Directing change from bottom up

As the hockey club championships come to Cork this weekend for the first time, the sport as has just taken its first tentative steps into a new era of change. Leading the way is the Irish Hockey Association’s new chief executive, Paul Varian. He tells Declan Colley how he sees the sport developing.

THE new water-based hockey pitch at the Church of Ireland club’s facility at Garryduff is symptomatic of the changes happening within the sport in this country.

The magnificent facility reflects the fact that hockey as a whole is undergoing massive change - change which will bolster the sport in Ireland and in an international context.

The fact that Garryduff this weekend hosts the men’s and women’s club championships - the first time they have ever been held outside Dublin - illustrates that while hockey is an established sport in this country, with a playing population of over 40,000, it is also in search of a new domestic impetus and international success.

Consequently, Paul Varian is a man with a lot on his mind. However, Ireland’s new hockey supremo is also a realist and knows making Ireland an international hockey superpower means dealing with many thorny domestic issues as well.

Armed with a four-year development plan, Varian is intent on righting past wrongs and providing our international teams with the wherewithal necessary to succeed and he wants to do so by creating a vibrant game at schools and club level.

“Hockey has not had the profile or the level of achievement that’s commensurate to the level of participation that exists in the sport,” he says.

“Change has been needed in the sport across all areas and people are now hungry for that change. My job as the chief executive is to implement the IHA’s four-year strategic plan, which is the basic blueprint for change over the next four years.”

Traditionally Irish hockey has been tragically underfunded, but the new man in charge aims to change that.

The recent announcement, for example, that high-profile property developers Howard Holding are to sponsor this weekend’s club finals in Cork, is a step in the right direction.

“Yes,” Varian admits, “fundamentally our sport is underfunded but if you have the proper financing, I’m convinced you can do a lot with this sport because the infrastructure is very good. The club and player base is very good, the school participation rate is very high, the talent levels are exceptionally high, so all the key ingredients are in place.

“Nevertheless, the one thing we cannot do is alienate the key factions in our sport, which are the clubs, the schools and the players. We cannot head down a path which would be detrimental to those elements. That being said, the level of talent that exists here has to be moved from the point where we get results rather than having good potential.

“We have to get serious about planning our high performance strategy in a more coordinated way so we ensure our elite players, who are identified at U-15/16 level, are treated and developed as elite athletes and managed in terms of their overall development - not just stick and ball on the pitch, but that all the skills and competency to be international players are trained into them so that by the time they are in their early 20s, they are fully rounded international athletes.

“If you are serious about international sport and if you’re serious about competing with the Australias, the Hollands, the Germanys, that’s what you have to do. But it cannot be at the expense of the club system.

“There is discussion about competition reform going on and I think it is widely agreed by the hockey community that we need to move the sport forward. There are many opinions as to how that is manifested, but it is up to the IHA to ensure all the stakeholders’ interests are managed as best as possible, not least of which are our international teams.”

The model the IHA come up with is still some way off yet, because it is still in the consultative phase. But Varian says when change is decided upon, it will be implemented quickly.

Hockey also has a perceived problem with ‘superpower’ clubs who dominate their provincial tournaments and the IHA chief says this is a big problem because those clubs don’t necessarily benefit, while the situation makes it very hard for new clubs - and their players - to develop.

“Polarisation of clubs is a very important agenda and a criteria for which model to go forward with and what I want to see is the creation of equitable tournaments so the elite players compete with elite players and the weaker players - no disrespect - compete against similar grade players. We want clubs to win trophies, get to finals and get excited, rather than getting beaten 12-0 and wishing they’d never taken up the game. That’s something we have to address.”

Varian is convinced it is feasible for Irish hockey - both men’s and women’s - to compete at the upper end of the international spectrum and he says the appointment of Dave Passmore as National High Performance Director is key to that happening.

“Dave’s plans are basically designed around using available resources in a way that is coordinated and structured. So, as opposed to an U-16 player going to U-18 level and playing a completely different system under a different coach where all they are taught to do is win games, that player will be introduced to areas of the game that are professional in terms of how players should be. This will take in strength and conditioning, lifestyle management, sports science, discipline, tactical awareness and psychology to try to make players better.

“There is no reason why we cannot compete with top nations. Ireland already has a reputation of being able to compete very well against top sides, but we haven’t been able to put a series of high performances together to allow us win a competition. It is about consistency across a whole tournament and putting results together over a longer period of time.”

With Ireland having been shortlisted to host the pre-Olympic qualifying men’s competition ahead of the 2008 games in Beijing - we are competing against Switzerland, New Zealand and France for the right to do so - the Irish men have something very definite to aim for.

“If we got a team to the Beijing games,” Varian says, “then Ireland would go ballistic,” and the nature of the sport could change overnight.”

However, it’s one step at a time and in many ways, the first of those steps takes place this weekend.

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