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Using annual leave and taking career breaks to chase the Olympic dream

Shane O’Donoghue, Stephen Cole and Daragh Walsh talk about putting their lives on hold to pull on the green jersey.

‘Due to the financial shortfall around preparations, there was a lot of pressure on players and management to generate funding to run the programme. This put excessive work and stress on both players and management, which deflected from preparing for the Games.’

THE RIO REVIEW — a 212-page document into every aspect of Team Ireland’s preparation for, and performance at, the last Olympic Games — makes for fascinating reading, even now, three years on. 

It’s broken down into separate reports for each of the sports and national governing bodies, and then presents a series of recommendations to be implemented by that NGB for this next cycle. 

The Ireland team salute the fans The Ireland hockey team at the Rio Olympics. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

A cursory glance at the review shows lessons, to some degree, have been learned and areas of concern have been addressed heading towards next summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games, notably the revival of the Olympic Federation of Ireland as an athlete-orientated organisation driven by Sarah Keane and Peter Sherrard.

But, then again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Take the 10 pages devoted to hockey, for example. The achievement of qualifying for Rio was quite a feat in itself, yet the review into the lead-in and Games experience itself for the senior men’s team underlined the defects.

Much of the feedback directed towards Sport Ireland and Hockey Ireland from the players revolved around funding, resources, sponsorship and support, and in his recommendations, the independent facilitator — former Ireland rugby coach Eddie O’Sullivan — strongly advised the governing body to improve its awareness of what was demanded at high-peformance level. 

“Finance to support both men’s and women’s teams, especially since their improved world ranking, is a constant struggle,” the review, published in April 2017, reads. 

“Having accepted that more funding is necessary to drive both high-performance
programmes, it was suggested that Hockey Ireland could do more to increase finances by being more proactive in promoting the profiles of international players, and seeking sponsorship.

“It was also suggested that Hockey Ireland should build relationships with employers of national team players in order to identify how to best support players’ work and hockey commitments.”

On the women’s side, the team’s success in reaching last summer’s World Cup final has not only resulted in additional Sport Ireland funding for Hockey Ireland, but helped secure a long-term sponsorship deal with Softco and further partnerships with companies such as Park Developments and Saba.

But, even still, and as the review so plainly highlighted, both senior international teams must operate under severe financial constraints, to the point where the men’s set-up remains completely amateur and the players continue to feel it is their responsibility to be the primary drivers in fundraising, just as they were before Rio.

The current squad, led by head coach Alexander Cox, is a mixture of players combining hockey and full-time careers at home, students and those on professional contracts in Europe, including captain David Harte and top goal-scorer Shane O’Donoghue.

Finance has always been at the root of the problem but more damaging to performance is the lack of contact time as a squad, which ultimately falls back to the fact that the set-up is not professional, even when the majority of the countries they’re competing against are.

While there have been improvements along the way, the landscape has not changed a whole lot in the three years since Rio for Hockey Ireland, despite the headline success of both the women’s and men’s teams on the international stage.

This weekend, less than a year out from the 2020 Games, the Ireland men get their European Championships campaign underway in Belgium, which is another tournament of significance on the Road to Tokyo.

Cox’s side have already assured themselves of an Olympic qualifier in late October/early November and it is then when their three years of hard work, and of sacrifice, will come to a head. 

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

From using their annual leave to travel abroad for training camps, or taking career breaks to ensure they’re in the best possible shape to compete internationally, many of the squad have had to put their lives on hold to commit to the cause.  

Ahead of their departure for Belgium, O’Donoghue, Daragh Walsh and Stephen Cole visited The42 for a feature-length chat with Ryan Bailey to discuss the sacrifices involving in chasing the Olympic dream and if anything has changed or improved during this cycle. 

O’Donoghue is Ireland’s leading goalscorer and a key player in Cox’s side having played in the 2016 Olympics. Since graduating from college, the 26-year-old has been back and forward to Belgium where he has played on professional terms with KHC Dragons.

“It’s hard to believe that Rio was almost four years ago,” he says. “Now all of a sudden you’re only weeks away from the potential of qualifying for a second Olympic Games.

“A lot of sacrifices are made, in many different ways and different avenues for each player in the squad. We’re certainly a tight group that realises the sacrifices everybody makes. It is a long journey.”

