The Kieran Shannon Interview: Irish Women's Hockey coach Graham Shaw

By Kieran Shannon

"Measuring yourself after football – it’s difficult. You lose your identity. You lose what you stand for… Then there’s that big question – 'What do I do?'" - Roy Keane, The Second Half 

BLESSED are the risk-takers, for they shall inherit the national team coaching position.

This past January in DCU, the school’s chair of physical education David Passmore invited a mix of the most cutting-edge sports practitioners in the country to present at its applied coaching masterclass conference: Jason Sherlock from a Dublin football side that had yet to lose a championship game in his three years as team coach; Joe Schmidt’s performance analyst Vinny Hammond; the IRFU’s head of coach development Matthew Wilkie.

To speak about how to handle half-time and other match-day scenarios though, Passmore, previously coach to the national senior men’s team, turned to one of his former players to not so much broaden delegates’ minds as blow them.

Graham Shaw had just led the senior women’s hockey team to qualification for the World Cup but Passmore remembered how shortly before he assumed that position, Shaw had coached the Monkstown men’s team to a third consecutive All-Ireland title. 

In that campaign they were trailing 3-1 in the third quarter of the semi-final when their opponents Three Rock Rovers had two players sent to the sin-bin in quick succession. In hockey you can make as many substitutions as you want, rotating the players in and out as you see fit. Two goals down but now two men up for five minutes – what would you do?

The genesis of Shaw’s strategy came watching another match on TV a few years earlier in which the exact same scenario had arisen.

“I remember shouting at the screen, ‘Take your keeper off!’ That way they could go 11 outfield players against the other side’s eight and look to really dominate the game. Because the side that were ahead were going to go defensive and sit back so it was a real opportunity to outnumber them all over the field.” 

Naturally – and understandably – the coach of the trailing team wasn’t so bold as to try it – if they even thought of it, and subsequently lost.

And so Shaw and his team worked on what they would do if they ever found themselves in a similar situation – if we’re still a couple of goals down in the fourth quarter, we might look to remove the goalkeeper; here’s how we’ll set up, here’s where we’ll look to position you. But it’s one thing talking about it, even rehearsing it – another finally pressing the button and going for it. How was Shaw when the moment finally arrived?

“I was incredibly calm. In fact the Monkstown lads still slag me, saying I was like a kid in the playground, I was so relaxed. When the first guy got sent off I thought about it and then 10 seconds later when they had another guy carded, I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m doing it.’” 

And so he made that peculiar declaration: Umpire, I wish to take off our keeper.

You can imagine the looks he got. From the umpire. From the keeper himself, the Irish number two no less: We’re actually doing it?! Okay, guess we are.

Within a minute Monkstown had got a goal back. The keeper was beside Shaw. I’m going back on now, right?

No, just hold it.

What?!

It was the same even when Rovers went back up to 10 men. Wait.

The umpire shot another quizzical look at him. You still haven’t brought him back on?!

Shaw knew it could go pear-shaped but that if they were to win, they had to win it there and then, so the sensible play was to risk it. Fortune favoured the bold. Monkstown hunted down an outnumbered Rovers defender, won the ball back and scored.

Now, keeper, you can come back on.

It would stay level for the rest of the game and go to a shootout, which Monkstown edged, thanks to a save by their restored goalkeeper.

He who had dared had won.

*** 

As a youngster Graham Shaw played all sports – mostly somewhere central, in the middle of it all. In Coláiste Éanna he played number six for their hurling team and the same position for their footballers that contested an All-Ireland B colleges final, playing alongside future Dublin star Collie Moran.

In soccer he lined out central midfield for Lourdes Celtic with his friend Damien Duff playing just to his left. They'd share the same car to training and games, their parents taking turns as the taxi, and in their last three years with the club they reached the All-Ireland final each time. Then they parted ways: Duff going to St Kevin’s, Shaw joining Manortown. The following season they’d clash in the All-Ireland semi-final. Manortown won, and the final itself, but it was the last game of football Shaw ever played.

By then hockey had begun to take over. He’d made the national U18 team, won a silver medal at the Youth Olympics and was playing senior with a Glenanne team on the verge of dominating the Leinster League. Soon he was called up to the senior national squad and while he would have to wait until he was 22 to make his debut, by the time he retired from the international squad a decade later, he had been capped 151 times.

As much as he admired Duff’s silent steel, especially his capacity to bounce back up unruffled by opponents trying to rough him up, Shaw’s on-field personality was more akin to Roy Keane’s. Pointing here, ordering you to go there. A stray pass or comment and you could expect a glowering look, if not an outright bollocking.

