Hamilton living the dream in Croatian back-room staff
WHEN the Brazilian players and the Sao Paulo crowd belted out their national anthem ahead of this World Cup's opening game, a 23-year-old Irishman was sitting with the staff of their Croatian opposition struggling to believe this was really happening.
For Barry Hamilton, a sports scientist from Louth, the last month has been a whirlwind journey that has taken him into a position of prominence beyond his wildest dreams.
Tonight, he will have a front-row seat in Manaus, after helping Croatian preparations for their showdown with Cameroon in the heat of the Amazon.
Hamilton, who only graduated from Loughborough University last year, is the unlikely Irish story of this competition.
"Every day seems to get a bit more unbelievable," says the former Louth U-21 footballer, speaking to the Irish Independent from the Croatian base in Praia Do Forte, just north of Salvador.
His tale is part of the broader success story that is STATSports, a Newry-based company that has become a trusted partner to top internationals around the world in a variety of disciplines.
Founded by businessman Alan Clarke – an active sportsman who lined out for Dundalk in his youth – and sports scientist Sean O'Connor in 2007, they have devised GPS-tracking technology which allows elite teams to monitor training sessions and measure the health of their players in the run-up to games.
Their client portfolio is staggering. Last season, they worked with 17 Premier League clubs, including Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City, while Barcelona and Juventus are also amongst their users.
They are also aligned with the English, German and US national sides, in addition to the FAI, and have branched into other sports with the Irish and English rugby unions, a handful of international hockey sides, and the Michael Johnson Performance Centre, which prepares athletes for the NFL, all subscribing to their services.
Clarke is in America this week, where the Carolina Panthers and Florida State University are two of the high-profile operations that are intrigued by what this Irish team have to offer.
Hamilton is a member of their expanding staff and, when the talented GAA player with the Geraldines club was dispatched to Croatia's pre-World Cup training camp to give a demonstration of their product, he expected it to be a routine 10-day trip.
His day-to-day role was the introduction of the StatSportsViper system to Niko Kovac's preparations.
Before training, each player is fitted with an analysis vest that is synced with Hamilton's laptop. It collects and logs data at up to 100 times per second and facilitates the study of speed, distance, acceleration and deceleration.
Crucially, it allows the fitness staff to monitor the exertion of players that are set with specific training targets, such as distance covered, in accordance with their role in the team. An explosive winger and a holding midfielder will have different requirements.
The Croatian players liked his input and after their friendly win over Mali in Osijek, Hamilton believed that his work was done, with a flight home booked for June 1. "I was walking around the dressing-room collecting our gear," Hamilton recalls, "when Darijo Srna (captain) stood up, shouted at me and said, 'show me your passport, you're coming to Brazil'. I laughed, but he was serious. After that it was mayhem."
He was on a plane the next morning and from there was part of the build-up for every step of the way until last Thursday's opener in Arena de Sao Paulo.
Matchday is when his pressure is off, as the players can't be kitted up with the GPS system during a game, so he was in the front row with other support staff for the pre-match festivities. There was no work to do, but his pulse was racing. "I was sitting there thinking, 'Jesus Christ, is this actually happening?'
"The Brazil anthem was something I'd never dreamt of experiencing. At one stage I stopped, and it felt like every hair on my body was standing up."
Unfortunately, the outcome of the game did slightly take away from the experience. Hamilton knew first hand what they'd put into preparations and losing off the back of a controversial refereeing decision was hard to take.
"Everyone was frustrated, but by the time they were back on the bus, the players were saying, 'Ok, we've still got a job to do'," he says.
So did Hamilton. Gearing up for the sweltering conditions in the Arena de Amazonia meant a slight alteration to some training patterns. "You have to reduce things with the heat, the training takes more out of you. Sao Paulo wasn't that warm; nearly like playing at home. Manaus is another story."
He hopes there's plenty more mileage in this journey, and a win tonight would put the Balkans back in control of their own destiny. Back home, Hamilton's mates cannot believe his fortune.
"They think I'm on holiday," he laughs, when the reality is that he's spending most of his days immersed in work mode, punching data into his computer, attending meetings and discussing plans with Igor Jukic, the fitness coach.
It helps that the players, who all speak English, have made him feel welcome. "They're a funny bunch," he says. "They're all very easy to get on with."
He has confessed to the odd moment where he steps back to consider the surreal aspect of shooting the breeze with a Champions League winner like Luka Modric but, ultimately, he doesn't have time to sit back and contextualise the whole adventure. Instead, he's just got to get on with living it. The World Cup waits for nobody.
This is work. The memories will provide the pleasure.
CAMEROON V CROATIA,
LIVE, RTE2/UTV, 11.00
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