Craig Fulton is hopeful new funding models and working arrangements can be made to help the Irish men’s hockey team continue their meteoric rise.
Following qualification for the 2016 Olympics – their first appearance in over a century – the green machine rose to 10th place in the world for the very first time.
They did so despite being the only team in the top 16 who are not full-time professionals. That status brings a range of extra pressures for coach Fulton with a large number of the more experienced members of his squad taking unpaid leave and extended sabbaticals to pursue their Rio ambitions.
It means that some of those players’ involvement in a busy 2017 will be severely curtailed unless further compromises are agreed.
This year sees Ireland begin their 2018 World Cup qualification bid in March in Belfast at World League Round 2 with the second phase likely to be in Johannesburg in the summer. In addition, they will play in the European Championships in August. There is also the possibility of a World League final tournament at the end of the year.
At this stage, Fulton already knows he will have to expand his squad to get the best possible side for each event, knowing that some players will be unavailable at different times.
“A group of guys are already unavailable for WL2 because of work as they only have x amount of days that they can take,” he said of the situation. “Some have been away from work for a while on so they owe it to their companies for their good will which is fair.
“There’s 37 in the squad now and its broad for a reason. It will be cut down but everyone who wants to put their hand up has a chance.
“If guys aren’t available now, they still need to be performing [in club hockey] and then do the testing and conditioning. It’s going to be a long year with three big tournaments with ranking points and qualifying on the table.
“Since 2014, we were 15th and now we are 10th. There’s no other men’s team doing that; the only other is the Spanish women.
“That’s pushing as hard as you possibly can and now the real investment needs to start to get everyone through a big year knowing we don’t have a professional environment.
“We will have to use a bigger squad and plan it well to take into account the x amount of days the senior players have. That’s going to be down to a plan but not exactly picking and choosing when they want to play.”
Fulton is hopeful that the funding model can change significantly so that his side can plan accordingly. Prior to the Olympics, the Irish panel had to raise €220,000 themselves to run the preparation campaign they wanted to best compete in Rio.
Four years ago, they also had to fundraise €65,000 to take part in the Champions Challenge I in Argentina. It is something that Fulton says cannot continue, especially when he wants to put long-term plans in place that culminate in Tokyo 2020.
Currently, funding from Sport NI runs on a four-year basis but Sport Ireland is on a year-by-year basis. Fulton says it needs to change to a four-year cycle.
“If you are trying to turn over players or try out a few things, you will know the money is there and what risks you can take to do it.
“Funding is in place for January, February and March. We don’t know the final total for the rest of the year. We are still functioning and then planning for the rest of the year.”
The first few months of the year see a training camp in Spain in January – a previously planned trip to South Africa was cancelled due to cost – before playing games against club sides in Holland. Two warm-up games lead into World League Round 2 in Stormont.
On a similar note, Fulton was part of a large group of elite sports people from a range of disciplines – including David Harte, Dave Fitzgerald and John Jermyn – to meet Minister for State for Sport Patrick O’Donovan at Farmleigh to discuss a better way of allowing them to combine top sport with working lives.
“We want there to be a benefit for companies to be involved with high-performance sports and its athletes. We had a good chat with the junior minister about it and he realises there is a piece of work to be done for all sports to make sure that people don’t have to stop competing completely to make sure they have a career to go back to.”
And Fulton feels that without changes that allow players to continue competing at the top level for longer, Ireland will not be able to sustain the elevated level they have been playing at.
“We’re into the top 10 in the world. Everyone else is professional; literally 35 to 44 weeks of the year in a full-time environment. We currently can’t compete with offering that but we are trying to push for the top eight in the world. We have to make changes.
“The ultimate target is to be in a position to win a quarter-final in Tokyo in 2020. We start with that end in mind and work backwards and see what we need to put in place to get there.
“The biggest thing we can change is spending more time together; in 2015, the more tournaments we played, the better we got. That’s basically what we are trying to recreate.
That means less time away from the programme and trying to move the experienced ‘workers’ in the group, mainly aged between 24 and 29, into a semi full-time programme to get that time together.”