.
The mix of seven full-time professional players with students and those working full-time makes for innovative solutions and some serious personal decisions to pursue the Road to Rio.
In the past 10 days, the Green Machine launched their Pledge Sports campaign, seeking support from the public to help make up a funding shortfall of €225,000 for the programme. In addition, Fulton has been at the heart of organising a golf classic along with a gala dinner, personally asking Irish rugby coach Joe Schmidt to “give 10 minutes of his time” to make a speech at the event to bolster support for the programme.
With no major corporate sponsorship and a significantly smaller than pitched for tally coming in from the Irish Sports Council, Fulton has taken on these extra tasks in order to give his side the best possible of challenging the world’s top nations. Its unlikely the likes of Dutch boss Max Caldas or Australia coach Graham Reid have any such concerns to cope with.
As Ireland have not qualified for an Olympic team sport since 1948, Fulton says it is completely new territory for everyone involved, adding: “There is no model for team sports on this level [in Ireland].”
The duality of the squad has been in place since he took over in April 2014, linking up with a panel shy many key men as life moved on in the wake of the narrow miss for London 2012.
“On April 9, 2014, when I first took over we played two games against England and lost 3-0 and 6-0 with a very young group of players. There were 60% of the experienced group not playing, either working or away.
“Over the next year or 14 months, we had to try and get everyone back but to also accept that these players are now in careers. How do we get a bigger squad to cover when some players can’t always commit as they don’t have enough holiday days left?”
While those are the realities and limitations, however, the coach says that he always knew the raw materials were in place to break mindsets and moulds.
“For us to qualify, being 15th in the world, we would have to be in the top 12 in the world and beat higher ranked teams to qualify. We had to think totally differently than before and push way beyond our usual to get into that space.”
“In a coaching environment, we were trying to do something that hadn’t been done and making history. In the first presentation I did to the team, I said we know we can do this and make our own piece of Irish history.
“We’ve been close to this a few times. If we put everything into it again and learn from what happened before. Resilient belief is what we needed. The guys bought into it and had a shared belief around it. It wasn’t just coming from my side; we all had to commit. Dreams can fly. If you are in the right space and commit to it enough, anything is possible.”
Now, they have to push themselves even harder in order to give them the best chance in Rio. Since February, the side has been training together Sunday to Tuesday with the full group, transitioning now to a full-time schedule for the next three months which is where the funding comes in.
There have been casualties; Jonny Bruton and Stevie Dowds have both stepped away from the panel after qualification was achieved, unable to continue to commit to the programme with their respective personal circumstances.
“There’s confidentiality there. It was obviously a difficult conversation and we tried everything but, in elite sport, there are no guarantees would there be a business to come back to and x, y and z. I respect everything they have done and it does not close the door going forward.”
“You have guys taking sabbaticals, guys working as lawyers, doctors, IT or whatever. They have mortgages and a family to keep. There is not much there for them to cover them other than our fundraising.
“That funding we get in will be split. We have an amount to go to the players and then also to allow us play further games. You can’t have one without the other.
“It’s great to have the programme but if the players aren’t available – the top choice players with the most experience – to take part in it, it’s such a dilemma. So we are trying to bridge the gap.”
Next week, Ireland play three times in Germany without the Banbridge contingent due to their involvement in the EuroHockey Club Champions Trophy in Glasgow.
After that, Ireland face a home series against Korea and Canada. A six nations tournament in Valencia follows from June 27 to July 3 featuring Argentina, Spain, Germany, India and New Zealand before the Dutch come to Cork on July 4 and 6. They fly out to Brazil on July 19.
Off the back of a similarly hectic 2015, Ireland played 41 games, the most they have ever had in one calendar year and Fulton says it is no coincidence it ended with Olympic qualification and a European bronze medal and the volume of fixtures if crucial.
“It’s a massively intense programme. Last year was the most successful we have ever been. In that equation, the more time we spend together, the better we got; the more we could adapt and learn about ourselves.
“In the end, it was always going to be about us and where we could make the improvements.”
** To donate the Irish men’s hockey teams fund for the Olympic Games, click here: https://www.pledgesports.org/projects/obsessed/