Michael Houghton says he has hit upon a framework that will play a key role in building a long-lasting dividend from the Irish hockey’s recent successes.
He has created a platform for five new clubs in north Munster in the past 12 months with Castletroy, Ennis, Thurles, Nenagh and Tralee all set to host junior sections.
The basis for the first club came following a stint as Limerick Hockey Club chairman where waiting lists were in place due to limited pitch time and coaches. It was something he felt had to be eradicated.
“There was huge demand and no reason for it. I checked with Limerick Hockey Club if they were ok [to form a club based at UL] with it. I just put it out there and it quickly took off.”
Castletroy had its genesis last December and affiliated with Hockey Ireland three months ago. It now has 100 male and female members taking part in Munster underage competitions this season from Under-9 up to Under-12 level.
While that has been a big success, Houghton – a tech entrepreneur by trade – had his interest piqued when Hockey Ireland development officer Phil Oakley mentioned a decade-long desire to form a first club in Clare, asking “can I have a crack at it?”
He co-opted pitch time on St Joseph’s Doora-Barefield’s astroturf and, within five weeks, has 40 regular Ennis members and a crew of volunteer coaches.
It follows a template at Kinsale under the stewardship of Kieran Harte, father of Irish internationals Conor, David and Emer and something emulated at Baltimore in 2017. Traditionally, not having a full-size pitch was a limiting factor but, now, new clubs are finding alternative options to make hockey available.
“Growing up in New Zealand, we were never brought up on a [full] pitch. We did hockey in school halls or a tennis court or wherever. We utilised as much alternative pitch space as possible.
“Matches do need to be on a full pitch but, for the juniors, they are playing blitzes at different venues and they are used to travelling so that is not a major barrier.”
Houghton says there is already a demand for extra pitch time in Ennis – perhaps at the Lees Road sports complex – while he anticipates big numbers at Nenagh College for open days in January.
He launched Nenagh’s sign-up site last week and already had close to 50 people registering interest within three days including several former players offering services as potential coaches with Hockey Ireland set to run introductory coaching courses.
“We have a nice movement now in terms of how we set them up. I set up the Nenagh website, contacted the Nenagh Guardian and a couple of their local Facebook pages.
“We got 36 people within a day registering. Of that, we have five hockey parents who are willing to coach so we are looking to run open days in January. We have worked out a formula and can now replicate it.”
He sees real potential in Nenagh which has an old grit pitch with floodlights as well as a patch of astro. Should it go well, it could provide an impetus to get a full pitch there.
It rides fast on the coat-tails of the Irish women’s World Cup silver medal and Olympic qualification.
“When the Olympic result came in, I immediately thought ‘that’s one more hockey club!’.
“You see the thrill from the kids when Roisin Upton ‘liked’ some of the Castletroy pictures [on Facebook].
“But these clubs aren’t forming because we are doing something particularly special. Kids are just getting hold of it and, once they have somewhere to play, it gets shared in the Whatsapp groups and it suddenly takes off.
“Loads have a good part of the skill-set from hurling so it can be an easy game to transfer. It has those elements but without the contact and having to wear a helmet. Plenty of kids tend to like that!”
He also sees Thurles, with a hockey-playing school already in place at the Ursuline Convent, as a venue that could take off quickly. He anticipates Tralee may be a little tougher as the first junior club to be former in County Kerry.
This latest tranche of new clubs increases the total number to 24 in Munster, up from 13 in 2010. The majority cater primarily for youth members with girls’ numbers doubling in that time.
The next mission for the province, like many sports, is to translate that into more adult players where numbers have been stagnant. There is also the important transition phase for the clubs to find the volunteers and coaches to take over the full-time ownership from Houghton after the initial start-up stage.
Hockey Ireland can provide support to train up volunteers and fundamentals courses for coaches as well as engaging new players in the sticks for tricks programme.
From there, getting enthusiastic and passionate people like Houghton on board in each area is crucial to carry the torch and make a sustainable situation.
“At the moment, we do it all on a volunteer basis and then we hope that some of the parents will take on the running of it in each of the venues,” Houghton said.
“We have to make sure of that transition. Honestly, it is more about the love of the sport. But, having one club or five, it is all the same stuff. You organize a blitz on Whatsapp, you are doing the same accounts, organising the uniforms.
“With the insurance, it is now just one email to the broker with the new club details. Once you have the blueprint, it’s like a tick-box exercise. It is framework which could work for any club for any sport and we are getting better at it.”
5 new hockey clubs have been set up in Munster: CASTLETROY (https://t.co/yO3OIRHeWO) ENNIS (https://t.co/ejybgKeEdx) THURLES (https://t.co/4wriDTIAsJ) NEENAGH (https://t.co/4reqpi3icY) & TRALEE (https://t.co/s68NTWGVgW). Spread the word & get involved- play, coach, umpire! 🏑 pic.twitter.com/vQYlXJ1DSZ
— Róisín (@roisinupton) November 28, 2019