Ireland’s unlikely lads ready for action

One hundred and eight years — that’s how long it’s been since an Irish hockey team competed in the Olympic Games, a drought which is finally set to end this summer.

One hundred days — that’s how long the current squad has to wait before they take on India on August 6, completing one of the most unlikely journeys in Irish sporting history.

After all, this is a team with just seven professionals in its squad of 27, one which operates on a shoestring budget compared to international rivals, and one which despite qualifying for the Games last October, now has to resort to fundraising efforts to give themselves a fighting chance on the grandest stage of all.

“A lot of guys are taking leave from work or taking a year out from college,” says team leader, Stephen Barry.

“It’s a hit they’ve taken to get to their dreams.”

One of those is forward Mitch Darling, who took a sabbatical from his solicitor’s job in Dublin since Christmas to give himself the best chance of making the final squad of 16, which will be announced in mid-July.

The 28-year-old has been playing for Ireland for 10 years now, and divides his week between training with the Irish team in Dublin from Monday until Wednesday, then flying to the Netherlands for the rest of the week, where he plays for a Dutch professional club.

“It’s been nice to focus solely on hockey this year,” he says. “Some are combining jobs with training and it’s very difficult.

“There’s been a lot more focus in the squad the last few months. We all have the Olympics in the back of our heads.”

Despite players being dotted at several clubs around Europe, the squad has made an increased effort to train together in the build-up to the Olympics, as the domestic hockey season now draws to a close.

However to compete with the best, they must play the best, a demand which is proving expensive as they didn’t receive their requested funding from Sport Ireland to cover the costs of hosting or travelling to international games.

“It’s a huge opportunity for a corporate sponsor,” says Darling.

“There will be huge exposure in the next few months. We’re crowd-funding and doing fundraiser events to generate the deficit, so we can commit to games with Germany and Spain.”

With Ireland drawn alongside the two teams which finished ahead of them at the European Championships last year — Germany and the Netherlands — Barry hopes such high-level games on the build-up will make them competitive at the Games themselves.

Four teams from their group of six will advance to the quarter-finals, and Barry believes passing that first test is the least of their ambitions.

“These guys are boxing well above their weight,” he says.

“It’s a lifelong dream for them to go to Rio. Even though we’re ranked fifth in our group, it’s realistic to reach the quarter-finals, and there’s no reason we can’t make the semis.

“From there, anything can happen.”


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