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Dublin: 19 °C Tuesday 23 July, 2019
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Funding the key issue but Shaw wants 'creative solutions' to drive Irish hockey forward

Facilities for training and more time together as a group identified as priorities as the Green Army turn their attention to qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

THE SCENES AND crowds which greeted Ireland’s World Cup silver medal-winning squad as they arrived home yesterday were scarcely believable and only added to the excitement that this is a truly seminal moment for the sport on these shores.

The Ireland team pose with their medals 6/8/2018 The Irish team at yesterday's homecoming in Dublin. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Never has Irish hockey reached or experienced such rarefied heights, and between the men’s national team making their breakthrough at the 2016 Olympics and now an achievement on this scale, these are extraordinarily heady times for the game here.

The nation was gripped not only by the team’s progression through the tournament but by the manner in which they carried themselves, proving to be inspiring role models for younger generations and brilliant ambassadors for the country.

Although the scoreline in Sunday’s final defeat to Netherlands left a bittersweet taste in the mouth for Graham Shaw’s side, Ireland can look back on a campaign which not only exceeded all expectations but introduced hockey to new audiences and will help the game grow and blossom here.

And not only did the team’s exploits draw attention from the wider public but captured the imagination of the media, which in itself is a priceless commodity given the previous struggle for recognition and support outside the normally confined hockey circles.

Of course, a return to relative obscurity once the dust settles on this indelible fortnight is only natural given hockey’s status as a ‘minority’ sport, but the challenge now is to use this platform to broaden horizons and build on the success of Shaw’s history-makers.

The 2020 Olympics comes into sharp focus, and Shaw and the players spoke about their ambition to qualify for their first Games in the immediate aftermath of the final, but Hockey Ireland, as bastions of the game, are now tasked with driving change.

Funding remains the big issue, much like it has always been for our hockey teams, and while there was initial delight at the announcement of additional support at yesterday’s homecoming by Shane Ross, it must be taken with a considerable pinch of salt.

Standing in front of the squad at Dublin Airport, Minister Ross proudly trumpeted that €1.5 million in funding will be made available to teams preparing for the Olympics and World Championships, with a large chunk of that being allocated to Hockey Ireland on the back of their silver medal.

But it has since been suggested that the ‘new money’ found by Ross and his Department is, in fact, the same €1.5 million for high performance programmes announced as part of the National Sports Policy last month.

It remains to be seen whether that’s the case or not but the ambiguity which surrounds Ross’ announcement — described in some quarters as a shameless and misleading PR stunt — is the sort of bluster which governing bodies, not least Hockey Ireland, have become so restrained by because they’ve been unable to rely on consistent funding to put high performance programmes in place.

Graham Shaw with Shane Ross 6/8/2018 Graham Shaw with Shane Ross at Dublin City Hall. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

This year, Hockey Ireland received core funding of €260,000 from Sport Ireland,€520,000 to run its two senior high performance programmes, €35,000 as part of the Women in Sport programme and a special one-off grant of €60,000 to assist in the preparations for both the men’s and women’s World Cups.

Both set-ups remain fully amateur with Hockey Ireland forced to rent out club pitches around the country for training sessions, while the National Stadium in UCD has been out of commission for a number of years due to its water-based pitch falling below the required standard.

It is no secret that Hockey Ireland hope to develop some form of training headquarters at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, but again that has been talked about for some time without any real progress due to a lack of investment.

With minimum financial assistance from the Government, Hockey Ireland has always operated off a shoe-string budget so much so that the men’s team were forced to self-fund before the Rio Olympics and, as has been highlighted, the women’s team have previously paid annual levies to underwrite their training programme.

Six weeks before the London World Cup, Shaw’s side were still without a primary sponsor — another indication of just how hard it is for minority sports to attract commercial partners — until the intervention by Softco, who have been involved with the sport at club level for a number of years.

It is reported the Irish software company paid as little as €20,000 to become the team’s World Cup sponsor, making it one of the most inspired sponsorship deals in memory given its instant global reward.

