World Cup hockey heroes duke it out far from their ‘comfort zone’

Several Ireland stars now play in Germany and two will meet in a top-of-the-table clash

Ireland’s Deirdre Duke:  She will be lining up against her comrade Katie Mullan in Germany when Düsseldorfer meet Club an der Alster this weekend. Photograph: Joe Toth/Inpho

Ireland’s Deirdre Duke: She will be lining up against her comrade Katie Mullan in Germany when Düsseldorfer meet Club an der Alster this weekend. Photograph: Joe Toth/Inpho

 

Saturday will, says Deirdre Duke, be “a weird one”. For five years she had lined up alongside her trusty comrade Katie Mullan in both the Irish and UCD teams, the pair winning everything on offer in the club game before having the summer of their lives at the World Cup in London.

They won’t, though, be part of the UCD line-up that opens the defence of its Hockey League title against Pegasus at Queens on Saturday; instead, they’ll be on opposite sides in the top-of-the-table meeting of Düsseldorfer and Club an der Alster over in Germany.

While Ireland’s success in London resulted in a number of players attracting the interest of European clubs, Duke had already arranged her season with Düsseldorfer having taken a year out to focus on hockey before starting work with a law firm next May.

Her and Mullan’s moves mean a third of the squad will be playing their hockey abroad this season, Megan Frazer (Mannheimer HC) and Nikki Evans (UHC Hamburg) also based in Germany, both now playing their second seasons there, with Anna O’Flanagan having moved from HC Bloemendaal to Pinoké in the Dutch league and goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran starting her final year at the University of Louisville.

And Duke expects that number to increase over the next few seasons, not least if the national team maintains its profile, leading to more opportunities coming the players’ way. And while having more of the squad competing at a higher club level will, she believes, stand to the Irish team, she concedes their loss will be a blow to the national league back home.

“It’s really a Catch-22 situation, I suppose it’s inevitable that the more players who leave the greater the impact on the standard of our league, it will definitely take a hit,” she says. “But at this point in our careers we have to be a little bit selfish in order for us to develop as players, especially in the build-up to Tokyo. You can’t let the impact on the league at home be a factor in your decision, you can’t let it stop you progressing as a player. It’s more a structural issue for Irish hockey, how they’re going to improve the league, that’s something that’s going to have to develop over the years. A long-term plan needs to be put in place to stop players from leaving.

European league

“And unfortunately the leagues in Ireland, although they’re getting better, are not quite at the same standard of the European leagues. And the standard is definitely higher in Germany, mainly the pace that they play at. In order for us to compete at international level, to improve as players and challenge ourselves, it’s a chance to push on. And definitely, I do see more players opting to play abroad.

“I know from my own point of view the whole reason I came over to Germany was to take me out of my comfort zone. I probably took things for granted at home a bit with UCD, you do get a little bit comfortable, you know everyone you’re playing with and against, what they’re thinking, what pass they’ll probably make, so developing connections with new players, especially when you speak very little of the language, is a real challenge. Hopefully in the long run it will benefit me.”

Mind you, the notion that our European-based players are full-time professionals is a little far-fetched.

“It is professional over here, but not as professional as people might think,” says Duke. “I’m beginning work here next week in a UK law firm, Taylor Wessing, just for a couple of days a week. Whether home or abroad, hockey doesn’t pay the bills, so it’s important to me that I continue my career at least on a part-time basis until I go back full-time. All the girls on the team have jobs or are students, your club supports you a little bit more than at home, but it’s not exactly . . .”

Neymar territory?

“No,” she laughs. “Not too many people make a living from hockey. The standard is higher, there’s more training, you can give more time to your sport here, and that’s something I’m really enjoying, but no, there’s no fortune to be made.”

‘Overwhelming’

The 26-year-old Dubliner, who made her Irish debut in 2013 and passed the 100 cap mark back in July, says the response to the team’s success when they returned to Ireland was “almost as overwhelming as the actual World Cup itself”.

“Meeting the President at Áras an Uachtaráin and then being pushed into a taxi and off to RTÉ for The Late Late Show . . . there were times we were asking, ‘Is this really happening?’ We were being asked to go to events, we were being recognised in bookshops or on the street, which is something we’ve definitely not been used to. It’s been incredible. The highlight was the homecoming in Dame Street, it was the most surreal thing of all of it. Thousands of people. We were just laughing. There were around 10 people at our last home game before we left for the World Cup. I don’t think we’ll ever get used to it. We do what we love and now people are paying attention, which is great.

“One of the big things we wanted to do was create some kind of a legacy, give the sport a profile, get more kids interested and playing it. It was probably a dream that was bigger than ourselves, but to think that we’ve maybe made a little dent in that, putting hockey on the map, that’s the best thing of all.

“I was in my local shop after the World Cup and there were four girls there with hockey sticks, that’s not usually something you’d see, it would be a hurley or a football. That’s definitely something really special for us, giving hockey a platform to grow, and hopefully the country and the media continue to take an interest.”

She didn’t, she says, travel alone to Germany. “I have my silver medal sitting on my bedside table. When you’re feeling a bit down or a bit tired and you’re wondering why you’re doing this, you have a little look at the table and it definitely reminds you.”

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