** This is an expanded piece from one which originally appeared in last Saturday’s Irish Examiner.
Dubbed the “catalyst” for the Irish men’s huge rise on the world stage, Craig Fulton’s decision on Thursday to resign from the role six months out from a first World Cup appearance in 28 years has sent shock waves through the local hockey community.
Indeed, it was a bolt from the blue for Hockey Ireland whose CEO Jerome Pels told the Irish Examiner “this came as a complete surprise”.
He added that Fulton had only extended his agreement with the national federation to stay on until Tokyo 2020 earlier this year.
It follows four years of unprecedented success, encompassing a first Olympic qualification in over a century, a maiden European championship medal in 2015 as well as a ticket to November’s World Cup in India.
Fulton will move to Belgium where he will become the assistant coach to the Red Lions, the Olympic silver medalists.
It is not a job, Fulton says, that he sought out nor he applied for. But the 2015 FIH Coach of the Year is a hot property on the world stage and was a prime target once the position became available.
As such, it was probably a matter of when rather than if a bigger fish would come along and Belgium, operating in a different financial stratosphere, are one of the sharks in the market, especially after Philippe Goldberg’s decision to step down as assistant coach.
For Fulton, the capacity to work with a fully professional squad rather than managing Ireland’s mixture of pro, semi-pro, students and workers was an enticing one.
“I wasn’t unhappy, I wasn’t looking for anything,” Fulton said. “I have been making plans [with Ireland] for the last two years with the goal of winning a World Cup quarter-final and I was very committed to seeing it.
“But, with Belgium, I will get more time with players, have my own projects and my own team [with the Under-21s] while also having the main job is to assist [head coach] Shane MacLeod for the World Cup and everything in their targets.
“I may not have to do all the other things that I have had to manage [with Ireland].”
Such tasks included running fundraisers to get the most from his panel, famously raising €225,000 in the lead-up to Rio to get the squad the preparations they required, designing in-depth programmes and lobbying government minister.
When asked if not having the finances to match his ambitions, Fulton said that it is the current situation in Ireland. Indeed, he said it was not a frustration for him and the panel but a challenge that they added to the repertoire and used to forge an enviable team spirit.
“Frustration is the wrong word,” he added. “It’s a reality, daily and monthly. For us, to be competitive, we asked the public for funds for a six-month programme for Rio. The players and I helped raise that money. That says it all.
“The big teams don’t have that problem. Then again, they may not have the character traits like the Irish men’s team have, making up in spades for what they don’t have with commitment and a mentality you can’t put a price on.
“If Ireland had everything, would they have that x-factor in those times when they are defending a lead?”
Goalkeeper David Harte said was such an attitude was indicative of his ambition and something the panel followed.
“Ned was the catalyst behind our Olympic and World Cup qualification which has led to our rise in the world rankings,” Harte said.
“He essentially unleashed the potential in the group and did so in a belief-driven and calculated manner. He’s a winner plain and simple.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate to lose him just six months from a World Cup. His vision and goals weren’t always able to be matched and supported financially but he persevered and fought tooth and nail to put everything in place.”
For Fulton, he did seek to start later with Belgium and see through 2018 with Ireland but the new job would not have been waiting for him come November, forcing his hand to make a snap decision.
“It was a massive honour to take the Irish job and then to do what we have done. When you have success, to turn away from it is disappointing.
“But I feel very proud of what we have done and I do sleep easily, knowing I have given it absolutely everything, leaving no stone unturned to put ourselves out there.”
For now, he hopes Hockey Ireland – who started advertising the job on Friday – can make a sensible appointment to fill his boots.
“I hope they don’t change too much, to have a knee-jerk reaction. The system is there and the staff is there to succeed.”