Mark Tumilty was bitten by the hockey bug when growing up in Banbridge in the eighties, playing a starring role in the local Academy’s All-Ireland Schools’ title success in 1992.
Twenty-seven years on and Tumilty is now national men’s coach, with his side within touching distance of securing Olympic qualification in Vancouver this weekend.
Before his departure, he spoke with an old friend, Garry Doyle, about the joy he still gets daily from ‘an unbelievable sport’.
We were the boys at the back of the bus, staring out the window at these half-forgotten towns hidden off the tourist routes, each place looking as shitty as the next.
They branded us children of the Troubles, these serious-sounding TV reporters who deliberately slowed their sentences as they walked towards the camera, inviting their audience to smother us in pity.
This was 1990s Northern Ireland, a strange time to live there with one set of politicians angry, the other angrier, their energy drawn from bullets, bombs and bonfires, murals, marches, and mass times.
And through the window, the boys at the back of the bus looked out at all this and talked and joked about everything and anything except the issue that supposedly defined us.
If there is a reason why Derry Girls — the Channel 4 comedy — resonated with our generation, it had little to do with the comic stunts that are the backbone of every sitcom, but everything to do with the way it dissed on Ulster stereotypes.
In one episode where the main characters are walking to school, you see them pass a British army squad on patrol without so much as a sideways glance. As the scene develops, the tone of their conversation never veers off course, the writer’s point subtly made.
That was us, a male version of Erin, Clare, Michelle, and Orla, even if our nicknames — Spa, Wiggy, Stumpy, Jabba the Hutt — wouldn’t have got past the censor. Some of us were catholic, some protestant but none of us cared about labels or politics, not when the important issues of drinking, cavorting, and winning hockey matches had to be discussed.
You read that correctly. Hockey, supposedly the preserve of the proddies and the poshies, was the reason we got on that bus and travelled those roads. We were in love with the sport, and a little with ourselves as we — Banbridge Academy — ended 1992 as Irish Schools champions, conscious of the fact it wouldn’t have happened if a player called Mark Tumilty hadn’t scored the best goal you’ve never seen.
“To grow up in a hockey town is something I’m really proud of,” Tumilty, the man who has just recently been handed the responsibility of guiding the Irish men’s team through the Olympic qualifiers, said of his Banbridge roots.
“Even so, seeing Belgium come from 2-0 down to beat Germany in this year’s European championships, I’ve never seen a better game in any sport in my life.
“The skill, the one v ones, the tactical subtleties, the pace, and athleticism of the players, it was breathtaking. Watch a soccer game now and you could get to half-time without seeing a shot on target. You’ll never say that about hockey. It’s gone like hurling in a way, fast, flowing, relentless.
“It’s an unbelievable sport. I’ve been enthralled with it since I was a kid.”
Years pass, people change, so does your address. You hear about him getting his first Irish cap and aren’t surprised.
Then you hear about him getting his seventh and final one when he is just 21 and know something bad happened.
He was cursed by injury, you get told. Still, he continues to play and continues to win but by the time he’s 30, his sharpness has gone. The curtain is down.
The player who used his first touches in an Irish Schools final to glide past four defenders from the half-way line and open the scoring has to find something else to fill his time.
Charlie helps in this regard. He’s his first born, arriving into the world a year after dad’s playing days are over. And then there’s another birth, the start of a coaching career.
More All-Ireland titles follow. He’s a winner at work, too — a branch manager with Ulster Bank. A second child arrives and so do the 10th and 11th national titles of his sporting life. AWhatsApp group is set up to commemorate the first of those, a quarter-century having passed since the boys on the bus won our medals.
We meet as middle-aged men, thinner on top, a little rounder elsewhere. You laugh about the messing and the drinking that went on back in the day, and briefly you ask how the guy who joked around like no one else in the dressing room has ended up as one of the best hockey coaches in Ireland.
“The interest was always there,” he says, before his brother finishes the sentence in the way older brothers often do, pointing out that behind the laughter, there was always a serious competitor.