“I was tactically astute but maybe not intact with my emotions. I would have been a bit hot-headed. I had this aggressive mindset that came from playing so many different sports, especially soccer where it was eat or be eaten.

“I always had this inner drive to be the best sportsperson I could be. I always wanted to prove to people how good I was at sport, maybe to make up for other areas in my life like academics where I wasn’t so strong. It didn’t matter if it was 1v1, a 2v2, a 3v3, I never wanted to lose any of those situations.

“From a very young age I was that way. Even now my father would say, ‘You always had to win. And even then first wasn’t good enough. Right away you wanted the next first.’” 

Example. In 2010, shortly after he had retired from international hockey, Shaw had the most remarkable Irish Senior Cup day. First the Loreto team he coached won the women’s final. Then he turned around and was man of the match in the men’s final for a victorious Glenanne. A fortnight later he was about as low as he had ever been. The Irish Senior Cup wasn’t the same as playing for the Irish senior national team. The next first had left him hollow because after retirement he had no idea of what to do next.

“I definitely suffered a while after retirement. It’s not easy to share that but it’s true. You lose an identity and you’re not ready to lose it. My energy was low and I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I was in a sales job, selling school uniforms and I hated it. I didn’t want to do it. I was wearing a suit! That’s not me!

“All I had wanted to do was sport and that’s all I had focused on. I could probably have done with and have liked a bit more career guidance and things like that but at the time that really wasn’t available to us.” 

And so he called upon the next best thing – one afternoon after dragging himself out of bed – something that wasn’t easy in those dog days – he reached out and went over to the house of Paul ‘Revs’ Revington, the man who had coached him with the national team he had just departed.

Shaw poured his heart and fears out and shed a few tears too, but from such a cleansing came clarity. The solution to Revs was blindingly obvious: of all the players he had coached in his time, no one was more cut out for coaching than Shaw.

“I had never really thought of coaching as a career. ‘Professional hockey coach? In Ireland?! How does that work? How am I going to do that?!’” 

He had been coaching for quite a while. Before he headed over to Belgium to play a season as a pro for the Antwerp Dragons, he took a team at St Kilian’s, a German school in Clonskeagh where he was an assistant PE teacher, but it was just a way of making a few extra quid. He gave his father, Victor, a hand coaching the Glenanne women's team. Now he was taking the Loreto women. But though he coached, he hadn’t seen himself as a coach. After the heart-to-heart with Revs, suddenly he had a potential new career. Identity. Purpose. A next first.

The law of attraction instantly kicked in. On his drive home from Revs’, his uncle Jimmy called. Had he seen the ad looking for a director of hockey in Rathdown School? Shaw immediately called the school to inform them of his interest only to be told the closing date had passed but that they would still take his name. Two minutes later his phone rang again. A bit like the piano teacher in Groundhog Day that promptly ushers an innocuous student out the door after Bill Murray presents a wad of cash for a lesson there and then, Rathdown were willing to ignore all other candidates upon realising the piece of paper in the form of a CV that the guy at the door had in his possession. It was still only two weeks since the papers had been all about the man who had won two Irish Senior Cups in the same day. Unlike Shaw, they hadn’t been underwhelmed by his previous first.

Around the same time upon Revs’ recommendation, he was appointed head coach of the Irish U21 boys. And so began in earnest the education of a coach, with the coach probably learning more from his interaction with the players than they did from him.

“Initially I wasn’t Graham Shaw coaching, I was another version of Revs coaching. I was modelling myself totally on his style. Very directive-led. Not at all player-led. I was probably even roaring the same way he roared! But I would reflect a lot on how I would coach and how I would deal with players and I realised that you can’t coach like that all the time.

“I was going from playing central midfield on a men’s international team, trying to drive everyone around me, to coaching these 13-year-old girls looking up at me who could take or leave this new sport I was trying to introduce them to. If I’d kept going the way I was, they’d have just seen me as this male psychopath. So that softened me up, in a good way. And I found that it was more productive and sustainable over time.” 

Within three years those same first years formed the nucleus of a side that won promotion to the top division in Leinster. The following year they made the Leinster Senior Cup final. The men’s national U21s won a Four Nations tournament featuring France, Scotland and Wales. When he took the U18 boys, he immediately helped them win promotion back up to the European As, prompting new senior women’s coach Darren Smith to bring him on board as an assistant.

