“He is someone I reference a lot when coach kids; he made the absolute most of his opportunity and the most of his talents. He is someone any young player looking up to can see it’s achievable.
“He achieved it even when he was never expecting to and that is a really good lesson for any young kid.”
John Jackson knows more than most about Chris Cargo, his team mate of nearly 20 years, dating back to their days as an incredibly attacking full-back duo – Jackson at right-back, Cargo on the left for the Ulster Under-16s.
The former’s words encapsulate the essence of Cargo’s remarkable journey from obscurity to a position in the pantheon of Irish greats, appearing seemingly from nowhere to play an integral role.
The utility player from Bangor retired from the international game just before Christmas, ending as the eighth most capped Irish men’s player with 195 caps, picking up a myriad of medals along the way, chipping in with a healthy goal tally to boot.
He was there for the 2015 European bronze, Olympic and World Cup qualification; he has gold medals from the Celtic Cup, the Champions Challenge II and an INSEP tournament featuring Australia, Argentina and Korea; a Challenge I bronze in Argentina and more besides.
And yet it is an international career that may never have started but for an injury to David Ames on the eve of the 2008 senior interprovincials in Garryduff.
Learning the game at Bangor Grammar and Bangor Hockey Club, Cargo had been a youth international but his move to Bath for university saw him slip off the radar. His college coach Bobby Crutchley – who went on to coach England and GB – did put forward his case for an Irish trial but he could not accept the invitation due to illness.
And so it seemed his chance had gone until Ames had to withdraw from the Ulster side and Cargo got a late phone call to jet over.
“At 22 or 23, I had kind of given up on it really,” Cargo told The Hook. “I played Under-21 interpros but there was no national team at that level and was never part of the development teams.
“Everyone who I played with underage like John Jackson, Eugene Magee, Timmy Lewis, Alan Sothern had already caps and so it was like everyone from my era had already been called in. Younger guys were getting them as well so I thought my time had gone.”
Indeed, he was not travelling to Cork as an Irish trial, more “just a cool thing to do” but he was in good shape with a recent move to Reading – with whom he would won the English title and an EHL bronze – had him high on confidence
He played with the pressure off, scored a couple of goals and rattled a few feathers of the best players in the country of the time, scoring a couple of goals.
Newly installed coach Paul Revington, however, took note and the Irish camp soon got in touch. Just a few months later, he made his debut at the now famous 2009 Celtic Cup where many of the golden generation got their start with a shock victory.
“It helped that a lot of us were very new,” he said of his first caps. “Jacko was our captain with about 10 caps. Usually on debut, you expect to have a lot of experience around you and it could be daunting.
“For us, it was all brand new, 10 of us in the same boat. I got a few messages from lads in the team [when I retired] like Andy Herbert to say congrats. They were the only three caps he got; he was really good and deserved more.
“Cookie [Peter Caruth] was there, Gareth Watkins scored one probably of the best goals I have ever seen in an Irish shirt. We got on a roll and probably didn’t realise how well we did to win it. We kind of expected it from ourselves and it was really fun to be part of!”
It would take another year, though, to become a central figure in the squad as he missed out on selection for the European B division and World Cup qualifiers.
“2010 when I really became part of it,” he says, remembering that Revington had put it up to the new faces to make their mark. Indeed, the genesis of the “no excuses” mantra came from those times.
“Early on, Revs wanted us to write down our goals. We all wanted to be Olympians but he challenged us to be a top ten team in the world. If you believe you can, you can. It made us realise it wasn’t about qualifying for one major tournament. To do it, you have to get your ranking higher and higher.”
Winning the Challenge II in Lille in 2011 was a big moment; so was beating Spain – who were Olympic silver medalists at the time – to fifth place in the Euros a few months later.
The 2012 Olympic qualifiers in Dublin were brutal, amplified by some surreal highs, as Nam Jong Lee’s devastating touch delayed the dream.
“The crowds that week were unreal; the noise was amazing, so many in UCD watching. The night before the final, you had random kids in the shop wishing us luck.
“Driving in on the bus, loads of people were beeping their horn and Irish hockey posters in their cars. At the game, there were people pressing up against the fence who couldn’t get tickets. Realising the president was there, you knew how big it was.
“But that ending was so numb. I was on the bench and looking straight down the line of it. We all knew immediately.
“We were driving back to Belfast and stopped at a service station – all of the newspapers had one of us crying. Gutting but you also realised how followed it was that week, how close we had been to an Olympics.
