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Dublin: 18 °C Saturday 20 July, 2019

'It was surreal. I could have hugged the doctor, but managed to restrain myself'

David Harte was told he wouldn’t play at Ireland’s first World Cup in 28 years, but he has managed to get back to full fitness to captain the Green Machine in India.

WHEN DAVID HARTE lines out for the anthems at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar for Ireland’s Hockey World Cup opener on Friday, the significance of the moment will not be lost on the captain.

A first appearance at the tournament in 28 years for the men’s national team will carry heightened emotion for those who have worked tirelessly to get back here, but Harte’s World Cup dream was very nearly taken away from him before he knew it.

David Harte Ireland goalkeeper David Harte. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“My world kind of fell around me then,” he says. “I was sitting in a wheelchair in a Spanish hospital, and couldn’t believe it.”

As recently as three weeks ago, Harte was told by Spanish doctors he would play no part in this tournament, having been diagnosed with a fractured fibula.

It was a crushing blow for the two-time world goalkeeper of the year, who has played an integral role in the national team’s development in recent years.

In the final minutes of Ireland’s warm-up ahead of their Four Nations game against the Netherlands earlier this month, Harte — having completed his drills — went to collect his water bottle from behind the goal.

Setting off to do the captain’s coin toss, he was struck at full force by a loose ball on the back of his leg, one of the few parts of his body that is unpadded. Instant pain, and agony.

It was clear straight away that it was serious and as Harte was taken to hospital for further inspection, the shock of what had happened seeped into the performance of Alexader Cox’s side, as they came to terms with the possibility of losing their captain — and talisman — for the World Cup.

It was hoped visiting a private hospital in Spain would get Harte seen to as quickly as possible, and the Cork native would receive the best medical attention, but in fact, the opposite was true.

After waiting anxiously, Harte was eventually seen to and two x-rays later was given the diagnosis by the Spanish doctor. Crutches, his foot in plaster and a World Cup dream in tatters. How did this happen? How did he end up here?

“It was a bit of a quiet and solemn hallway in the hotel,” he recalls. “I went to watch the game against England the following day, but was in a place where I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”

As Harte was coming to terms with the news, Ireland’s team physio, Niamh Maguire, had sent the scans back to the Sport Ireland Institute, and then Paraic Murray at the Galway Clinic was asked for a second opinion. There was too much on the line to simply go with what the Spanish doctor had said.

“The Spanish were sure it was a fracture,” Harte says. “But there was always that hope it wasn’t. I was living in hope.”

On the first inspection, Murray — one of the country’s leading consultant orthopaedic surgeon — could see what the Spanish doctor saw, but not certain that the damage was as bad as first feared, recommended Harte go for another scan.

David Harte in action against Lucas Vila Harte in action during the Rio Olympics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Back home in Utrecht, the 30-year-old cut off the plastic cast to get a CT scan completed as soon as possible, leaving him with another agonising wait to discover his World Cup fate.

“Paraic rang my brother, Conor, as I wasn’t speaking to anyone at the time,” he laughs. “He said ‘listen, where the fracture is, it’s too far down from where the actual ball contact was.’ It was, unfortunately, a bit of a botch job from the Spanish doctor’s point of view.

“You could see why he diagnosed it as a break but didn’t do any further research. Unfortunately, it was more like a carousel in the hospital at the time, and they were just getting patients in and out. It’s fair to say I was to hell and back for those few days.”

From being told he was out for a period of two months, the subsequent CT scan downgraded Harte’s injury to severe bone bruising and a large contusion but, crucially, no break.

“The two sweetest words I’ve heard in a long time — no break,” he continues. “It was quite surreal at the moment. It all felt like you were in a bit of a cloud or haze in that 48-72 hour period.

“I could have actually hugged the doctor to be honest, but I managed to restrain myself. It was just unbelievable getting the cast off and then hobbling out of the hospital, I was just ecstatic.”

The World Cup dream was back on track, and after a period of intense rehabilitation in his club’s gym in the Netherlands, Harte was remarkably back on the pitch for Ireland two weeks later as preparations for India intensified.

