Shane O’Donoghue says he does not have to look too far to draw inspiration as he looks forward to the Hockey World Cup in India this week, getting underway on Friday against reigning champions Australia.
Throughout the Green Machine’s preparations, recurring media questions have centred on what inspiration can be taken and how can they emulate the women’s incredible run to silver during the summer in London.
While the men and women’s squads operate largely independent of each other, though, O’Donoghue has been inspired by Graham Shaw for the vast majority of his career.
Growing up, his father Rory was in the Glenanne first team with Shaw, one of the stars of the club’s golden period in the 2000s. Shane was soon chomping at the bit to get up to train with the first team and Shaw took on a mentor role for the young midfielder, quickly instilling in him the Tallaght club’s intense fighting spirit.
“As a 15 or 16-year-old, going up to St Mark’s for training, there were very few times you didn’t come home black and blue. Even at that age, they would tear into you. It was character-building – sometimes you would think, I’m not going back up there!
“Graham was definitely one of the lads I looked up to – maybe not physically because he’s not the tallest! He was ferocious. For me, it was so infectious as a youngster, watching the intensity he trained at. Himself, Stephen Butler and Joe Brennan were the top men and it gave something to aspire to and then carve a path to go even further.”
Their intertwined club careers culminated in the 2010 Irish Senior Cup when O’Donoghue was still in school and gave him a grounding to make his Irish debut at just 19.
Shaw’s international playing career would end in frustration with near misses on the World Cup and Olympic stage.
O’Donoghue, though, has been a central figure in taking on the mantle, winning a first ever European Championships bronze medal in 2015 and then qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Games for the first time in over a century.
Now 26, he has been a pivotal figure in midfield while scoring 92 goals, leaving him one off the national record held by John Jermyn. He flew up the scoring charts in a spectacular 2017 when the World Cup spot was assured and the Hamburg Masters trophy was won, all achieved with a new look side following multiple post-Rio departures.
For O’Donoghue, he says it was a tough time for him personally. Like many of the stories from the women’s squad, the balancing act between elite sport and personal development off the field is a tough one to manage, one that he had issues with.
He was working through his masters in sports exercise and performance psychology in UL, heading up the hockey programme at Rathdown school and also trying to manage himself for World League Round 2 and 3 and the Euros.
“That period from January 2017 up to the Europeans last summer, it was an extremely busy period, trying to do well in all different avenues.
“It was difficult – I found myself, maybe not quite in a dark place, but I was chasing my tail, constantly frustrated and wound-up. I suffered a little with anxiety and kind of burned myself at both ends.
“When I look back on it and the masters and what we focused on, finding the balance is so important. With both the men and women’s team, we are only part-time athletes – strictly amateur – so we need that support network. It really was the support networks we have in place that got me through.”
Conversely, while 2018 has been tougher for Ireland on the field, having a singular focus with this week’s World Cup always the long game, has made things easier.
Ireland did struggle – partly due to widespread illness – at the Sultan Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia but O’Donoghue says it will stand to the side.
“That was a major learning curve for the younger guys. In 2017, they experienced a lot of wins. They were used to winning all the time which, before that, wasn’t always the way and we had to scratch out all sorts of draws and results. 2018 has been less hectic, gearing up for one event at the end of a calendar year, zoning in on one thing.”
The side was rocked further when groundbreaking coach Craig Fulton moved to Belgium to take up an assistant coach role in the summer. Highly decorated Dutchman Alexander Cox came in at short notice with a new approach, aiming to add to Ireland’s traditional tight, defensive game.
O’Donoghue says it has been trial and error in recent friendlies, picking up good wins against higher ranked England – whom they meet in the group stages – but also enduring heavy losses to the Netherlands.
“Ned [Fulton] did an awful lot of great things that brought us to the level we are at, to compete against the top eight in the world. There was a little bit of a culture change [when Alexander came in] and the Dutch mentality is heavily based on attack and having a go, being direct.
“That is something people can expect from our game now. The [warm-up games] were a little bit of a trial and error process and maybe we left ourselves a little exposed against the Dutch counter so there is plenty to take away from that tie.”
Shaw’s women had similar problems prior to their World Cup, suffering heavy losses to Germany and Canada mixed among strong performances but they peaked perfectly at the right time. No better source of inspiration.