Dubbed the “catalyst” for the Irish men’s huge rise on the world stage, Craig Fulton’s decision on Thursday to resign from the role six months out from a first World Cup appearance in 28 years has sent shockwaves through the local hockey community.
Hockey Ireland chief executive Jerome Pels told the Irish Examiner “this came as a complete surprise” as Fulton had only extended his agreement to stay on until Tokyo 2020 earlier this year.
It follows four years of unprecedented success, encompassing a first Olympic qualification in over a century, a maiden European championship medal in 2015, as well as a ticket to November’s World Cup in India.
Fulton will move to Belgium where he will become the assistant coach to the Red Lions, the Olympic silver medalists.
It is not a job Fulton says he sought out or applied for. But the 2015 FIH Coach of the Year is a hot property on the world stage and was a target once the position became available.
For him, the capacity to work with a fully professional squad rather than managing Ireland’s mixture of pro, semi-pro, students, and workers was an enticing one.
“I wasn’t unhappy, I wasn’t looking for anything,” said Fulton. “I have been making plans [with Ireland] for the last two years with the goal of winning a World Cup quarter-final and I was very committed to seeing it.
“But with Belgium I will get more time with players, have my own projects and my own team [with the U21s] while also having the main job is to assist [head coach] Shane MacLeod for the World Cup and everything in their targets.
Such tasks included running fundraisers to get the most from his panel, famously raising €225,000 in the lead-up to Rio to get the squad the preparations they required.
He was the leader of that project, something that goalkeeper David Harte was indicative of his ambition and something the panel followed.
“‘Ned’ was the catalyst behind our Olympic and World Cup qualification which has led to our rise in the world rankings,” said Harte.
“He essentially unleashed the potential in the group and did so in a belief-driven and calculated manner. He’s a winner, plain and simple.
“It’s incredibly unfortunate to lose him just six months from a World Cup. His vision and goals weren’t always able to be matched and supported financially but he persevered and fought tooth and nail to put everything in place.”
For Fulton, he did seek to start later with Belgium and see through 2018 with Ireland but the new job would not have been waiting for him come November.
For now, he hopes Hockey Ireland — who started advertising the job yesterday — can make a sensible appointment to fill his boots. “I hope they don’t change too much, to have a knee-jerk reaction. The system is there and the staff is there to succeed.”
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