How did Irish hockey lose two national coaches in 10 months?

Graham Shaw’s resignation leaves Hockey Ireland to find another replacement

Graham Shaw who was under contract with Ireland through to the 2020 Olympic Games, will take over as New Zealand women’s coach . Photograph:  Christopher Lee/Getty Images

Graham Shaw who was under contract with Ireland through to the 2020 Olympic Games, will take over as New Zealand women’s coach . Photograph: Christopher Lee/Getty Images

 

For Jerome Pels it was a case of déjà vu. In May of last year, Hockey Ireland’s chief executive was taken by surprise when Craig Fulton informed him that he was leaving his position as coach of the Irish men’s team, just five months ahead of their first World Cup appearance in 28 years, to take up the role of assistant coach with Belgium.

And last Monday afternoon Graham Shaw walked in to his office in Belfield to announce that he was quitting his job as coach of the Irish women’s team, just three months before the start of the first phase of their Olympic qualifying campaign, having been offered the same position with New Zealand.

David Balbirnie, steeped in Irish hockey all his life and a former general secretary of the European Hockey Federation, took to Twitter to express his exasperation. “For Irish Hockey to lose one national team coach before a major tournament was unfortunate, but to lose a second national team coach before another major tournament does not leave one with confidence in the administration of hockey in Ireland.”

That, said Pels, was unfair. “I don’t know why he would jump to that conclusion,” he said, insisting that in both cases the coaches had simply made personal choices when irresistible career offers came their way, and that while Hockey Ireland “did everything within our control to retain the services of Graham”, there was nothing they could do to persuade him to stay.  

Shaw was under contract through to the 2020 Olympic Games, Pels confirmed, but he dismissed Balbirnie’s suggestion that Hockey Ireland should, therefore, be compensated by their New Zealand counterparts.

“It doesn’t work like that in a legal way, the times of slave trade are over. It seems commonplace in football and some other sports, but in hockey we work more in a normal employment circumstances.”

Hockey Ireland chief executive Jerome Pels. Photograph: Rowland White
Hockey Ireland chief executive Jerome Pels. Photograph: Rowland White
Of course there is a sense of disappointment that he’s leaving, but on the other hand we are pleased for him personally that he has this opportunity. So there are mixed feelings.

You could have held him to his contract but chose not to stand in his way?

“Those are details that are very private, they are not relevant to this whole situation.”

Money was not an issue, he said, there was no bargaining to be done, Shaw just felt this was an opportunity, with a team with far greater resources, that is competing in the FIH Pro League and has Olympic-winning ambitions, that he could not turn down. “That’s how he brought it to us. And it shows the character of Graham, he’s not in to driving for the highest bidder or anything like that. He came to us and told us he had made his decision, so no, money was not an issue. It wasn’t a case of New Zealand offering him this and us offering him that.”

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While Pels, the Dutchman who was chief executive of the International Sailing Federation before being appointed to the Irish job in January 2017, had not anticipated Shaw being interested in the New Zealand job, which became available in January, he knew that his success in guiding Ireland to last summer’s World Cup final would catch the attention of hockey’s bigger guns.

“Graham had a very high profile after the World Cup because of what he achieved, as did the players. We have more girls playing now for clubs overseas than ever before, so, like Graham, they had put themselves in the shop window by what they did in London.”

“When Ned [Fulton] left, the opportunity that he got with Belgium was fantastic, he is working for a team that is higher in the rankings, has better resources and a full-time programme. And Graham is in a similar position now too. As I said, in the end it’s a personal choice.”

“Of course there is a sense of disappointment that he’s leaving, but on the other hand we are pleased for him personally that he has this opportunity. So there are mixed feelings. The staff are a close knit group, we’ve worked together with Graham for years and years and we are, of course, sad to see him go.”

As for the impact of Shaw’s departure on the Ireland squad, who were told the news on Tuesday night, are there concerns that it could be demoralising?

“I don’t know how this will work out,” said Pels, “no doubt there is a level of uncertainty that has naturally been created, we have to work through that and find a solution. But I am convinced that the group is really strong, it’s the same group that performed so well last year in the World Cup, and that hasn’t changed. It is still intact. And I think they’re feeling very strong in taking the journey on, trying to qualify for Tokyo and do well there.”

For now, the urgency of finding a successor has to be balanced with making sure Hockey Ireland’s choice is a wise one. “There is a bit of a trade-off between short term and long term needs, but we need to get it right. And we need to take time to do that, we will put a process in place. It’s not easy because it depends on what people are available, you can see there is a whole lot of movement going on; the coach in New Zealand [Mark Hager] has moved to England, Graham is moving to New Zealand, it’s typical high performance sport where everybody shifts. We’ll see what is available, who wants to put their hand up.”

Ironically, Ireland’s next games are against the Hager-coached Great Britain at Bisham Abbey between March 10th and 14th, Shaw’s team of coaching assistants – Arlene Boyles, Joe Brennan and Colin Stewart – taking charge until a successor is found.

Will either pitch be ready for the FIH Series Finals? “That is a critical point, we still need to know exactly what is going on there, but we will make decisions quite quickly on that.”

After that there are four games against Canada in Dublin in May, before Ireland host the FIH Series Finals in June, the opening phase of their attempt to qualify for the 2020 Olympics.

Where that tournament will be played, though, is yet to be confirmed with work still to begin on pitches at Belfield and the National Sports Centre in Abbotstown. The Belfield pitch, which is over 10 years old, was deemed no longer up to international standard over two years ago, while international matches cannot be played on the sand-based surface in Abbotstown.

What is the latest? “It’s all positive,” said Pels, “I think contractors are starting shortly on both the pitches in UCD and Abbotstown. Facilities wise we’re going to make massive improvements going forward.”

Will either pitch be ready for the FIH Series Finals? “That is a critical point, we still need to know exactly what is going on there, but we will make decisions quite quickly on that.”

Shaw, meanwhile, will find some turbulence in New Zealand hockey on his arrival in the country, the Dubliner scheduled to take charge of the team for the first time in May when they play the United States in Pennsylvania.

Craig Fulton resigned as Ireland men’s coach in May of last year, just five months ahead of their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho
Craig Fulton resigned as Ireland men’s coach in May of last year, just five months ahead of their first World Cup appearance in 28 years. Photograph: Gary Carr/Inpho

An independent review was carried out by a lawyer after complaints from a number of players about the “negative environment” they experienced under Hager before he left for England with 24 of 33 players interviewed expressing disquiet. The rest, though, were supportive of Hager, as was the team’s chief benefactor, businessman Owen Glenn.

As a result of his anger over the coach’s treatment and departure, Hager having led the team to the semi-finals of the 2016 Olympics and gold at last year’s Commonwealth Games, Glenn has withdrawn $2 million in funding to the national men’s and women’s teams. It remains to be seen whether he will resume his support after Shaw’s appointment.

Back home, there’s some turbulence to be overcome too for Irish hockey, last summer’s World Cup adventure now seeming like a distant enough memory. Losing two gifted and successful national coaches in the space of 10 months is certainly unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable given the opportunities that came their way from nations that walk the walk when it comes to investing in sport.

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