The Ireland men’s hockey team are two games from the Olympics.
By tomorrow afternoon, we’ll know if injectors, drag-flicks and side-ins must be eased into our vocabularies as if they were just lying dormant all our lives. By Monday morning, you may be expected to fret over low-percentage short corner routines and ponder grimly whether we can make any impression at all in London if we don’t improve our circle penetration.
Or, if it all goes wrong this afternoon against Malaysia, we may never speak of this again.
That’s where the Green Machine have us now. We cannot know yet if it’s worth investing the time in them, lest they disappear from sight as quickly as they snuck up on us. But they could — if things fall into place against Malaysia today and likely opponents Korea are beaten in tomorrow’s final — be hanging around in our consciousness for a while. The next Kevin O’Brien is waiting to be ordained in Belfield.
Speaking of Big Kev; it may behove us to examine what type of pattern is emerging here; first the cricket, then Irish tennis had its hour in the sun last summer, now the hockey. If the Posh Continuum leads where I think it does, expect a big day out for our croquet heroes sometime soon. Hang on, scratch that; Mark McInerney from Carrickmines made history last July when he claimed the Golf Croquet World Championships; normally the preserve of the Egyptians.
We are living, it seems, in interesting sporting times. Alas, I’m the wrong man to help you make sense of them. I was struck by a loose hockey ball once and that’s as far as it goes. It was — like most hockey balls in the ’90s — propelled by an agreeable-looking blonde girl with a ponytail, whose street clothes were exclusively supplied by Benetton, so I played down my injuries gallantly.
But she remained unmoved and I was lost to the sport. In any case, I assumed, rightly or wrongly, there was an unspoken income threshold set, that you’d need to be driving something that bit bigger, that you might be examined on the intricacies of the Protestant faith.
But don’t mind me, I was innocent enough. Which was a pity really, because the Seoul Olympics had sucked me in a little. The BBC, with Team GB en route to gold, lavished coverage on the game. That there were two players from this island involved — Jimmy Kirkwood and Stephen Martin — didn’t really register but what did were those short corners — enthralling little potted dramas of power, conjuror’s trickery and baffling point-blank bravery on the part of those on the line.
Looking into it the odd time since, one thing that struck me was the lack of money in it. You might have a few quid going in, but you’re unlikely to have it for long if you get involved seriously. This Irish squad ran the fundraising themselves to help foot the bill to prepare for these qualifiers. Many of them play professionally abroad, but the carrot appears to be sporting fulfilment rather than riches. A flat and a living wage in Holland or Germany is about as much as the sport can sustain for a man rubbing shoulders with the best in the world.
Other little preconceptions took a hit along the way. Ireland forward Eugene Magee played minor hurling with Down. Cork twins Conor and David Harte — cousins of Tyrone boss Mickey — hurled for Courcey Rovers.
There is, of course, the aural assault that is Ireland’s Call to consider — yes, the hockey lads endure it too — and all the political and emotional complications that lurch along in tune with it. You hear the odd story of Ireland players pointedly wearing England gear to training, of cheeky talk that the Green Machine is a time machine to true destiny across the water.
But this squad is, they say, more united than any before it. Certainly since one of its best players — Iain Lewers — defected under a cloud in 2008, railing loudly that Irish hockey would never have the structures to make an Olympics.
Lewers is now in the GB squad having waited out a three-year compulsory international sabbatical. If Ireland qualify, his meeting with old friends this summer could be a story in itself. GB’s Mark Gleghorne also, whose exit was more amicable, since his brother Paul remains in green.
That’s if we make it, of course. And there I am already. It’s ‘we’ now. Make room on that wagon.