Sunday 22 April 2018

Game on with no fear, no baggage and no excuses

Ireland's hockey team have already broken the mould just by qualifying for the Olympic Games

O’Donoghue has been playing professionally with top Belgian club KHC Dragons. Picture: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
O’Donoghue has been playing professionally with top Belgian club KHC Dragons. Picture: Cody Glenn / SPORTSFILE
David Harte: ‘Growing up I never imagined I’d be taking up hockey, never mind as a goalkeeper’ Photo: Billy Stickland
Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

Just how good could Ireland be at sport internationally if so much of our native talent bank wasn't so heavily invested in Gaelic games? That may be a hypothetical and deeply parochial question but it inevitably crops up every time the five-ringed circus rolls around again.

And it will be aired again over the coming weeks thanks to the Irish men's hockey team qualifying for Rio.

Eight years ago they narrowly missed out on making it to the Beijing Games, and their Olympic heartbreak was even greater in March 2012 when, with just seven seconds left, they lost the last qualifying spot to a Korean goal in UCD.

They have now finally done it and become not only the first Irish hockey team to make the Games since 1908, but the first Irish team of any kind to qualify since 1948.

They made it thanks to finishing fifth in a World League qualifier last year, where they beat Pakistan. They also won a first medal at the European Championships in 2015, beating England 4-2 for the bronze. Only a dozen hockey nations have made it to Rio, and Ireland are ranked 10th .

Ireland are coached by Craig Fulton, a two-time Olympian with his native South Africa, and the squad is a combination of men who play professionally in Europe and home-based amateurs.

Last year's great run saw two Irish players - David Harte and Shane O'Donoghue - nominated for international hockey's Player of the Year awards, and Harte, like Fulton, won his goalkeeper category.

In Rio he and O'Donoghue should dominate at opposite ends of the pitch - one goal-poacher, the other gamekeeper - but scratch them both hard enough and you find some GAA.

An imposing 6ft 5ins figure even before he pads up to look like something from a Transformer movie, Harte (28), whose identical twin Conor is also on the Irish team, admits that "growing up (in Kinsale) I never imagined I'd be taking up hockey, never mind as a goalkeeper".

"Conor would have been in goal and I was always the long-legged midfielder loping around," he says of playing Gaelic football and hurling with Courcey Rovers. Their dad Kieran - Mickey Harte's first cousin - played in goal for Tyrone's senior footballers. Their maternal grandfather, from Ballyheigue, won county hurling medals in Kerry.

"Come All-Ireland time, with ­Tyrone- Kerry, it gets pretty hectic in the house," Harte grins.

Harte didn't lift a hooked stick until he went to his local secondary school, Bandon Grammar. Hurlers have to switch grips for hockey's one-sided stick and he struggled initially outfield but quickly figured he might have the requisite skills for goals.

"I could kick a football and I had good hand-eye co-ordination from other sports like badminton and tennis so I said I'd try and combine all of these and see what happens," he explains. Making his first save against rival school Ashton was "a huge rush". Hockey 1 GAA 0.

He may be a trained science teacher but for how he's a hired hockey hand and in high demand. Playing for Dutch club SV Kampong in Utrecht for the past six years, he finally won a Euro League medal (hockey's equivalent of the Champions League) this season. He has also played in India's six-week winter hockey league (HIL) for the past three years, where - similar to the cricket version - guest players are brought in annually, by auction. Harte's club Dabang Mumbai gave him a two-year contract last season to ensure they didn't lose their goalkeeping Godzilla.

Unlike many of his team-mates, who have had to take career breaks to train collectively in the past four months, he's the first to say he lives a "privileged" life as a full-time hockey professional, even getting to practise and trade tips with the goalkeepers from neighbouring soccer side FC Utrecht in Holland.

As team captain, and blessed with the same laconic presence, stature and fierce competitiveness, Harte is undoubtedly the Paul O'Connell of this Ireland side.

In contrast to Harte, Shane O'Donoghue's sporting bloodlines are pure hockey. Both of his parents played and he was in the thick of it at Glenanne, their local club in Knocklyon, by the time he was six and playing senior hockey alongside his dad Rory by the time he was 15.

Yet O'Donoghue was also a talented Gaelic footballer who played with St Anne's Bohernabreena and was good enough to make Dublin under 14 and under 16 development squads.

"Michael Darragh Macauley and Darragh Nelson were around at the same time - I knew them really because they played for our rivals Ballyboden," he explains. "As a young kid you play lots of sport, but hockey was always my favourite."

He still pulls on the blue jersey every summer as a passionate Dublin supporter but it was local hockey heroes like Stephen Butler and Graham Shaw who inspired O'Donoghue. He is Ireland's baby-faced assassin, the appointed penalty taker whose favourite stroke so far is the one he nailed to sink England last summer.

Since graduating from UCD two years ago with a degree in sports and exercise management, O'Donoghue has been playing professionally with top ­Belgian club KHC Dragons. His talent was recognised when the International Hockey Federation (FIH) included him in their Rising Talent of the Year nominations last season."It was a great honour and privilege to be nominated," he says. "Playing abroad has definitely brought along all aspects of my game."

Having the world's best goalkeeper to practise with also helps, and their team-mates demonstrate a diverse range of talent and backgrounds.

They include quantity surveyor Eugene Magee, who played minor hurling for Down, Cork solicitor and goal machine John Jermyn and Lisnagarvey's Paul Gleghorne, who has been extraordinarily candid about his mental health struggles and how hockey and his team-mates have helped him cope.

To support their Olympic ­campaign they needed additional funding of €225,000 and raised it through a crowd-funding scheme labelled ­'Obsessed'. One anonymous benefactor reportedly gave them €20,000.

Their tough Olympic group includes reigning champions Germany, European champions Holland and Pan-American champions Argentina. But they revel in their underdog and pioneering status, and following them in Rio will confound stereotypes that are as out-dated as bully-offs. Since moving to astro-turf and rolling subs, hockey is now wickedly fast and power-based and uses soccer formations like 4-4-2.

Ireland's opening game is on Saturday against seventh-ranked India, the former Olympic kings whose slick skills have been outmuscled somewhat by the new power game.

To get this far Ireland adopted a team motto of 'no excuses' and will stick by it.

"We've played tournaments constantly against teams that were ­higher-ranked and better funded than us," Harte says. "'No excuses' has made this group even stronger. We didn't have the luxury of going and staying in hotels here and there, we were actually home-hosted by players and their families, and our bond grew from there, on and off the pitch.

"Hockey within Ireland is currently a minority sport. Instead of seeing it as a challenge, or a difficulty, we saw it as an opportunity to break the mould of 'nearly men' and qualify for a major tournament. Hopefully now we can change a lot of people's views and opinions on hockey within Ireland."

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