New coach Alexander Cox says the never-say-die attitude of Irish hockey teams was the main attraction that drew him to apply for the men’s head coach job just four months out from the World Cup in India which starts in late November.
The Dutchman says the fighting spirit of both the men’s and women’s sides to grind out surprise results is unique in the world game, making it a dream scenario for a coach to work with.
“There are some really good players – and some world class – in the teams,” he told the Examiner. “But the mentality and the way they play, I was always attracted to.
“For Irish people, it may seem normal but this isn’t normal in Holland. The guys always go through the roof in any game, always making a big effort to win and become better as a team. That’s something that is really nice to work with as a coach.”
Cox was appointed to the role in August, taking on the job vacated by Craig Fulton who left to become Belgium’s assistant coach, citing a lack of available resources to reach the next level.
During Fulton’s four-year tenure, the Irish men did win a European bronze medal and ended a 108-year wait for an Olympic spot, breaking into the top 10 in the world.
Much like the women’s side who reached the World Cup final last month, they did so despite being a mix of workers and students, attempting to train on a professional-style basis around their other commitments.
Fulton campaigned for greater support from the government to help his side bridge the gap to their rivals who are pretty much all full-time.
The irony is that, due to the women’s success, there may finally be some traction on that front with the €500,000 windfall and possible incremental increases as part of the new 10-year sports policy.
A new sponsor for the men’s side is also set to be announced in the coming weeks.
It allows new man Cox to plan a centralised programme of sorts over the next three months. An initial 28-player panel will train together on Monday and Tuesday next week at Lisnagarvey and they will repeat that set-up the following week.
After that, Cox is hoping the side can set up at his home club, Kampong. Their Klapperboom venue has nine water-based pitches, a fully-equipped gym and is located in Utrecht, 30 minutes from Schiphol airport.
Currently, just 12 of his panel are based in Ireland with seven in Belgium and three each in Germany, England and the Netherlands and so a reasonably accessible base like this is ideal from his perspective.
He will continue to coach with Kampong who won the Dutch Hoofdklasse for the last two seasons and the Euro Hockey League in 2016.
Asked how we will manage two such high profile roles, Cox is confident he can manage it having previously combined it with roles with both the Dutch men and women as well as leading the oranje Under-21 men to European gold in 2017.
“I have worked for 13 years as a full-time hockey coach and, during this time, I have always worked with a club side and a national team.
“The combination makes for a busy life but I love the challenge. The question from Hockey Ireland was the same: ‘do you see this as a full-time job?’ Yes, of course. I am a full-time coach, 24/7. For now, it has been possible for me to do two jobs in a good way.
He adds that the Irish job will be easier in a way. Before, he would have to work with players on the national stage who would be rivals at club level and then have to drop club players from national teams.
“Now, I only have David Harte [at Kampong] and everyone knows he is world class so there are no difficulties [with his selection]. I don’t have the same club clash for 95% of the players. I am a professional; I have to select the best for the World Cup and so I don’t care where they play!”
Given the short time span to the World Cup, a key component in Cox’s transition will be Kai de Jager who was his long-time assistant at Kampong. De Jager has worked with Ireland as an assistant for the last three years and has provided crucial information with no sugar-coating.
“I trust him with his opinions and I have used him a lot in the last couple of weeks for info on the team. He’s a direct coach, says what he thinks and is not afraid to confront players when they need to be confronted. That’s important.
“For me, he is a key asset. The players like him and Hockey Ireland was happy for him to continue so it was a no-brainer to keep him.”
John Bessell will also remain in place. He provided video analysis to the Belgian Olympic silver medal winning side.
Jonny Caren, however, has parted ways with Hockey Ireland after six years. It leaves the side without a staff member in Ireland but Cox says is important while the position of Irish Under-21 coach was advertised this week.
With under 100 days to go to the World Cup, he concedes he “can’t change the structures” of play in place but is typically confident he can add extra details to be successful.
“In my experience, I don’t need a lot of time to get things done. In a couple of months, I can reach what I want to do!”
And the breakthrough silver from the women means he does not have to look far for inspiration even if he is wary to temper too much expectation on that front.
“It was a once in a lifetime achievement, unbelievable. We will of course go for as high as we can but know the competition at the World Cup will be massive.
“There are six or seven countries fighting to be world champion which is how wide the competition is in men’s hockey.
“Our first goal is to reach the crossover or quarter-final and from there, we see what happens. We can dream because we have seen it but we can’t expect to see the same.”