“Every journey comes to an end; I know we gave it everything we could,” Craig Fulton’s final reflections on a memorable week but while this Olympic journey is over, he is confident systems can be put in place to make sure this is not a one-off.
His side became the first Irish team of any denomination since 1948 to reach the Games and duly picked up a maiden 4-2 win against Canada on Thursday.
It set up an all-or-nothing tie for a quarter-final place with Argentina on Friday evening in which Ireland ultimately came up just short 3-2, conceding the killer goal with nine minutes remaining.
To reach and compete at Rio, Ireland’s men had to fundraise €225,000 over the summer months to support their efforts at a competition where they were the only outfit not training together on a full-time basis.
Previously, Hockey Ireland threatened to withdraw the men’s team from the Champions Challenge I tournament in 2012 in Argentina due to a lack of finances. Then, they raised €65,000 to be able to travel.
Despite such barriers, Ireland now lie on the cusp of the world’s top ten. But Fulton believes that such fundraising drives cannot continue and more sustainable options need to be found.
“These guys have given a lot to be here, to play at this level,” he said in the wake of the Argentina match. “There’s 10 professional outfits here while Brazil got a lot of good support as hosts.
“We created support through different ways in out Pledge and Obsessed campaigns we ran but I want that to come to an end.
“Actually, I don’t want this to happen to any team sport that makes the Olympics – if its basketball or hockey or whatever – it needs to be fully funded so they can really compete to their best because it is hard out there.
“If we can get into a room with government and rewrite the [financial] structures for team sport, it would be amazing. We would like to plan for the next four years how we go about that because there is definitely something special here. If we haven’t inspired a group of new hockey players back home, I don’t know what will.”
Reflecting on the tournament, Fulton hoped his side’s performances in pushing the world number 3 Germany, India (five) and Argentina (seven) to one-goal defeats showed the potential that is there to push on further.
“Overall, I just hope we have raised the profile of Irish hockey, especially in Ireland, because this team has sacrificed a lot to get to this point and to perform at this level. And it is a big stage to perform on. The guys have done Ireland proud.
“This tournament is like nothing else and you can’t explain it to anyone about what it is going to be like. Once the players leave this environment and reflect back on where they were and what was at stake, they will realise how big it was and, hopefully, we will have this group back and qualifying for Tokyo [in 2020].”
On that point, he is confident that if the support structure is in place, many of this current squad can use this experience and knowledge on the top table at another stage, notably at the World Cup in 2018 in India.
“I don’t exactly what is going on back home the guys have done Irish hockey proud and we hope that we can put structures in place to bring younger age groups into decent coaching and strength and conditioning programmes that are sustainable.
“But also we can keep most of this group; we only have two or three guys over 30 – Argentina have nine over 30 – so that’s definitely another cycle.
“So if we can get these structures in place with a partnership to keep them playing on for another two years, we can go a long way, using this experience.”
Indeed, he said that nothing could really prepare the players for the special atmosphere that comes with the Olympic Games. He said that the step up from a regular tournament was always likely to add that extra weight on the players.
“It was going to do that anyway. The dream of winning a medal, playing in a quarter-final is alive in every minute you play here. There’s something really big behind it.”
Nonetheless, they were in contention until the final game. There, Los Leones held sway for much of the tie as Ireland clung on thanks to effective penalty corner conversions and David Harte’s brilliance.
“Extremely disappointed tonight; we had our game plan and stuck to our guns. They are a good team and will probably go on to medal in one way, shape or form. When we scored our second and conceded within a minute, that was the tough one to take.
“We came up just short against Argentina. We needed one or two more corners and they were firing tonight. For two games now, the penalty corner defence did not work out and that is something we pride ourselves in.
“We needed to start better [against India]; I was thinking about that India game for at least nine months and it went pretty close.
“We knew it would be tough after that but at least we got the result against Canada. Germany did us that favour – you can always rely on them. At the end of the day, our target was seven points and we came up short.”
He says that in those moments, there is plenty to learn from and develop upon.
“I would love to take this on further. I have two years left on my contract which takes us up to the World Cup.
“It’s a good education; there’s life lessons in it that you can’t teach people. When we look at the detail, we will have a lot to go on when we try and train up for the next competition for World League 2 next March in Dublin!”
Lessons learned at the top table and hopefully even more to come from these history makers.