Ireland finding aces in the alleys as hands-on approach paying off

SOMETIMES they inch forward in awkward shuffles.

Often, they simply topple over with the gentlest push. Yet both are part of the reality of where the Irish Olympic handball team are at and besides, if you don’t start somewhere, you are going nowhere.

Back in October 2011, with Ireland heading south to play Andorra in a World Cup soccer qualifier, Lúcás Ó Ceallacháin decided he’d take the handball team on a similar journey. New to the role of general manager of the association, he hitched up in Catalonia and got talking to Xavier O’Callaghan, an Olympic medallist from 2000 and a key player in the sport within the Barcelona club.

First they chatted about the latter’s surname and concluded his history dated back to the Flight of the Earls. Next up was the Irish problem and O’Callaghan was clear on how to move forward. “Coaching is key,” he said, “and you can dip into our pool if you want. Toni Gerona is a good place to start.”

A legend in the game, these days Gerona is part of the Irish coaching set-up in a part-time role. “He initially said he would come over and have a look,” adds Ó Ceallacháin. “I had warned him but I still think he was shocked.” Little wonder. Early on, he was brought to a court in Loughlinstown and just as the Irish team took to the floor, the coach’s eyes were directed to a group of pigeons that left their home in the rafters and nestled beside him.

An hour later, during the session, a woman came out and told them they’d only booked until five, and had better go before the doors were locked. No warm down. No showers. No hope?

“But in the last year they worked a lot,” stresses Gerona. “It feels really good to be involved because they put it all on the floor.”

Gerona even brought them to the famed Palau Blaugrana within the Nou Camp complex for training and it was there that the Irish team saw the world their coach inhabits. Playing what amounted to a local pub team, they found themselves a couple of goals down with minutes remaining when a time-out was called. Gerona gave them specific instructions, they won and the players left the court ecstatic.

“It was quite an experience,” says Eddie O’Sullivan who took the job of putting together a high-performance set-up. “Barca handball has a budget of over €8m a year, you could comfortably run a provincial rugby club on that. But it’s been interesting in all aspects. It’s all about the support system and that starts with the coach. Then around him you have fitness support, psychology, all these other elements. Then it’s coordinating all that around a team. You give the players the feeling you are giving them every chance. That is the same in rugby.”

What’s different though are the numbers. Their grant from the Irish Sports Council amounted to €40,000 a year and the majority goes on hall rental. There are 10 clubs but only seven play in the league. As for the players, the majority are from abroad, leaving Ireland with a selection of 30 at a push.

“But there’s going to be a seismic shift in Irish sport with the next generation,” continues Ó’Ceallacháin. “You look at our academy lists, we’ve had a handful of kids coming through and the mixed heritage will be great for us.”

But that will take a generation, and right now there is this generation to worry about. When O’Sullivan came on board, they decided after years of friendlies against club teams, it was time to jump into the deep end and enter the qualifying phase for the European Championships. So, they went to Israel and sank. They played three games and finished with a goal difference of minus 96, while after a game against Romania, one of the team recalled going to a ball with two hands, an opponent grabbing it with one, and shacking him as if he were a Jack Russell with a tennis ball.

But results have improved, relatively speaking. Last Halloween, Ireland lined out against Estonia while O’Sullivan and Ó Ceallacháin were in Denmark studying the system of the world’s finest. Over dinner with coach Ulrik Wilbek, a man regarded as the best about, he mentioned their game. “You are playing Estonia? You’ll get eaten alive. There’s no way Ireland will score 10, I bet drinks on it.” In the end, they lost 41-13, a colossal hammering, but Wilbek was left to collect the tab. They’d again inched forward and it made O’Sullivan and Ó’Ceallacháin realise they’d finally started somewhere and now it’s time to go somewhere.

2016 European Championship Qualification Phase One: Today: Ireland v Belgium, DCU, 7pm. Saturday: Ireland v Estonia, DCU, 2pm.

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