Time is now for ambition if hockey is to emulate cricket success story

The surreal nature of the Irish women’s run to the World Cup final was encapsulated when Al Jazeera came calling, placing the Green Army’s run right after a Russian military rock festival in a weird wide world segment.

Graham Shaw and his cohorts’ exploits spread as far as ESPN in the US and Sky New Zealand and thronged Dame Street for their homecoming.

Cricket Ireland CEO Warrent Deutrom

Seven days earlier, just three journalists were in situ to follow their journey such was their appearance out of left field.

The question now is how does hockey secure some sort of lasting legacy rather than being that one mad week when over 400,000 watched games on RTE.

To this end, Hockey Ireland has tapped up their cricketing counterparts a couple of times in the last decade to see how they took full advantage of their break-out World Cup success in 2007.

Since drawing with Zimbabwe and beating Pakistan in their World Cup, they have managed to go from “almost a one-man band” to being able to financially sustain and support professional players in Ireland.

The organisation which now draws just 10-15% of its funds from the government now, bringing in a suite of sponsors and avoiding the peaks and troughs that come with the current hand-out system that can change with the wind. In the short term, hockey has a bumper investement of €500,000 but this will not always be assured.

“From CEO meetings in the past, it struck me the over-reliance on government funding from a lot of the different sporting bodies,” Cricket Ireland chief Deutrom told the Hook.

“Having your hand out all the time to the government for help is a big risk because when times aren’t good, that’s suppressed.

“Hockey now has the publicity and oxygen to get out there. The opportunity is there for one brand to make a massive cut-through in a sport that is so big now in the public domain.”

Back in 2007, Deutrom was three months into the role when they broke boundaries at the World Cup. A draw with Zimbabwe and a win over Pakistan on St Patrick’s Day propelled them into a whole new stratosphere.

Deutrom was one of just two full-time employees alongside national coach Adi Birrell with the organisation alongside a part time PA.

Now, they are able to pay players as well as administrators, have a suite of a dozen sponsors and can feed €900,000 into their provincial branches. It has seen active involvement in the sport from around 12,000 people up to 50,000 in the 11 years.

Former Hockey Ireland CEOs Angus Kirkland and Rob Johnson – now on the board – both tapped Deutrom up for information about how they made hay from that “what if” moment.

Railway Union’s Niall O’Brien was the key man in Ireland’s win over Pakistan in 2007.

Deutrom drilled it down to two main questions. “We took it back to first principals – 1) how can we do this again? 2) how can we do this better?

“Our success at that stage was driven by a talented group of players, an inspirational coach and a bloody hard working group of volunteers.

“How can we make sure the organisation can then have a much deeper involvement in facilitating long-term success?”

Reflecting on their preparations for the dream “what if” scenario back in 2007, he remembers he was in meetings where the prevailing mood was “ah bless him, he’s new”.

“We had given a little bit of thought around what happens if we reach the next phase of the World Cup. Some of the players were with counties and Ireland, as a team, were in the county Friends Provident Trophy in England; we had to do some planning but probably not as much as you might expect!”

Key to what happened next was to bring in Atlantic Sport Management and Training (ASMT), an agency that specialised in locating “various sources of funding whether it be from government, the European Union or local councils”.

The agency was costly but they got support from Sport Ireland’s John Treacy to back their plans. ASMT’s first advice was to update the governance structure to give the chief executive more power to make decisions quickly in tandem with an independent board of directors.

“It has helped us make some brave decisions which have propelled us to where we are at the moment. There are 100 things you could do, 50 you should do and only about 15 which you have the human and financial resources to be able to achieve.

“Being able to prioritise those things that give you quick wins, you need that decision making behind you at governance level to make those decisions, knowing it could be unpopular at a domestic level.”

He admits there were a couple of times he could have been heading for his P45. In 2008, they withdrew Ireland from the county competitions in England, up til then their key competitive fixtures.

“How could you go from beating a country and two weeks later, lose to a county. How can you explain that to the Irish public? How can we be more? We needed to act like the 10th best country in the world, not the 19th best county.

“We also needed to draw courage and inspiration from what the players had done. There is no reason why we, as administrators, should not be doing exactly the same. We had to demonstrate we could be equally ambitious.”

The Irish women’s success in London has changed the parameters markedly for Hockey Ireland. Pic: Rodrigo Jaramillo/World Sport Pics

Next, in 2013, they “bet the farm” on running a seemingly fanciful one-day international against England, spending over 10% of Cricket Ireland’s turnover on the stands alone for a Tuesday game in September.