You see it for yourself a few months later, creeping behind the home dugout for a league game, studying his demeanour, eavesdropping on his team-talk.
The 43-year-old coach reminds you of the 17-year-old in appearance only. There are no jokes now. The teenage face that smiled has intensified in middle age. You listen to him deliver a team talk in concise terms, one hand holding an Ipad, index finger used to reinforce a point, and you’re reminded of the time when the GAA gave open door access to journalists after Championship fixtures.
It’s another coach Tumilty reminds you of, the Brian Cody circa 1999. You’d never have drawn that comparison before.
Then again you never had to. In 21 years as a sports hack, everyone you have spoken to — from Alex Ferguson to Arsene Wenger, Giovanni Trapattoni to Martin O’Neill, Joe Schmidt to Warren Gatland, Mickey Harte to Ger Loughnane — have all been the same, passionate, driven but always distant.
You care about them as little as they do about you. But this is different. The man who has just been appointed the national men’s hockey coach is someone you’ve known since you were 11-years-old.
Old clichés die hard in Ulster. Catholics are only meant to play Gaelic football; protestants soccer, rugby, or hockey. But this wasn’t the world we grew up in.
Everything closed on a Sunday, so if you didn’t play sport, then you didn’t do much until Monday came around. Banbridge was a hockey town, European club champions in 1983 and more significantly, home of Frankie and the Mint.
A Corkman will always say it’s Ring; if you’re Wexford, it’s Rackard; if Kilkenny it’s DJ, maybe Shefflin. But if you are from Banbridge, the debate on who the greatest stickman Ireland has ever produced is a simple one: Frankie McGladdery or Mark ‘the Mint’ Sinnamon.
Saturday after Saturday we’d go and watch them, these working-class everymen with magic in their fingers.
Equipped with reflexes faster than the average man, they were courageous in every sense of the word, putting their bodies in front of a 5.75 ounce ball, demanding possession of it whenever a team-mate had it. In soccer parlance, Mint was a Beckenbauer, McGladdery a Zidane. Except they weren’t soccer professionals, McGladdery worked in a carpet shop and would stop and shoot the breeze whenever we passed.
With heroes on his doorstep, it was an easy choice for Tumilty to devote his life to hockey, even if his father, Brian, had played Gaelic football for Down.
Tumilty junior could have done so too, could have been a semi-professional soccer player like his brother, Barry, could have got his golf handicap down to scratch, could have starred at rugby.
But there’s something about hockey that stirred the soul.
Johann Cruyff would have had that feeling, Louis van Gaal too — their 4-3-3 obsession stemming from hours watching Dutch hockey’s elite.
“Cruyff wasn’t just there to enjoy the matches,” Horst Wein, the German coach and author of over 30 coaching books on soccer and hockey, said. “He took whatever he saw and applied it to his teams.”
He wasn’t alone. Three months before the 1978 soccer World Cup, Argentina’s manager, Cesar Luis Menotti travelled to Pakistan to watch one of their hockey team’s training sessions, busily scribbling down diagrams of their triangular passing moves.
After his Argentinean side won the World Cup, Menotti sent a thank you note to his Pakistani friends.
“Of course there are similarities (between the sports),” Tumilty says. In actuality, there are recurring trends.
Tiki-taka wasn’t a Barcelona invention; it was first seen by Germany earlier in the century, when the Guardiola tactic of full-backs pressing as high as wingers was visible every time Timo and Benni Wess played for the 2008 Olympic champions.
The “heavy metal” football Jurgen Klopp perfected at Borussia Dortmund? Australia’s national hockey team played a version of that in the Athens Olympics.
In football, it’s standard practice for the No10 to be the playmaker; in hockey, since the rules were radically changed a decade ago to make it more free-flowing, it’s not uncommon for the centre-back to be the initiator of attacks.
“There are always new trends,” Tumilty says.
