After four summers with the Irish women’s squad, Colin “Bacchus” Stewart has decided this “chapter was over” as he looks forward to new challenges.
The Tasmanian added to his legend as part of Graham Shaw’s coaching team last summer with the World Cup silver medal success continuing over 20 years of a love affair with the Irish game.It’s an affair spanning spells – among others – at Corinthian, Hermes, Glenanne, Pembroke and Sutton Park before traversing continents to aid the Green Army’s success.
Initially, his involvement was one of convenience. The coach had moved with his wife, Brid, to New Zealand to work in their Blacksticks’ regional system but when a cash-strapped Ireland had a space on their coaching roster available for the 2015 Hawkes Bay Cup, Shaw saw an opportunity to rope his old mucker in.
“Sharpie and I have known each other for a long time and I coached him when he was younger. We went over to North Harbour just to say hello!
“We took Graham out for dinner and one thing led to another… I might have had one or two lemonades… but at 10.30pm, he said ‘Bacchus, you are coaching our forwards tomorrow’.
“I did that and it went well and he said ‘ would you do assistant coach next week?’ They didn’t have anyone else who could travel and we just clicked. We have the same mindset about modern, attacking hockey. He said he would do anything to bring me over!”
Stewart made a flying visit for training camps in Ulster in 2016 and was, again, in handy position to help at World League Round 2 in Malaysia in January 2017.
Once World Cup qualification was assured, he came on board full-time in 2018 with Brid helping secure Softco as team sponsor – as well as Turkish Airlines for the men – into the bargain.
And the rest was history, culminating in the World Cup silver. In that context, it was tough for Bacchus to step away but he feels the move is right for him and Brid with England calling initially before potentially returning down under.
“It was some great times. It was a hard decision after nearly four summers and I wanted to see the girls through the interim period after the World Cup but I think it was time for a new voice.
“They have chosen very well – Sean [Dancer] is a very good coach – but the chapter was over with the success in London. I came on board, in Sharpie’s words, to help out as I had coached a lot of these girls when they were 17 or 18.
“They are in such a good position heading into this year so it was a good time for me to step aside.”
He is referring to the 2008/09 vintage when Chloe Watkins, Gillian Pinder, Deirdre Duke, Anna O’Flanagan and Nikki Evans were all coming through at Hermes.
“It seems to be fate. We had such a great time when those young ones came into club hockey. I have been watching them from England and New Zealand and seeing how good they have been going.
“To come back and help them, as well as Sharpie and Joe Brennan, it had come full circle.”O’Flanagan, indeed, credited him with playing a key role in shaping what kind of striker she has become – the all-time leading Irish women’s goalscorer – with her trademark short-handed strike a very definite imitation of Stewart’s style.
“Yeah, he taught me when I was 16 to go for shorter grip and I have done it ever since! He has definitely helped me a lot. He will be missed around the squad, whatever player you were, he could see little things that would help you improve.
“I was so lucky to have that guidance early on from him. And he is a really excellent technical coach, he really sees the smaller detail and that really helps you to do things that little bit quicker. As a player, he could score a goal from any angle and, as a striker, having someone like that coaching you is so helpful.”
Her tribute was among over 25 thank you letters from squad members for their individual development over the last three and a half years, something he described as “extremely kind and humbling”.
For Stewart, working with micro-groups is the bit he enjoys most and he loved doing individual sessions for maxiumum technical impact.
“When I do international players in particular, I can work one, two or three at a time. Even when you are picking up balls, you are talking through game situations and doing a lot of ‘outside the box’ coaching – in this situation, what can you do? You can get so much more done and I don’t think there is a whole lot of that going on.”
It is something that Stewart feels is rare the world over and sees “technical coaching” as something of a speciality, the genesis of which came at the Australian Institute of Sport under greats like Richard Aggiss, Terry Walsh and Ric Charlesworth and then through 20 years of teaching PE.
“Do I miss head coaching? In a way. But there is a dearth of technical coaches in the world and the more I do this, hopefully the better I get. I have coached over 500 coaches since the World Cup in Ireland.
