Ireland’s ‘Green Machine’ prepare for more twists in an unlikely tale

1 Dec

Published by TheScore,ie, 1 December 2012

IT’S FUNNY HOW things work out.

It’s summer in Quilmes, a day which should peter out into a mild Saturday evening, but Ireland will face some local heat when they take on hosts Argentina in the Champions Challenge I semi-finals.

It’s a tournament that they very nearly didn’t make it to. But for an against-all-odds fundraising blitz which tapped into a small but feverishly committed hockey base, they wouldn’t even be here.

Yet now they are 70 minutes away from the final, from valuable points to further their rise up the world rankings, and from a statement to underline the power and potential of an enduring, engaged grassroots.

Back at the beginning of October, the road to Quilmes hit a dead end before the Green Machine ever got its engine started. There was a worrying hole at the top of the senior men’s structure left by the departure of Paul Revington, the 2011 FIH Coach of the Year who guided Ireland up to 15th in the world as well as to the brink of a historic place at the Olympics.

Their London dream dashed by a cruel swipe of a Korean stick in the final minute of the final qualifier — on home soil in Dublin, no less — Revington left for pastures new and took up an offer to coach Malaysia. The need to find a candidate with the vision to build on his good work became more urgent when long-serving team manager Peter Jackson also stepped down.

But what followed stunned Irish hockey when, in a move that was as sudden as it was unilateral, the Irish Hockey Association withdrew the team from Champions Challenge I. The players were as shocked as anyone — they had not been consulted in advance — but the IHA explained that “after much soul searching,” they could not see how they would be suitably prepared in time to compete.

When the fog of confusion lifted, it became clear that financial reasons as much as any other consideration lay at the heart of the decision. An extra €108,000 had been allocated earlier in the year to give both the men’s and women’s teams every chance of qualifying for the Olympics (the women’s team were also beaten in their qualification final). The disappointment had faded but the gaping budget deficit remained.

Future proof

With time running out for a change of mind, the team launched a fundraising appeal in a final desperate attempt to cover the costs of competing. The “Green Machine” nickname belongs to the team but it might well have applied to the hockey community who, unwilling to consider the possibility of pulling out, put their hands into their pockets. The trickle of fives, tens and fifties became a flood until four days later, they had raised in excess of €60,000 and also secured corporate sponsorship from four companies.

The road to Quilmes was clear again.

Tonight’s semi-final is a grudge match of sorts against an Argentina side who beat them 4-2 in the opening pool match, the first game of Andrew Meredith’s reign as head coach. In sharp contrast to the gloom of the interminable recruitment process, there is a definite optimism about this new era in Irish men’s hockey. “A world-class appointment” were the words of captain Ronan Gormley, no understatement considering Meredith won Olympic gold in both Beijing and London during his six years as Germany’s assistant coach.

Considering the short lead-in time players and coach had together, Ireland’s slow start in Argentina was no real surprise. Heading into tonight’s semi-final they have momentum on their side, bouncing back from those opening defeats to Argentina and Japan to win against South Africa and in their quarter-final against Poland.

And still a story rife with twists could have more plot turns before the weekend is out. In today’s first semi, Paul Revington’s Malaysia face South Korea, a team they have already beaten once this week. Come tomorrow afternoon, Ireland’s new coach Meredith could find himself in the most unlikely of finals against the man who gets credit for most of the country’s recent improvements.

What better way to herald the future? But first, Argentina.

It’s funny how things work out.

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