Under Smith, he further moulded his coaching style, observing how meticulous the Kiwi was in preparing his debriefs, team talks, his training sessions. There were situations that demanded he be more like Revs – this is how we’re doing it – with a bit of Passmore’s polish thrown in as well. For the 2012-2013 season, he was appointed player-coach of Monkstown, a club that had never won an Irish hockey league and hadn’t won an Irish Senior Cup in 99 years. With Glenanne, Shaw had won four Irish Senior Cups, six Leinster leagues, four Leinster Cups and three European Cup Winners Cup medals. He was a winner taking over a team that had never won. But instantly he demanded how and what they would win. Every single Thursday night after training, they would do 45 minutes of video analysis, something they had never done before. It nearly broke them. It made them.

“It was all new to them but they just bought into it straight away because the very day that I walked in I told them they would remember the year for the rest of their lives because I guaranteed that we’d win all the major competitions.” 

That season they won the All-Ireland league and the Irish Senior Cup. The following season they won them again. And again the season after, by which stage Shaw had finished up as a player, allowing the team to drive it on without him. Again, adapting to the situation of the team.

That same 2015 season the Irish senior women’s team under Smith also came to a different point in its life cycle. They were on the verge of qualifying for the Rio Olympics, beating USA, South Africa and Uruguay, but then in a crossover playoff game against world number five China, they were beaten in sudden death in a shootout, having dominated in regular play, forcing 13 corners.

“It was like a death,” says Shaw and you can tell by how his lip quivers that he means it. As a player himself he missed out on the 2008 Beijing Olympics by goal difference. In 2012 the women’s team had similarly gone so close but so far. China was nearly too much to take. 

“I had to go to my sister’s wedding the day after we got back and I wasn’t there. It was down in Kenmare but my head was somewhere else.” 

It was too much to take for some players, or at least the next competition for the team was too soon. Just four weeks after the Chinese heartbreak, the team were thrust back into action, having to finish in the top two of an eight-team tournament to win promotion back to the European A level. Only half the team from the China game reported for duty in Prague.

It was the most emotional and challenging week of Shaw’s coaching career. He was now the head coach, Smith having returned to New Zealand where his family felt more at home. Before the team got onto the bus for their opening game, tears were shed in the hotel team room.

“I was just so full of admiration for the senior girls who had committed again. Girls like Cliodhna Sargant, Shirley McCay, Nicci Daly. Because Rio hadn’t been their first disappointment. There’d been London as well. And yet here they were, ready to go again.

“Normally as a coach you like to debrief and show a few mistakes and make corrections. But that week I wasn’t sure if people were able for that. It was all arms around the shoulders, constantly reinforcing positivity. And luckily there weren’t that many mistakes to show anyway.” 

Ireland won the final, beating the hosts 6-0. They were so good that day, even the large Czech crowd were slapping fives.

It wasn’t like that erased Rio. With that festival in the sun yet to take place for another year, it still overshadowed things for a while. An invite to a tournament in New Zealand where six of the seven other teams were Olympic-bound helped refocus and reenergise the group.

The team also adopted a new style of play – quicker, more free-flowing, athletic, attacking. Shaw is friendly with Danny Kerry, coach to Olympic champions GB, and can see that how England set up now to how they did in Rio is considerably different, and vastly different to how they won bronze in London. 

Change has worked for GB and it’s worked for Ireland. Last winter in South Africa they trailed India 1-0 at half-time in the decisive qualifying game and were without their goalkeeper for 10 minutes but Shaw just stuck to the protocol he outlined to the delegates at that DCU coaching masterclass. Two or three minutes of complete silence while the players get their breath back and fluids on board and thoughts together. Let each line huddle together and problem solve. Then the coaches interact with them and identify three key tactical points. The most fundamental thought though was more motivational, and one that which Smith articulated before they headed out. “We are going to win this game. Stick to those three things on the board and we will win this. Nobody is going to take this off us.” 

They won 2-1.

And so six years on from the heartbreak of missing out on the Olympics, a core of the team find themselves finally in London, playing in a major tournament. Their final pool game is against hosts England, coached by Kerry. They’ll also be going up against India again, who have improved a lot, says Shaw, from winter. Today they face USA in the opener. Ireland are one of the few teams in the 16-team competition whose players are mostly amateur but there has been little amateurish about their preparations. A few months ago they played England to familiarise themselves with the match venues and hotels.

“Instead of spending days getting used to an environment, you’re arriving at an environment you already know. Even little things – how long does it take to get from the hotel to the venue? Where can I walk? Where can I relax and get a coffee? Where can I get away from the sport without fatiguing myself?” 

When your whole life has been one big journey to arrive at this destination, why not make it first class?

Though with Shaw, there will always be a next first.

• Ireland’s opening World Cup game, against USA, tips off today at 6pm and is live on BT Sport 2 (coverage starts 5.45pm)


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