It paid off handsomely with Malahide immaculate for the Sky Sports cameras. It also moved the focus away from sporadic events like the World Cup – or the Olympics in hockey’s case – widening the offering for sponsors and the public eye.

While cricket has the benefit of large donations from the International Cricket Council, Deutrom says that heightened ambition can see a breakthrough into a sporting landscape dominated by GAA, rugby and soccer.

“If you are not willing to put yourself into that domain, shouting loud enough and then centralising your resources into a small number of opportunities, you are never going to make a big success.

“If you are only dependent on World Cup and Olympics and qualification, there is an inherent risk of doing well every four years and then sinking into obscurity.”

For hockey, becoming a fixture on the annual sporting calendar would require entry into the Hockey Pro League. Entry would require serious finance and a new stadium capable of hosting nine home matches every year.

Currently, the invites for the Pro League are fixed for 2019 to 2021 but should Hockey Ireland get the elements in place and maintain high performance, they could push for entry for 2022. It guarantees 18 televsed matches worldwide over a six month spell, something they must target.

It is a north star for hockey, now, whereas cricket’s ambition was always test status, something achieved earlier this year.

“If we weren’t chasing the same ambition as our players, seeking to address the issue of those guys going to England saying they don’t have the opportunity to play test cricket for Ireland.

“We always stood to lose players if we didn’t have the same ambition. Losing your best players from a relatively small talent pool, you would never be able to punch above your weight on the world stage and repeat that success.

“It gave us the north star for the mountain we needed to climb. If we only get 60% of the way there, we would have achieved a hell of a lot more than only adding 15%.”

At this stage, not much talk has circulated about how this will affect hockey’s grassroots and how to capture their imagination. Most clubs have posted their preseason information and how to sign up while there have been murmurings of the potential for new clubs in Dundalk and Castleblayney taking root.

There will be increasing pressure on the “waiting lists” at South Dublin clubs who already were struggling to cope with the demand. A premium on pitch availability and qualified coaches means that some clubs cannot currently facilitate new members.

For instance, Three Rock Rovers were able to jump from 180 to 240 girls in their youth section in one year recently when more resources became available. But such limitations will hopefully not be a barrier to welcoming newcomers to the game.

“What does Cricket Ireland do for us? If you read fan forums, you might think they do a rubbish job for the grassroots,” Deutrom says of their situation.

Nonetheless, new clubs have popped up in places like Clondalkin, Swords, Lucan, Kerry and Longford since their breakthrough moment.

Deutrom says that his organisation maybe has not shouted loud enough about what they can offer but says they have provided finances for club development officers, child protection, coach education and hosting fees for international games.

Ireland salute the biggest crowd they have played in front of in London. Pic: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

For the most part, they have placed the development role on their regional organisations.

“Rather than engaging with our clubs directly and put that in the provinces and they are the entities who deal with the clubs. We spend more now to invest in our provinces to then do more for our clubs.

“About €900,000 goes that direction into the interpro teams and we have introduced general managers.

“We took an unashamed focus on our men’s senior team because if they get profile, we can get financial support from the ICC and the government, sponsors and broadcasters.

“This allowed us to reinvest not just into the senior squad but the women’s squad, juniors and provincial structures into the clubs to improve participation structures.”

Deutrom does add that there is plenty of the elements are already in place for hockey and they are much further along the road in terms of governance, staff and initiatives, putting them in a good place to take advantage.

“Hockey has a set of diamonds in their squad who have done extraordinarily well – for a country of our size to produce a World Cup final side.

“It would strike me that there are some hugely impressive performance programmes to identify and develop talent. Ask themselves how they can do this again? What has given them the ability to do that? Don’t sit on laurels. Now is the right time to transform.

“They now have the opportunity to galvanise commercial support. For Softco, it feels like RSA was for us, taking a punt on a small player and did really well! I would renew as soon as possible.

“Now is the time to reap the commercial benefits and they can only do that with professional people on that on a day-in, day-out basis and engineer revenue.

“I would also engage as much as possible with RTE and other broadcasters to make sure the story remains visible, to tell their story as much as possible. If you do that, you can use their budgets to tell the story for you.

“And focus on the success of the talent development to say that they are going to do it again.”

Partners of The Hook