Skipper Mullan hopes hockey part-timers get backing for Tokyo

07/08/2018 - 03:30

Stephen Findlater

Katie Mullan is hopeful Irish hockey “will get the support we deserve” for the Road to Tokyo following their run to a World Cup silver medal in London.

The Irish skipper and her Green Army side received a heroes’ welcome on Dame Street outside Dublin Castle, with thousands welcoming them home yesterday afternoon, an unprecedented show of support for a side that had barely registered in the public consciousness two weeks ago.

Their success was all the more remarkable given they were the only side in their World Cup group who were not full-time professionals, running their programme off a core high-performance grant that amounted to about 15% of rivals England.

Mullan hopes Hockey Ireland will now receive support — whether from government or through sponsorship — to help them enjoy far more contact hours together as a team.

“I think there definitely is a funding issue that sets us apart from other nations,” she said.

The resources we do have available for us are not there 365 days a year. That’s something that is important. We can’t just come over here and do something special and then, in three months time, let that drop off.

“We need the resources for all our support staff and grounds available to us. We need a national training centre. I have no doubt, off the back of this, we have made people sit up and take notice and we will get the support we deserve.”

As of this summer, Hockey Ireland no longer has access to the National Hockey Stadium in Belfield. When built, it was part-funded by the federation along with UCD. The cash-strapped organisation was unable to renew the arrangement and now has to rent grounds around the country instead of getting an allotment of hours.

It is a concern for both the men’s and women’s squads, with the men preparing for a World Cup of their own in late November without a sponsor on board.

The women’s sponsor, Softco, were on board for the duration of this World Cup and, given the value they received from this campaign, will surely be ready for a conversation to extend and expand their arrangement.

Hockey Ireland received a boost of sorts, with Minister Shane Ross greeting them at Dublin Airport, where he announced in front of the players an increased fund of €1.5m for Irish sports for the qualification process for Tokyo.

He added hockey “will enjoy a significant share of that particular funding”, something that brought a tear to the eye of a couple of the players. How much they get of that pie remains to be seen, as does whether it will be divided equally between the men and women, an important factor for hockey, which currently shares its high-performance grant equally.

Mullan, meanwhile, added that Tokyo is very much coming into view, with the Hockey Series next spring — in either April, May or June — the first step of their qualifying process. Their world ranking will dictate where that event takes place, with Ireland set to move into the top 10 from 16th.

We realise we have to put in a big shift to qualify for Tokyo. Hopefully, with the ranking points, our pathway will not be as tough as it was coming into this tournament. We have learned so much this week and hopefully the belief will carry through to 2019 and Olympic qualification.

One potential method of improving players’ conditions could be to ‘outsource’ their development to pro clubs in Europe. Last term, Chloe Watkins and Anna O’Flanagan played in Bloemendaal in the Netherlands, Nikki Evans played at UHC in Hamburg, while Megan Frazer lined out in three games for Mannheimer HC amid her injury issues.

This season, over 20 Irish men will play with European clubs, where they can train on a more full-time basis, stepping back from work to focus on elite sport.

While it scatters the players around, coach Graham Shaw can be reassured those players will have higher level competition and greater rest and recovery time.

“A few of the girls have done it in the past year and it’s been brilliant,” Mullan said of the idea, confirming it will likely be brought up in the tournament debrief. “Those girls have had a massive impact and it sets up the idea that going to play in Europe is really good.

“You don’t want to dilute the league back home, which is a compromise. Our thought would be that this is good thing for us to develop our game and help us as a group.”