Irish hockey's renaissance and the men who made history

We speak to Stephen Barry and Mitch Darling as they set off on the Road to Rio

Irish hockey's renaissance and the men who made history

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

It's more 100 since an Irish hockey represented Ireland at an Olympic Games. For the first time in over a century, we will once again send our finest over to bring home gold and make history.

It's fair to say, though, that they've made history in their own right. Qualification perhaps the culmination of years of rebuilding and with the heartache of missing out on London four years ago, Irish men's hockey is growing in popularity. Would a medal at the Games of the XXXI Olympiad inspire the next generation of players on these shores?

"Yes, 100 percent" says team leader Stephen Barry, "What it could do for the sport in Ireland is massive. It’s very much played in big cities and in tighter communities and we want to make that spread out all over the country.

"That’s the dream for everyone involved in hockey for the association, for the team and to inspire the next group. One of the really cool things off the back of this is that we have 16 people who have gone to the Olympics and will be able to go home and stand in their own clubs as an Olympian which has never happened before.

"You walk into a clubhouse in Ireland and the team will have a plaque on their wall of players who have represented Ireland. Now it’ll say that these players represented Ireland at an Olympic games. That gives a hockey player who’s a kid a dream they have never had before."

Men's Hockey International, Merrion Fleet Arena, Glenageary in March this year. Ireland team huddle before a game against France. Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

It's been a task of rebuilding for this hockey team, the departure of head coach Paul Revington in May 2012 manager Peter Jackson stepping down shortly resulted in the team becoming unstuck.

After being pulled from Champions Challenge in Argentina the team came together and fundraised enough money [through the campaign "Get the Green Machine Going"] where they would finish third in the competition.

This propelled them to new heights and under the stewardship of Craig Fulton in 2014, the team have gone from strength to strength.

"I like to look at this achievement [qualification] and celebrate it. We worked so hard to box above our weight to get where we are at the moment. We won a bronze medal at the Europeans last summer, beating teams that had made it to the London semi-finals.

"We have an expectation and a belief in ourselves that if we go out there and do our best we can make things happen. Realistically we ranked fifth in our group of six and only four go through to the quarter finals.  

"The realistic finish is to finish in the top three or four there, get ourselves into a quarter final and with a decent draw there’s no reason we can’t get through to the semi-finals.

"We have that belief in ourselves/ yes we’re excited to be there and be part of team Ireland, with the boxers and the sailors and those who have gotten medals before. We want to be part of that list and we’re not going there to make up the numbers. That’s not what we want to do and we believe we can."

A new level was reached with their Olympic qualification; Australia beat New Zealand 3-2 in Stratford in the Oceania Cup final, ending a nervous interim period since after last July’s heroics in the World League 3.

During that summer, Ireland beat higher-ranked Malaysia and Pakistan to finish fifth overall in that tournament, missing out on direct qualification but placed them third on the waiting list for Olympic qualifying berths.

The result pushed them over the line, the first team to represent Ireland at the Games since 1908.

"It was fairly surreal, like a dream coming true," says player Mitch Darling, "It happened quite slowly for us, we had to wait for another result for us to qualify.

"As soon as you find out you've qualified for the Olympics you get a realisation that OK, we’re doing this. We need to get training and develop. We need to improve.

"More recently it’s been focused on week to week stuff, day to day. It’s all about winning your preparation and after that hopefully the Olympics will go well.

"We knew we were very capable for a long time. We can punch well above our rate in our ranking. We’ve moved up to 12 in the world and I think when I came into the squad at 18 years old we were at 24.

"We've improved incrementally in the last few years. We came so close to the London Olympics as well, so there was a large cohort of players and staff who knew we could do it and go all the way so that’s spurred us on this year."

In contrast to the leagues they would compete year-on-year, the Games presents a new set of challenges and a bigger platform on which to perform. However, they remain familiar with the teams they had overcome previously and will take confidence from these results.

"This will be the first multi-sport event that we’ll be attending, so it’ll be different in that respect" says Darling.

"When it comes to playing the teams at the Olympics, we've pretty much played all the other teams that will be there in different world events. The world league, which is how we qualified, we've played all the teams, in the Europeans every two years.

"So, it’s nothing too unusual to be playing all these other teams. The actual event of the Olympics will be our first time. Luckily we have our coach who is a double Olympian [Fulton, with South Africa] so he’s been able to share the experience with us. I think we’ll be well prepared for it."

Addressing a shortfall in funding once again, the team aim to raise €225,000 to get them to Rio under the campaign "Obsessed".

Despite the detractions of funding, the team are ready to perform and hoping to soak up as much of the experience as they can.

"It’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s the realisation of a dream for guys who had to make history. No one in our lifetimes have been involved in a hockey team who’s been to an Olympic Games. It’s a massive celebration, it’s a massive boost for hockey in Ireland as well as for the players and coaches involved for a number of years just to get us here" says Barry.

"We have a number of games so we have time to settle in and adjust to the climate and get comfortable in the Olympic village. But after the first couple of minutes you just get into the zone and you treat it like any other game at the end of the day."

Ireland’s Pool B fixtures (all times local)
Saturday, August 6:
India v Ireland, 11am
Sunday, August 7: Netherlands v Ireland, 6pm
Tuesday, August 9: Germany v Ireland, 12.30pm
Thursday, August 11: Ireland v Canada, 11am
Friday, August 12: Ireland v Argentina, 7.30pm