The 14th-ranked Green Machine are fast becoming a bogey side for the world’s top teams, having beaten higher-ranked Pakistan and Malaysia en route to fifth place at World League 3 in June before dumping world number four Belgium out of the Euros on Tuesday.
The convoluted road to Rio for hockey means a first Olympic games since 1908 remains a real possibility, pending the outcomes of two other continental championships. Meanwhile, the 2-2 pool stage draw with Belgium — following a 4-3 win over France and a fighting 2-0 loss to Olympic champions Germany — saw Ireland make the last four of the European championships for the first time.
Ireland are in bonus territory now as they take on the Dutch — who laid waste to Spain, England and Russia in their pool — but that they are competing at the business end at all is a tribute to their overachieving exploits.
Whereas the vanquished Belgians became a world power by investing heavily in a professional domestic league and gaining plenty of sponsorship support, Ireland are operating under much stricter means.
For instance, England Hockey was allocated £27 million (€37m) in funding over a four year period from 2013, whereas Hockey Ireland received €687,000 for 2015 and future funding is uncertain. In 2012, a team-led fundraising drive yielded €60,000 in a matter of days to send them to a major tournament in Argentina, but similar backing from sponsors has yet to materialise for a sport that’s well down the list in terms of profile and participation in Ireland.
Ireland’s jerseys bear no sponsor’s name — Germany’s shirts have seven companies emblazoned on them by comparison. Craig Fulton’s men do get some support from Dundrum Town Centre, which essentially allows Stephen Barry to maintain his unusual dual role as team manager and strength and conditioning coach. Ireland defender John Jackson’s mother Jen volunteers as team doctor.
The majority of the players are part-timers; Paul Gleghorne took unpaid work leave to play at the Euros, while others such as Stephen Dowds and Drew Carlisle missed this tournament with work commitments.
Furthermore, since 2008, four of Ireland’s top players — Iain Lewers, Mark Gleghorne, David Ames and Ian Sloan — have instead declared for England and Great Britain to further their careers.
None of those obstacles have been used as excuses or halted their progression thus far. The giant-killing attempts continue against a Dutch side Ireland have gained some traction against, without ever getting over the line.
In 2011 they lost a helter-skelter pool game 7-4 after leading early on, while two years later it took a Robbert Kemperman strike three minutes from time to secure a 2-1 success.
Netherlands hotshot Jeroen Hertzberger is loath to take the Green Machine lightly: “The Irish really play as a team and with their hearts so it will be a really tough match.”
Ireland will again look to their world-class goalkeeper David Harte to marshal a big defensive effort; Peter Caruth and Kyle Good’s explosive defensive set-piece running could be important to take down Mink van der Weerden, one of the world’s most lethal drag-flickers.
Fulton’s side have got an unusual amount of joy attacking down the left through Jackson and Kirk Shimmins, who will again hope to win the set-pieces for midfield lynchpin Shane O’Donoghue and the rest of an innovative penalty corner attack to capitalise on.