Irish hockey star Anna O’Flanagan enjoying Dutch adventure
Goalscorer getting up to speed with Bloemendaal after putting legal career on hold
Anna O’Flanagan has a burning ambition to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. Photograph: Getty Images
Anna O’Flanagan admits to having been nervous about her decision. By choosing to move to the Netherlands at the end of the summer she was pressing pause on her career in law back home, as well as nearly a decade of Irish club hockey during which she had become one of its most prolific goalscorers.
The more comfortable choice would have been to carry on as she was, but the 27-year-old Dubliner was ready for a challenge.
It was those early training sessions with Bloemendaal under the tutelage of Teun de Nooijer that convinced her that her decision was a good one.
“He’s one of the greatest players in the history of the game,” she says of the former Dutch international, his lengthy CV including two Olympic gold medals, a World Cup and three World Player of the Year awards. “Him being head coach at Bloemendaal was definitely a draw in coming here, to have him there every day in training, helping you, telling you things you need to improve on, that’s amazing.”
It was a long-held ambition of O’Flanagan to play abroad, preferably in the Dutch league, one of the strongest in world hockey. The timing proved right this summer, so she went for it.
“I just finished qualifying as a solicitor in McCann Fitzgerald, so I thought that it was the perfect time to think about a move away. I spoke to them and they were happy for me to pursue this dream of mine, they’ve always been supportive of me.”
“I played in the league in Ireland for almost 10 years, and I enjoyed every minute of it, but there comes a point where you need to look at yourself and say ‘am I improving here?’, ‘am I the best player I could be?’, and I felt a move abroad would offer me that chance. That’s why I’m here. And the level is next to none.”
Several of her Irish team-mates had tried out hockey in European leagues in recent years, all of them, says O’Flanagan, reporting positive experiences.
“But it’s definitely been daunting, there were times I wondered if I was making the right decision. I’m not 19, I’m a bit older than that. But I only have hockey for a certain amount of years, there’s a time limit on it, but there’s no time limit on your working career. If I’d started in to working full-time as a lawyer, it would have been hard to pull away from that. This was my chance.”
She contacted a number of clubs, among them Bloemendaal, one of the Netherlands’ hockey powers based in the town 25 miles west of Amsterdam. It so happened that they were on the lookout for several new recruits during the summer, so after sending them a video and then travelling over for a couple of training sessions, she was signed up.
The club also recruited O’Flanagan’s Monkstown and Irish team-mate Chloe Watkins, who had the same ambition to play in the Dutch league.
The pair made their Irish senior debuts in the same game away to Scotland back in 2010, and between them they now have over 300 caps. O’Flanagan hit the 150-cap mark during the summer, her goal tally now up to “58 . . . or 59” – she’s losing count – pushing her ever closer to Lynsey McVicker’s record total of 65.
Last season she averaged close to two goals a game for Monkstown. She never anticipated scores coming so easily in the Dutch league, but after Bloemendaal lost their opening game of the season she got off the mark in their second, getting the winner away to Huizer. Up and running, then.
“The level of hockey is really, really excellent, it’s so technically good – but more than anything it’s the pace the game is played at, it means you’re under so much more pressure, you have to do everything at a much higher pace, that’s the biggest difference. You just don’t have as much time and space, and that’s really the learning curve.”
Ultimately, she says, her adventure is all about making her the best player she can be for Ireland, the burning ambition to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games. Before then, there’s the 2018 World Cup in England, Ireland’s place in the line-up not yet certain, but looking likely.
“It would be our first major tournament since 2002, so it would be a great base to build from to try to qualify for the Olympics. And that’s why you play the sport, you want to be an Olympian, you want to go to World Cups, that’s the dream.”
For now, though, the focus is on Sunday and a trip to Utrecht for a league meeting with Bilthoven. It’s a far cry from her days with Muckross Park scoring goals for fun in Leinster schools hockey. But she’s loving the journey.