Cole has also been in or around the squad for a number of years but work commitments have often limited his involvement, and the midfielder — who took a career break to play in Belgium in 2018 — knows about the highs and lows more than most in the dressing room. 

“You see people looking in from the outside and obviously we’re playing a European Championships this week and it might look comparable somewhat to, for example, the rugby guys,” he begins. “But in essence, that’s very far from the truth.

We’re amateur athletes most of the time, we do receive great support from Sport Ireland, we do receive great support from Hockey Ireland but at the end of the day, we’re amateur athletes trying to compete at a professional level against countries that have professional set-ups.

“From my own point of view, trying to manage that on top of a career was proving slightly difficult. But ultimately it’s a sacrifice you’re willing to make.”

Walsh, meanwhile, is one of the newest members of the squad having made his major tournament debut at last November’s World Cup in India. The 22-year-old is in a slightly different position as he is a student at Trinity College, but the demands on his time are as intense.

“Thankfully, I’m at the age now where I can juggle both college and hockey, but it does reach points where it will get quite difficult,” he reflects. “I know I’m going to take some time out of college and they’ve been really accommodating to let me do that.”

Coming into the set-up, Walsh knew what he was signing up for. 

“You see it as soon as you come into the squad,” the Three Rock Rovers defender continues. “And I’m talking to the lads that have been in the set-up and knowing the sacrifices they’ve had to make and maybe they’ve pushed certain aspects of their life back by a few years that maybe they weren’t planning on doing originally. 

“So the sacrifices of being an amateur are definitely in my mind the entire time. But I think if you have that goal of particularly the Olympics there, it’s worth it if you can get to that level.

“It’s too early to say now, but hopefully, it’ll all come to that and it’ll be worth it.”

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

O’Donoghue also admits there are constant concerns at the back of his head.

“You can’t be one toe in, one toe out. You have to be fully devoted, especially the way the international hockey circuit is gone. It’s becoming more and more competitive.

“Because as you get older, you know the years are counting down towards retirement and then your professional career becomes very, very important. So guys who are studying or guys who are trying to balance the dual career, it’s always on our minds as hockey players and you know, even the money you do receive when you go abroad and get a professional contract isn’t huge money. It is enough to get you by but it is a bit of worry, I’ll be honest.

“It’s a concern as you get older, you’re trying to maximise the time off the pitch in terms of maybe, you know, networking and trying to basically put a plan together, a bit of a business plan, for when you do finish. You’re asking yourself: how can I kickstart my professional career while ultimately still playing hockey for Ireland and driving towards your dreams and doing everything you can for the green jersey?

“It’s tricky to manage both. It is a big balancing act, and there are times when your professional career probably has to take preference, and rightly so. We try and do everything we can to be available for the Irish men’s hockey team but sometimes it’s just not possible and they’re difficult decisions.”

Cole, who works in financial services and is back playing domestically with Monkstown, is one of the home-based players in the squad facing those challenges every day.

One of the recommendations for Hockey Ireland in the Rio Review was to ‘examine the possibility of engaging with and building relationships between Hockey Ireland and the employers of home-based international players.’

It’s hard to say whether that has been done to any degree, but, again, not a lot has changed from Cole’s perspective.

“There have been times when, unfortunately, it just doesn’t fit in into the calendar with employers and you have to put your hand up and say I’m sorry, I’m unavailable for selection,” he says.

There are times when employers are flexible and have been for myself. But at the same time, it is your annual leave that you are taking, guys take unpaid leave regularly to compete for Ireland, which can be tough.

“It got to a point for me personally where to improve as a player and an athlete, I couldn’t keep burning the candle at two ends and I had to step away from work. And I was lucky enough that a club in Belgium would take me on a professional contract for a season. You have to make those calls but that’s definitely going to hamper my professional career also.

“We know that we’re competing in an amateur sport that isn’t funded and isn’t paid to the same level as some of the other sports that would be more popular. You’re competing for Ireland and you’re not going to be remunerated financially.

“But it will get to a point and it will get to a stage in careers when people’s lives move on, where certainly finance becomes the deciding factor but, at the moment, it’s a sacrifice that everybody in the squad is willing to make and they wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

“It’s one I’m willing to make for now, but how much longer that remains to be seen.”