The hope now is that other companies will want to be associated with Irish hockey and couple that with additional Government funding which will presumably be awarded from 2019 onwards, the governing body will be in a much stronger financial position.

Having enjoyed an illustrious international playing career of his own, and now through his work with the women’s team, Shaw knows better than most how limited resources are, but that should now change for the better going forward.

“If people can’t get behind the sport now and see what we can achieve and the rewards we can give the Irish community then I don’t think it will ever happen,” he says. “It is now or never.

“If we can put long-term strategies in place then we can achieve this again in the future. There is enough talent in Ireland to win medals in this sport. There is no doubt in my mind about that. It is about giving them the platform to succeed.”

One of the big challenges is working out ways to get the group together on a more consistent basis outside of match windows, with many players busy in college or work around the country during the day.

“I think the challenge lies in how often we can get the group together,” Shaw continues.

“That’s the big problem we always face. When they’re based all around Ireland, it’s very, very difficult to get them together.

Ireland players celebrate with their silver medals Ireland have set their sights on qualifying for Tokyo 2020. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“Then when we do get them together, we’re trying to rent pitches. We end up scattered around as a senior squad, U21s squad, U18s squad.

“They’re challenges we now need to overcome. Is it a big gap? No. We’re well capable of qualifying for Tokyo. The rankings will put us in a really strong position to do so. When we qualify for Tokyo then we will be setting our sights on medalling in Tokyo.”

The head coach added: “I definitely think the sport needs to change now. We definitely need to look at and see how we can move forward. We need to be creative in how we can do this.

“It’s difficult — it’s a very difficult challenge. The teams we play against spend three, four, five, six days a week training together. We would meet up once a week or once every two/three weeks.

“It’s a difficult challenge and we definitely need to address that. When we get home we need to, somehow, provide the resources and look at how we can get these girls to spend more time together and train together a little bit more regularly.

“I’m not saying we need millions of investment — that’s not what we need because we’re after achieving the silver medal without it.

“It’s not about money necessarily. It’s just about being creative and looking at different opportunities where maybe we can allow these girls to train a little bit more full time.”

Deirdre Duke, who scored a brace in Ireland’s defeat of USA in the group stages, says this achievement feels like the start of something much bigger and better for Irish hockey and the team certainly won’t be basking in the glory of it for long.

It is now imperative to take the lessons from this campaign, learn from the experience and continue the momentum on ahead of next year’s EuroHockey Nations Championship and Olympic qualifiers.

“After last summer, we were pretty disappointed with our European campaign,” Duke explained. “We just decided to set a culture and we really said that this was our opportunity to go and do something special.

Deirdre Duke scores past Jackie Briggs Duke scored twice against USA in Ireland's opening match. Source: Joe Toth/INPHO

“It’s really changed for us, particularly with the qualification for Tokyo. If we can get into the top 10 in the world, we could get a home draw. We just need to build and build on this. Hopefully all of the media attention and home support will help drive it on next season.”

For now, Shaw and the players will enjoy some time off — or time away from hockey, as some will return to work — before refocusing on the new season when they reconvene as a group in the Autumn.

The goals will be reset and the focus then will firmly revolve around Tokyo and the campaign to follow in the footsteps of the men’s team who blazed a trail by reaching Rio 2016.

“That’s what we are aiming for,” Shaw added. “The journey is a four-year cycle and the first one was the World Cup. Now we’ve achieved that. We got a silver medal which is a huge achievement but we need to park it after we’ve celebrated it and enjoyed it.

“The girls are a very, very ambitious and a very driven group of players. When we qualify for Tokyo then we will be setting out sights on medalling in Tokyo. That’s what we are aiming for. We are not aiming to compete, just to make up the numbers. We are aiming to achieve the best possible finish that we can.

“I firmly believe that the talent is in this country, I firmly believe that, and we need to do everything we possibly can to allow them to succeed.”

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Ryan Bailey

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