Ireland survive late scare to retain elite status; Fulton and Harte reflect on 2017

Men’s Rabo EuroHockey Championships
Pool C: Ireland 2 (A Sothern, S O’Donoghue) Austria 2 (M Korper 2)
Ireland survived a heart-stopping late scare to retain their status in the top tier of European hockey as they got the draw they needed to relegate Austria.

It should have been easier on the nerves as they led 2-1 with three minutes to go but they came out the right side of a dramatic endgame to close out a formative year.

The first half was innocuous to say the least from an Irish perspective with Austria taking an early lead via Michael Korper from Dominic Uher’s cross.

With the stadium music turned off for the Sunday repose, the atmosphere – whether manufactured or real – was tepid, matching the play.

Ireland did, however, got back on terms from their only attack of note of the first half. Matthew Bell’s driving run ended with Alan Sothern who was razor-sharp to control and tap in with minimal fuss.

Fortunes turned in the second half, something coach Craig Fulton said was down to Austria’s tactical outlook rather than any stern words on his behalf.

“They were man-to-man for most of the tournament and went to a zone defence which helped us and it really helped us. It made it easier to play it through and we could have scored one or two more.”

As such, the Green Machine had plenty of control in the third quarter, particularly when they went ahead from Shane O’Donoghue’s third corner flick of the competition into the top right corner.

Late drama, though, is a seemingly ingrained element in the Irish DNA and they contrived to concede an equaliser in the last three minutes from their own attack.

A penalty corner of their own was charged down by Xaver Hasun, starting a counter-attack which ended with Korper’s shot going in off both Harte twins at the near post.

Then, with 20 seconds to go, Uher had a chance to win the tie but it slipped through his grasp from Hasun’s ball.

It left the tie at 2-2, Ireland taking sixth and Austria seventh with survival assured for the 2019 edition.

“You are always going to scrap it out at the bottom,” Fulton added. “It’s not a nice place to be but it builds character. Hopefully, in 2019, we can put in the right building blocks and kick on from there and make that semi again.”

While the fraught outcome was not the ideal end to the campaign, Fulton can reflect on a regenerative 2017.

“A lot of depth used which is the most important thing we could have done. With a year to go to the World Cup, it’s the perfect place to be. Looking at the options, the players are getting confident at this level and so we just need to put a smart programme in place for 2018.

“We call it chapter 17 in the Irish hockey history annual. 17 stands out as a proud moment with a lot of standout moments. Going into World League 2, that was probably one of the hardest tournaments we have done. To win that and qualification for the World Cup in Johannesburg, the squad with all the changes.”

For the likes of Neal Glassey, Sean Murray and Jonny McKee it has been a formative year, emerging as central figures in the panel while the teenagers Matthew Nelson, Daragh Walsh and Ben Walker have gained invaluable know-how.

“With the experience we had in the Rio build-up, it was hard for some of them, being in the squad but not a possibility of playing in a tournament – there was no tournament besides the Olympics in 2016.

Ireland following their draw with Austria. Pic: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

“We had a lot of games and they were in those squads and so we see the fruit now off the back of that. Builder [Glassey] was in the squad two years before he played in his first tournament. That’s not easy. It’s indicative of competition so that’s very positive.

“For Ben to come out of school the day before – I think he was in French class and not allowed to answer the phone – and then we had to fetch him from a bus station because he can’t drive. Then he won us four corners and scored the next day against Ukraine.

“It’s indicative of the healthy environment that we are in from a youth level. There’s a real vibe from 18s, 21s and above. Guys are keen to play and that’s the healthiest part of this year.

“There’s some talent there as well so we have to see what we do with that and how we can move forward. We have worked closely together, massively so. We have had a few injuries so that doesn’t help and other guys who couldn’t do tournaments because of work.”

David Harte concurred about the nature of the tournament and the state of the hockey nation: “We got the job done; you never know how these matches are going to go. It ebbed and flowed; we probably should have dominated and put the game out of sight.

“It’s the story for the tournament that we didn’t take our opportunities but that will come. The young guys playing up front in this kind of tournament will set us up nicely for 2019.

“[For the squad] I am not too sure how many teams can say they move players in and out of the team based on work. The Belgian team had two changes at most; we used 30 players on a rotation basis.

“You might have thought after Olympic year, we would be quiet but you had World League 2 in March. Then not many contact hours before Johannesburg with a changed squad and changed faces. The young lads have added a dimension to the group. When you have people from other countries asking who is Sean Murray, who is Matthew Nelson, you know these guys will be ones for the future and hopefully sooner in time for the World Cup.”

Ireland: D Harte, M Bell, M Nelson, A Sothern, K Shimmins, S O’Donoghue, S Murray, M Robson, P Gleghorne, C Harte, S Loughrey
Subs: J Jackson, J Bell, N Glassey, B Walker, D Walsh, L Cole, M Ingram

Austria: M Szymczyk, D Uher, A Bele, B Schmidt, M Korper, D Frohlich, B Stanzl, F Steyrer, M Minar, L Thornblom, X Hasun
Subs: F Zeidler, S Eitenberger, P Schmidt, O Binder, F Unterkricher, P Stanzl, M Mantler

Umpires: B Bale (ENG), J van ‘t Hek (NED)

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