Thursday 17 October 2019

Sinead Kissane: 'Player silence over Shaw leaves curious vacuum'

Former Ireland head coach Graham Shaw. Photo: Sportsfile
Former Ireland head coach Graham Shaw. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Think back to last summer and those heady days when the Ireland women's hockey team caught us all by surprise. Their run to become the first Irish senior team to reach a World Cup final - in any sport - came with unforgettable shock and awe.

They became poster girls for teamwork, hard work and a defiant belief that anything is possible. And they hooked us right in; they didn't need a tagline like 'everyone in' because everyone was in. And head coach Graham Shaw was full of optimism for the future and Olympic qualification: "When we qualify for Tokyo we'll set our sights on a medal. We're not aiming to just compete or make up the numbers; we're aiming to achieve the best finish we possibly can".

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Two hundred and eleven days after that World Cup final last August, Shaw walked into the office of Hockey Ireland CEO Jerome Pels last Monday to tender his resignation, to take up an offer to become head coach of the New Zealand women's team.

When Shaw's resignation was announced on Tuesday evening, the general reaction on social media ranged from shock, to confusion, to acceptance, to well-wishing to questions over how Hockey Ireland had managed to lose another head coach coming as it did just nine months after Craig Fulton left his job as Ireland men's boss months before their World Cup.

There had never been any hint that Shaw would leave, especially after their World Cup heroics. In October, he was quoted as saying: "I want to stay with these girls for the next six, eight, ten years, if I can, because this is the team that I feel can go to the next level."

Why did that all change? Obviously, everyone has a right to change their mind. In an interview with RTÉ this week, Shaw said he previously discussed with family that if "an opportunity ever came up to coach in that part of the world, that we were going to try and grab it".

After the initial surprise over Shaw's resignation this week there has been the curious sound of silence in public and on social media from the players about his departure.

When Fulton left last June, captain David Harte, for example, tweeted his thanks with a picture of him hugging the coach alongside the caption: "An amazing journey, thanks for everything."

By contrast, a scan through the Twitter accounts of players in the women's team show, at the time of writing, that no public acknowledgement has been made or any form of tribute paid by the squad to Shaw.

In the official statement last Tuesday evening, Ireland captain Katie Mullan said: "On behalf of the Green Army I would like to thank Graham for all that he has given to our team. He led us to a moment none of us will ever forget at the World Cup, and the Black Sticks are very lucky to have him; we wish him all the best with this new adventure."

Beyond a few clips from players who were door-stepped at hockey games by UTV and BBC Northern Ireland, there has been silence. Social media is a platform players have used to tweet their thanks for support they receive and to support their team-mates, so this silence is curious.

When I interviewed Pels on Thursday I asked him when the players were informed about Shaw's decision.

"The decision was announced on Tuesday night, yes," Pels replied.

"How soon before the official announcement did the players find out?"

Pause. "Em, well I'm not 100pc sure how that exactly happened but I mean all these sort of things happen at the same time because we also synchronised that in agreement with his (Shaw's) future employers - with the guys in New Zealand," Pels said.

"So they definitely didn't know before the official announcement on Tuesday night that he was going?"

"No."

Shaw has admitted that "the timing of it wasn't ideal" as it comes three months before the first of Ireland's Olympic qualifiers in June. Pels said he will meet the players at their training camp next week to discuss what happens next.

"There's no point on looking back at what has happened; now we need to deal with the future. I'm quite confident with this group that they can work that through," he said.

The players' silence on Shaw's resignation has left a vacuum. There have been suggestions this week of unrest at an Ireland training camp in Spain last month. Two training camps since then were cancelled, with Shaw saying in a newspaper interview on Thursday that this was mainly because of "player unavailability".

But why was there "player unavailability" just four months before Ireland's first Olympic qualifier? Was there dissatisfaction among players? This, let's remind ourselves, is a team that won silver in a World Cup, and they surely would have hoped to take every opportunity to prepare themselves for an Olympic Games they are desperate to qualify for. It doesn't seem to add up.

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