Tuesday 11 December 2018

Graham Shaw: The innovative coach who came close to a professional football career

Head Coach of Ireland Graham Shaw
Head Coach of Ireland Graham Shaw
Shaw took off his goalkeeper and didn’t replace him until his side had equalised. Photo by Craig Mercer/Sportsfile

David Medcalf and Cliona Foley

He played underage soccer with his good mate Damien Duff at Lourdes Celtic and had things worked out differently, Graham Shaw could have been plying his trade as a professional footballer.

As a teenager, he came close to signing professional forms with Oxford United, however his parents, Victor and Nuala, insisted that the eldest of their family of four would stay at home in Dublin to complete his Leaving Certificate rather than take his chances at Oxford.

He was also a decent hurler and footballer and played in an All-Ireland Schools ‘B’ SFC final alongside ex-Dublin star Collie Moran at Coláiste Éanna in Rathfarnham.

But Graham Shaw eventually specialised in hockey, following his father Victor and uncle Gerry to the Tallaght-based Glennane club, and eventually won 151 senior caps for Ireland, even if he reckons he was often “too hot-headed” and competitive in central midfield.

Shaw broadened his experience with a stint on the books of the Antwerp Dragons in Belgium and he also played three seasons for Annadale in Belfast while completing a sports science degree.

In one afternoon Shaw once famously coached Loreto’s women to an Irish Cup title and also won man of the match in the subsequent men’s final.

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Now it’s his clear-headed, analytical approach that has made him a household name as a world-class and innovative hockey coach.

His international experience started with the Irish men’s U-21s and he was assistant to the Irish senior women until taking over as head coach after the Rio Olympic cycle.

In hockey you can replace goalkeepers with a ‘kicking’ outfielder but it’s usually only done in the dying minutes when a team is desperately chasing a goal.

Once, when Shaw was coaching Monkstown’s men and they were trailing Three Rock Rovers 0-2 in the All-Ireland League final, their opponents had two men sent off for five minutes in the third quarter.

Shaw took off his goalkeeper and didn’t replace him until his side had equalised. They went on to win, in a shootout, with their restored ’keeper playing a key role. It was a scenario he had discussed beforehand with his players but few coaches would have risked it.

Irish captain Katie Mullan says he’s also particularly good because “he sees things happening before we do” and delivers a particularly clear game-plan in which his players totally trust.

“He knows the stuff we’ll see ourselves and knows what he needs to reinforce. He gets the volume of information to us just right.”

When the well-regarded Darren Smith returned home in 2015, Hockey Ireland turned to ‘Sharpy’ as the ready-made replacement.

He successfully guided the squad along the long road to World Cup qualification via tournaments in Malaysia and South Africa.

But he also experienced the downside of the job as form deserted his charges at last summer’s European Champion-ships in Amsterdam where they were lucky to escape relegation.

Lessons learned there helped him transform the psychological approach which turned the Irish also-rans into World Cup silver medallists.

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