Irish hockey looks to new dawn with Varian

THE ongoing restructuring of the Irish Hockey Association (IHA) took a significant step forward yesterday with the appointment of 32-year Paul Varian as the association’s first chief executive.

Varian has 10 years experience in the private sector, both in Ireland and abroad. His chief background is in corporate conferences and events and that will be pivotal in implementing the IHA’s strategic plan which was unveiled last year.

That plan also called for the drafting of a new constitution which is to be unveiled to the clubs on December 5. The IHA also plan to unveil a ‘high-performance’ director in December. In addition, an announcement on the new Irish men’s senior team coach will also be made this Monday

The hope is that Varian’s appointment will be the beginning of a new era for a sport that is need of a new impetus and one where bridges need rebuilding in light of the recent stand-off over the interprovincials between the IHA and the Munster and Leinster branches.

Asked if that apparent lack of co-operation was something which concerned him, Varian preferred to talk in general terms rather than alight on the specific incident.

“Obviously there are areas where there are differences of opinion regarding the progression and development of the sport’s competitive structure,” he said at the Railway Union club in Sandymount, Dublin yesterday.

“The Interpros are obviously pivotal in terms of raising the sports’ profile and ensuring that we have the best and biggest pool of players from which to choose our Irish teams. Part of my job will be to liaise between the branches, the players and the IHA itself. It’s important that we have peoples’ views,” he said.

Varian’s credentials for the position seem impressive but results will be the bottom line and an impressive business CV doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it’s just over 18 months since Fran Rooney was ushered into the FAI’s Merrion Square offices with some pomp thanks to his private sector successes in Baltimore Technologies.

Like Rooney, who played for Shamrock Rovers and managed the Irish women’s senior team, Varian can call on a solid foundation in the sport he is about to commandeer.

He played schools and club hockey for Wesley College and Monkstown while various members of his family have represented Ireland at international level, stretching as far back as the 1920s.

His experiences in corporate conferences and events will certainly come in useful for an organisation and a sport seeking a greater public exposure and a larger slice of the corporate pie.

“What is my priority? Funding will be front and centre initially. We have a very busy international schedule coming up next year but there is only so much we can do without enough money, so funding has to be the initial priority.

“The funding from the Irish Sports Council is fantastic for hockey but it isn’t enough for us to rely on it itself. As a sport we must raise more funds from corporate sponsorship.”

That in itself constitutes a major challenge. With the ‘big four’ of GAA, soccer, rugby and golf cornering most of the market, there isn’t a great deal for minority sports like hockey and basketball to fight over. So, what can hockey bring to the table that these other sports can’t?

“I can’t answer that right now. I need to examine in- depth what product we have to offer and what we can bring to prospective partners. It’s not about getting donations from the corporate world it’s about a partnership.

“There is tremendous competition for the corporate and general punter’s dollar. What I do know is a lot of sports would give their right eye for the base which Irish hockey has at club and school level.”

Fair or not, what works against hockey’s hopes for mainstream access is its perception as a middle-class sport. However, rugby has gone a long way to shedding that image and Varian is hoping to help hockey do the same.

“Part of countering that is getting the average punter to games,” he said. “We have a wonderful opportunity to do that next May with the European Nations Women’s Cup in Dublin to showcase the sport to people who might never have played it and to remind others who aren’t involved what they’re missing.”

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