** This article is a longer form of a piece from the Irish Examiner from last Sunday, before the announcement of Level 5 restrictions in Ireland
While last Thursday’s deferral of the EY Hockey League’s has seen many at the top end of the game question what esteem Ireland’s top competition holds locally, David Harte is enduring the same travails in the Netherlands.
Widely regarded as the world’s best club league, the Hoofdklasse was put on hold following a lengthy meeting of the tweede kamer, the second chamber of the Dutch government, when it was deemed an ‘amateur’ sport.
For Harte, he described it as “a kick in the teeth” having moved to SV Kampong in Utrecht with the express purpose of playing the sport on a full-time basis.
“It’s all been a bit of a shambles,” the Kinsale man told the Examiner. “Initially, just the Eredivisie and the Eerste Classe [equivalent to England’s Championship] got the go-ahead.
“They initially said the women’s [soccer] league would not go ahead because it’s considered amateur sport but 90 minutes later they did a big u-turn on that and it did get the go-ahead.
“Straightaway, that opened up a window for hockey, volleyball and water polo to allow an ‘amateur sport’ as they have described it to play.”
But that door was quickly shut down with Harte joining a chorus of top players questioning how their sport is viewed in a country where they are world leaders.
Lidewij Welten – a two-time Olympic and World Cup gold medalist – has been most vocal, saying: “It I’m not a top athlete, I’ve lied to a lot of people for years. I do everything for my sport; it is painful to be called amateur.”
Harte – a candidate for the Olympic athletes commission next year – added: “Lidewij summed it up well on our social media channels. What are we doing differently, committing our lives to our sport, training five times a week, going to the gym four times then playing a match.
“We don’t get the same level of financial remuneration naturally but clubs have sizeable budgets here the equivalent of a championship or maybe the bottom half of the Eredivisie.
“The messages have been so inconsistent with the messages coming out. While we are disappointed on the one hand, we also know how important it is for the well-being of people.
“Saturday saw a record level of positive tests; we do get it but it’s hard to take being described as ‘amateur’. I am one of the players who has moved his life over here to play and compete at a professional level; you feel second or third class being told you are an amateur. It is a kick in the teeth.”
For now, he and his Dutch club are now only allowed train in pods of four with one coach in a 23-metre area, limiting the value of sessions.
Harte says the Dutch federation, the KNHB, was willing to foot clubs’ bills for increased testing to show a level required to ensure safety, a pricey promise with tests per player costing €100 per player with weekly costs of €5,000 per game.
Such a situation is prohibitive for Irish clubs but there is still a degree of frustration the EY Hockey League – featuring Olympians and the guts of the World Cup silver medal winning panel – was not included in the “elite” category of sports allowed to go ahead in Ireland.
Instead, it was pegged as on the second tier “senior club championship” on the exemption list, a decision which rankled when compared with other levels of competition that got the go ahead this week prior to the introduction of Level 5, Under-17 Gaelic football and intermediate camogie among them.
“It’s always the catch-22,” Harte added. “The GAA wants to be considered an amateur sport but then to be considered elite. There is obviously issues with the wording with the descriptions, but it is similar to what has happened to us.
“I have obviously been keeping an eye and saw clubs who decided not to travel which threw a lot of headaches Hockey Ireland’s way. But the big concern is the unknown – all matches are cancelled ‘indefinitely’ for an unknown time. When we will see hockey again?”