“They can’t get enough of the practical coaching. I can do 20 hours on a whiteboard but it is the coaching on the pitch. There’s not a lot of it going on, being able to teach how to move your feet right, how to hit a ball right or left hand side.
“Knowing your own game and the basics of being a hockey player and how you move but also knowing the attention to detail. In Australia, we were brought up if you can hit the ball to the bottom right corner, do it 100,000 times. Make sure you can do it under any pressure, almost with your eyes closed.”
Stewart says that commitment to repetition played a key role in the opening Irish goal at the World Cup. On the face of it, it looked a rudimentary long ball from Roisin Upton out of defence to the roving Duke in behind the back.
“We spent a year working on that!” Stewart said, harking back to elements seen in practice matches at Spooky Nook against the US.
“We conjured up a plan for the US which we felt strongly we could beat them. For that goal, we called it our leading patterns of one-two-three.
“Without giving too much away, as soon as there is a break in play, we try to get three players as high as possible, one on the 23 leading across the line who has to run really hard. It gives you that long ball option; the other option takes out their free man.
“We trained it in UCD and poor old Deirdre Duke always did it. You might have to lead 30 times a game like that, 29 times you might just be creating space, getting on the ball a little bit. The 30th time… you just never know.
“Unfortunately for the girls, nowadays they have the GPS on their back so we coaches will know if they don’t hit their maximum level. They have to go hard!”
It was a sign of a plan coming together. After the win over the US, Stewart cut a content figure as he waited outside the press room to meet friends, the result and performance not a massive surprise to him.
“There was touches of it like in Malaysia, that was in front of 5,000 screaming people, all banging drums and whatever. They could handle that pressure and were obviously fit enough and the skill level had improved.
“In that summer, when we beat Germany in Germany at a three nations… and games in the US at Spooky Nook, there was a quarter there we could have put four or five past them. There were little bits each time.
“The US game wasn’t a surprise to us. That’s not us being arrogant – the US are a great side – but we always felt minimum a point. Because of that win and the way the group unfolded strangely. People say ‘were you lucky?’
“No, we made our own luck. We just felt stronger and stronger; we had good defence and strong corners and possibly the best goalkeeper in the world.”After such a success, it may seem an odd time to step away, particularly with the Olympic Games now a much closer proposition than ever before.
Would he have stayed if Graham had stayed? “Depends what the wife’s job was! Interesting one – I am not sure. It would have been part of the same chapter I suppose but it hasn’t happened so we move on.
“People say ‘is it a stange time to move?’ No, it’s a perfect time for me and the girls are in such a good place and need a new voice. It’s important to know when to step away.
“For me, I can see myself trying to be the best technical coach I can be around the world. I have had a few contacts in different countries and we will decide what’s the best thing to do.
“The Olympics, hopefully one day I might get there but I have been fortunate to get to a World Cup final with the best bunch of girls and the best coaching staff around.”
As for his time in Ireland, he took Corinthian from Leinster relegation contenders to top-table challengers, scoring goals for fun, before picking up trophies for fun.
There remain the odd regrets but the highlights are far more modest than you might expect.
“I look back at Corinthian – whom I love dearly and am a life member – although we went from surviving by one point in Division One when I first got them, up to top three.
“That was a nice story but there was one game when we lost on the 16th stroke of the Irish Senior Cup semi-final for Charlie Henderson moving too early and a penalty goal was givem. That sticks in my mind for Corinthians and their staunch fans to have that one day at UCD. We had a great time but that would have been fantastic.
“As for highlights, I’ve been really lucky, working with Ronan Walsh and Brian Scully at Sutton Park. When the Under-13s won the cup for the first time, it’s only 12 year olds but we were crying as coaches.
“The school has never done anything like that. And then they made the All-Irelands for five years in a row. It is the small things. You look at the big trophies we won with Hermes and Pembroke with Craig Fulton but it’s seeing a player do something they have never done before, putting the ball top left corner with a big smile. That’s just as good!”