When Craig Fulton first arrived on Irish shores in 2005 as player-coach at Pembroke, Ronan Gormley says it marked “an immediate change” in the way the club went about its business that had a far-reaching knock-on effect.
Looking at the current panel, the Pembroke influence is huge with Gormley joined by former club mates Conor and David Harte, Alan Sothern and Kirk Shimmins while Fulton is joined on the management team by goalkeeping coach Nigel Henderson.
His arrival kick-started a golden period in Dublin 4 club’s history, claiming two of the old All-Ireland Club Championship titles, the inaugural IHL crown as well as a pair of Irish Senior Cup titles – five national titles in the space of four seasons.
Instigated by Dave Passmore and Frank Gormley, Fulton’s arrival in Ireland has been one of the crucial figures in changing the template in Irish hockey, pushing new boundaries.
Ronan Gormley admits that he didn’s know much more about Fulton other than that he was “a star South Africa international with long, dyed blond surfer hair”.
But any ideas of a laid-back approach were quickly dispelled at club training with Fulton quickly installing high-performance virtues into a club environment, perhaps the first set-up of its kind in Ireland.
“It was the first time we had both an international standard coach and one who was dedicating his career to coaching. He made just as big an impact as a player and managed the dual role impressively well. The quality of training sessions and energy committed by the group went up significantly.”
In terms of training standards, it closed the gap to international sessions, with Gormley saying it was “a great stepping stone towards the international stage”.
Such a setup provided the perfect stage for rising stars like Tim Lewis, Ronan Flannery and Alan Sothern to prosper. They linked up with mature heads like Nigel Henderson, Paddy Conlon, Gordon Elliott and Justin Sherriff – the archetypal mix of youth and experience.
“Everyone took to Craig straight away – he has an infectious energy, desire to win and an ability to create a competitive but fun environment which was perfect for us at the time.
“I can’t remember a seminal moment, but do remember managing to grapple past a high-quality Glenanne a couple of times which was a good indicator of success at the time.”
For good measure, two South African internationals were added to the mix; John McInroy and Ian Symons, the latter bringing yet more Olympic experience to the table. Despite some initial reticence in the squad, they would prove key elements.
Gormley knew of McInroy from his days in the English schoolboys’ system with St George’s, saying he was “a player I looked up to and tried to emulate around the ages of 9 to 11!
“He is a guy who unites a team through his personality and approach and his impact was fantastic. Symmo had an equally positive impact, just with a different, more understated approach.
“There were initially some reservations from the guys in Pembroke towards the international guys coming in but once they arrived and settled in there was only love for them – both great men!
“Both brought a level of leadership through action that others naturally followed. They knew what was required to win and behaved in such a way as to encourage others to do the same.”
It created a top hockey culture that other players wanted to buy into. Conor Harte said that, once he was accepted to study in DCU, there was only one real option of club for him to join.
“Going to Pembroke was very simple – I had played with Tim Lewis, Alan Sothern and Timmy Hill on underage Irish teams and that, twinned with Ned as their coach, made it an easy decision. Gormo can be a persuasive guy too!
“Having Ned as a full time coach whose sole role was coaching hockey meant he gave 100% of his time and effort to us and we, as players, aimed to match that commitment and it ultimately made us the squad we were back then.
“Playing a good level of hockey, week in week out, combined with having a great team to train with and Ned as coach, it was the right combination and the right time to learn a lot.
“Training was always a high standard and I learned an awful lot in a short period of time. I feel very fortunate to have gone from a great club in Cork Harlequins to another great club in Pembroke at the right time and right age to learn as much as I could.”
Gormley adds: “We had some fantastic years where things ‘clicked’. We were fortunate in that a lot of things came together and gelled really well – foreign coach, international players, PWHC players and new youth talent in the club, the Hartes from Cork, even Andy MacConnell from up the road who wanted to be a part of what we had created.
“Despite the mix, there was a great bond on and off the pitch and we achieved the success we set out to… and had some serious craic alongside it!”