His has been honed in different spheres. From his father’s Gaelic football background, he has become an admirer of the five-in-a-row Dublin team as well as Peter Keane’s new-look Kerry side; a childhood growing up supporting Manchester United led to a fascination with the “creative aggression” virtues Ferguson extolled, while chunks of Guardiola’s autobiography have been underlined and transferred into a hockey context.
Other influencers are less well known. From YouTube he came across a channel showing FC Schalke’s U19 side and immediately copied their template. Then there were the hockey specialists, Peter McCabe, Terry Gregg, and John Clarke.
“No matter what the sport, I like teams who pass the ball,” Tumilty says.
“Sport has to be enjoyable, at underage and at elite level. Like, you know how it was in our house growing up, three boys in there; sport on the telly all the time. If we weren’t watching it, we were playing it. But for me, there’s no better (theatre) than seeing hockey teams at the highest level.
“The way the rules have been changed to make the sport so quick and open, it’s just fascinating. A few of us always go to a European club or international tournament each year, study the tactics, the teams, the game. I’ll be honest, by last year, I’d become obsessed.”
In a way it makes no sense, his life being busy enough with family and work, yet when a passion is in there, you find energy from somewhere.
So, to mere mortals, the idea of sitting down in your front room at 11pm to scroll through three hours of videotape might seem a tad excessive, to coaches, it’s perfectly normal.
Listening to Tumilty’s time-management lessons is like listening to any inter-county GAA manager, Cody, Gavin, or Sheedy, the shortening of their sleeping hours used to maximum effect, planning, reviewing, imagining.
The difference is Gavin and Sheedy’s opponents are all based in Ireland whereas earlier this month Tumilty was in Bordeaux for a double-header against France before heading to Brussels to play the reigning world and European champions, Belgium. Then this weekend, it’s the defining moments of his year: a two-legged Olympic play-off against Canada in Vancouver.
You can’t underestimate how big a deal this is. Aside from the fact Ireland’s hockey team have only appeared in two Olympic Games — once under the British flag in 1908, latterly in Rio four years ago — you also have to look at the fact this is the third most popular sport in the world in terms of participants, with roots in five continents.
Then there’s the prize, a place at the biggest show on earth.
“The opportunity to coach Ireland came from left field,” Tumilty says of the sudden, unexpected resignation of predecessor, Alexander Cox, who quit after Ireland suffered European championship relegation in the summer.
“Did I want the chance? Yes, but I never thought I’d get it.”
For now, he has it just for the month, but should Ireland — ranked 13th in the world — upset the odds today and tomorrow in Vancouver and defeat Canada, ranked 10th, then it’s hard to see how this temporary courtship won’t extend into a permanent relationship.
“It’s a super challenge,” he says, remembering how he had an even greater one when his coaching career began, managing a Lisnagarvey side populated by his best friends.
“That was a steep learning curve, realising you can’t rant and rave about fitness and dedication on a Saturday, and then pick up the phone later that evening to ask the same fellas if they wanted to go for a pint. I was best man to a couple of the players. You have to draw a line. You need to separate yourself.”
Suddenly there’s laughter between us, a realisation coming from the fact we’d never had a serious conversation before in our lives.
Back when we were team-mates, your correspondent made a failed attempt to deliver a rabble-rousing speech before an important match which had to be cut short when the current Ireland hockey manager doubled over in laughter, overcome by the stupidity of the words.
Even though our lives have changed dramatically since, the seriousness of talking about Olympic qualifiers and juggling a work/life balance just seemed to get in the way of what we really wanted to discuss, the remember-whens and the teenage pranks.
Nostalgia has that effect. It takes you back to sunbright days, to the smells and the sounds of dressing rooms, the smiling faces of people who’ve left us, the wildness and innocence of youth. You might physically move on but emotionally you never really leave that place behind.
But this weekend, Tumilty has to. His country has called and so it’s a plane rather than a bus now he sits on now; at the front rather than the back. The players are a whole lot better, the prize way bigger.
Can it be as much fun, though? No chance. Nothing ever will be.