Even at 22 and at the start of his international career, Walsh is certainly wary of making the right decisions going forward.

“I’ve thought about all those kind of things and how maybe the longer you do play hockey with the Irish team that all other aspects of your life will get delayed, whether it be joining the workforce or kind of settling down and for some lads, to start a family.”

While focused on achieving Olympic qualification, O’Donoghue is always thinking about what’s next. 

“The way things are going and to be able to compete at these tournaments, there are big time constraints and it does become a massive part of your life. You’re sacrificing the time in terms of developing yourself professionally, in terms of getting the sufficient amount of experience in whatever line of work you’re in. 

“It really depends on how supportive the other aspects of your life are. Obviously, we all are lucky enough to have support networks but professionally, it is a big ask of any employer to give you the free time needed to go to these tournaments and the camps. It’s a tricky one. 

“Sometimes it is, unfortunately, the only decision to step back from the environment, which is always a very difficult decision for guys to make. And unfortunately, as you get older, that decision, in some ways, is kind of forced on you.”

The squad were forced to launch a fundraising campaign after qualifying for Rio to make up the shortfall in cash for their training programme. A ‘no excuses’ mantra was built, but Cole admits you can only feed off that for so long.

To reach the next level, Ireland, O’Donoghue insists, simply need to be better supported.

The calendar is becoming filled with days away and warm-weather training camps, and camps here in Ireland, and all across Europe and the world. And there comes a point when you want to try and compete with these teams and it requires a big budget.

“And we’ve alluded to the point that we’ve obviously got fantastic support as it is, but to make that next step, you do need the additional resources. We’re not going to lie, we are constantly seeking additional help in terms of funding and sponsorship and to form some kind of sponsorship with a corporate sponsor who is as committed to our dream of qualifying for Tokyo and beyond.

“It has yet to be seen if we have any success in that avenue but we will keep on trying. All we can do as players is represent the green jersey with immense pride and continue to try and get as many top-end results in competitions as we can as that’s really what it comes down to from the players’ end.”

The focus is firmly on matters on the pitch, starting with today’s European Championships opener against Netherlands [2.45pm Irish time], before further pool games against Scotland and Japan.

Source: The42.ie/YouTube

All eyes will then be on that Olympic play-off tie later this year, with Ireland forced to play a waiting game to discover their opponents, although they will almost certainly have to travel away for the two-legged tie. South Africa, Canada and Spain are all possible opponents as it stands.

The bottom line, however, is that it’s imperative that Ireland back up their achievements in Rio by qualifying for Tokyo.

“Going back-to-back certainly speaks volumes,” O’Donoghue adds. “Not getting there would show a dip and when we’re looking for this funding and sponsorship, you have to be performing in the big tournaments and the Olympics is the pinnacle for international hockey.

It’s absolutely massive for us to get there. But from a player point of view, the sacrifices we’ve given in the four-year cycle. We have all given 100% effort and have made those difficult decisions. It’s imperative we do qualify again.

It would mean everything to Walsh and Cole.

“It would define you as a person, to be able to say that you’re an Olympian would be incredible,” Cole admits. “A very small percentage of the population on this earth compete in the Olympics and an even smaller amount compete from Ireland. And so to be part of that unique group would really be something tremendous. It would make it all worth it.”

Walsh agrees: “Becoming an Olympian is something that’ll stay with you forever, and something no one can really take away from you. I think as a kid growing up playing sports you always wanted to compete at the highest level. And this really is for hockey.

So I think being able to experience the Games and compete in it, would make everything worth it and it would just be the pinnacle of our sporting careers.

The final word for O’Donoghue, who could join a very elite group of Irish sportspeople by becoming a double Olympian in Tokyo.

“We’ve experienced it once and we certainly want to do it again. Like everything in life, once you get a taste of something, it just spurs you on to go again and all you want to do is experience it again.

“I think in the bigger picture as well, you know, the support and the support networks we have, it’s massive for them as well. It’s a nice kind of repayment for them, if we can get there as they go through the highs and lows too.

“It’s something I’m dreaming about. It’s something the whole squad is dreaming about.”

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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