“I was in the gym every day,” he explains. “I was able to use the anti-gravity machines to take the weight off the leg and was working non-stop with the club physio.”

Harte was declared fit to join up with the rest of the Ireland squad for their final training camp in Belgium, before Alexander Cox’s men arrived in India at the back end of last week.

That Ireland have been able to report a clean bill of health for tomorrow’s Pool B opener against back-to-back world champions Australia [11.30am Irish time, BT Sport] is scarcely believable given the rollercoaster nature of Harte’s month.

But the Cork native is ready to go as Ireland look to make their mark on the world stage and build on the progress made in recent years, most notably the European Championship bronze medal in 2015 and, a year later, the feat of becoming the first Irish team in over a century to compete at the Olympics.

gettyimages-812717814-594x594 The Harte brothers: David and Conor. Source: Getty Images for FIH

A place at a first World Cup since 1990 was achieved last summer when they beat New Zealand in the World League to clinch the fifth-place finish required to book their ticket to India.

Having lost long-serving head coach Craig Fulton earlier this year, Dutchman Cox has had limited time to work with the squad before the tournament, but there is certainly no lack of experience or confidence within the set-up.

“It has been a bit of a change,” Harte admits. “But you can’t really change that much in such a limited space of time and we’ve got every belief and confidence in him as a coach and he has the same in us as a playing group.

“So far it has been a good combination, a bit of a rocky road at times in terms of results, but it’s one of those things that you have to look at the bigger picture.”

Ireland, ranked 10th in the world, have made no secret of their desire to reach the quarter-finals at the very least, but after the women’s national team’s exploits in London earlier in the year, public expectations have shifted.

An opening assignment against Australia is as difficult as they come, before further group games against China and England, with the top team progressing through to the quarter-finals and second and third teams going into the crossover stage of the tournament.

Ireland are under no illusions of the size of the task ahead, but can take inspiration and heart from the way Graham Shaw’s side defied all odds and expectations in embarking on their magical run to the World Cup final in London.

“I don’t think there is any extra pressure or expectation on us,” Harte says. “You can’t compare men’s and women’s hockey but we’re here to do what we do best, mix it up with some of the best in the world, and then at the end of it hopefully we can walk away with our heads held high having represented our country with pride.

“We’re here with a very assured game plan and are going about our business quietly. The typical underdog tag is a good way to go about a tournament. We can just do our work in the background and come away with a few scalps at the end of it.”

While Ireland have never beaten Australia, the crunch game of their campaign is that second outing against China, ranked 17th in the world, on 4 December. Whatever way you look at it, it’s a must-win game for the Green Machine.

“Yeah, it is,” Harte agrees. “It has to be a must-win game for us, where we see ourselves as a top-10 team in the world and where we want to go, it must be a win.

gettyimages-1065877024-594x594 The Ireland squad training at the Kalinga Stadium ahead of Friday's tournament opener. Source: Getty Images

“Our first target is to get out of the group but take each game as it comes, see where we can end up. Second or third position in the group is where we want to go for.”

After 28 years, and a long build-up period for this team, the wait is very nearly over for Ireland, and walking out against Australia in front of a passionate Indian crowd of 16,000 will be a special moment for those in green.

Having played in the Indian Premier League for a number of seasons, the atmosphere will be nothing new for Harte, but after everything he has gone through, he’ll be able to appreciate every minute of it just that bit more.

“It’s one of those things, it was taken away from me and I had lost it” he adds. “It was a real slap in the face and actually after hearing the good news after, makes you realise what you have.

“Sometimes you are caught by just going through the motions, from one session to another, and take it for granted what you have and take the opportunities you have for granted. That for me was the biggest thing.

“Getting back after the injury was a feeling I’ve never experienced, it was something I’ve missed and I can’t wait to get going now. We’re just waiting in anticipation, and want to cherish the moment. The first time since 1990.

“Personally, I can’t wait to be honest. It will be a real surreal moment and I know there will be quite a few Irish supporters going over, my fiancé will be here and my Mam and Dad so it could potentially be an emotional moment for everyone who has fought hard to get to the World Cup.” 

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Ryan Bailey

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