“It also probably made us realise we could do it. Korea were a big, big team at the time, fifth in the world, and we were right up there.”
It fed into a remarkable run, reaching an apex in 2015, beating Pakistan for the first time and then Malaysia a few days later in Antwerp for the Rio ticket. Soon after, they stunned Europe with their maiden bronze.
Rio, though, carries thoughts of what could have been.
“It was a big learning curve. An amazing experience, the highlight of my career but we didn’t win anything. I do think back on all the things we won and the big results – we wanted to get out of the group and didn’t quite do it.
“We weren’t quite at the level we were the summer before but still played pretty well. The game we regret the most is the India one – we could have at least got a draw but the nerves and everything maybe got the better of us.
“Against Holland, we had one of our best games in terms of stats but they were super clinical. We played Argentina and a win would have knocked them out – it was 2-2 with eight minutes to go and they go on to win the Olympic Games. Fine margins and we weren’t that far from knocking them out!”
The 2018 World Cup followed a similar theme; a fine performance against Australia did not yield a result to match and the cutting edge deserted them against China and England.
By this stage, personal perspective was changing. A home renovation with his fiancé and increased work focus saw Cargo take a break for the early part of 2019. He had hoped to return earlier in the year but made his comeback for the ill-fated Tokyo 2020 qualifiers in Vancouver, a crushing video nasty.
He knew it was the moment to call time on his unlikely international career.
“It was an amazing time and changed my life. In 2008, if you said I would travel the world, winning medals at all these competitions, I would never believe it.
“When Beijing was on, I was away and didn’t watch a single minute of it! It wasn’t on my radar. To then play in one, was unbelievable. I have played with some of the best ever in a green shirt. The talent, what they did on the biggest stages… they helped me improve and hopefully I helped them a little bit as well. The life experience that comes with all that.
“Revs said early on ‘it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a life choice; do you want to do this?’ If you want it, you shouldn’t see it as a sacrifice. These are opportunities that you are very lucky to have.
“I loved training camps and was lucky enough to make some incredible friends for life. In years to come, we will talk about all those special memories and all the fun that comes with being in the team which people on the outside never see, the same crap jokes! Getting to win stuff along the way with your country makes it even better!
“Hopefully we will be remembered as the first team to qualify for the Olympics which has enabled further success across Hockey Ireland; that would be a great legacy.
“Hopefully the right funding gets in place for Hockey Ireland and the structures so it is a continuous thing for both teams into the future. It’s not easy but it is something we can do with the talent coming through.
“We never under-estimated ourselves as ‘little old Ireland’. We were more confident than that. I definitely wouldn’t say I was a legend but I played with plenty and hopefully I was a small cog in helping them.
“Not everyone progresses at the same rate and there’s nothing wrong with getting your first cap aged 25 or 26. Jonny Bell has now captained Ireland loads of times and been a massive part of the team and he never played any Irish underage stuff.
“Hopefully I showed there is a chance to play for Ireland and we will see people from smaller clubs and schools coming through, believing they can wear the green shirt if they work hard enough and don’t give up.”
He will continue to enjoy his club hockey with Hampstead & Westminster in London with whom he won another English crown. Recently, he helped them defeat Dutch club HGC, earning a unique stat in EHL history – on the rare occasions English clubs have beaten Dutch sides in the elite competition, Cargo has always been on the pitch – twice with Reading, once with H&W.
Reflecting on his international career, he is seriously thankful to those who made it happen: “I have loved wearing the green shirt for 10 years in countries all over the world and making history with this group.
“I would particularly like to thank Paul Revington for giving me my first opportunity to wear a green shirt. I had given up on that dream so I will always be truly grateful to him for giving me that chance and changing my life. He made me, and the whole group, believe that we could make history and instilled in us a huge drive and determination.
“To Ned, for galvanising the team after the disappointment of 2012, you pushed us on again through our “No excuses” mantra. Finally, to Tum for coming in and making this group enjoy their hockey again.
“To all the lads I have shared a pitch with over the years; Thanks! It was an amazing journey and I was lucky enough to forge some enduring friendships, whilst making history with this team and having a great laugh along the way.
“There have been many low points on the journey, but they make the successes so much sweeter.
“To my parents, thank you for all your support along the way and for trusting and backing me in all the decisions I have made. To Sarah, my fiancée, thank you for being so understanding and allowing me to chase my dreams with unconditional support. Furthermore, thank you to all the families in Dublin, especially the Loughreys, who have welcomed me into their homes.
“I look forward to wearing my green shirt as a supporter of Irish Hockey in future years.”