by Stephen Findlater
It’s taking some time for the EuroHockey Nations Championships to come into full focus for Irish goalkeeper David Harte – “an away tournament at home” for the SV Kampong player –as he juggles a wide range of big responsibilities this summer. Within a couple of days of leading Ireland in Johannesburg to their first World Cup qualification since 1990, he was back in his tiny home village of Kinsale where he was preparing for his twin brother Conor’s wedding.
David was on best man duties, preparing speeches and “hammering signposts around Kinsale from the church to the afters venue!”
In between, he was driving up and down from the south coast to Dublin to take part in the Irish Athletes Commission, a group formed this year to represent sportsmen and women, lobbying government for improved conditions. Hockey in Ireland exists in a difficult space with the majority of international players having to combine elite sport with full-time jobs. In addition, the side regularly have to play their part in fundraising their campaigns with the men, for example, having to raise over €225,000 in 2016 to support their own Olympic campaign.
In that space, the two-time FIH Goalkeeper of the Year is the most recognisable face of the Green Machine and has become a figurehead for minority sports in Ireland. “The most important thing for me is I am the only team sport represented on the Athletes Commission,” he said of the situation. “There’s a different dynamic that the group will bring to it with regard to funding tournaments. Outside soccer, Gaelic games and rugby, team sports aren’t really looked after very well looked after. The minister was one of the first to admit that. We are moving in the right direction. As a player, our athletes’ welfare is something we have to look at and hopefully, we can have a positive influence on that.”
Key to this is to try and achieve matching tax breaks for hockey players who work full-time to match the tax relief currently in place for rugby and soccer players. It shows how important a figure the big man has become not just in hockey but in the wider Irish sporting landscape. With those responsibilities taken care of, he is looking forward to the Europeans with an evolving. In 2017 to date, 12 players have made their tournament debuts for Ireland and there could be a few more when the final squad is named due to a broken ankle bone for Eugene Magee and a broken collar bone for Jonny McKee. “We still have guys battling hard with their employers for availability for some extra leave from an already busy 2017.”
At the Wagener Stadium, they will meet Germany in their first game before facing a Poland side they beat 5-1 in March in Belfast in World League Round 2. They close out their group with a battle to relish against England, a side they historically raise their game for. Ireland have a good recent record against the English – and Great Britain – with a three-game unbeaten run in tournament-play, culminating in 2015’s memorable 4-2 win in the Euro bronze medal match in London after 2-2 draws in Boom in 2013 and at the 2016 Olympic qualifier in Brasschaat.
“Try find a sportsperson – outside of hockey as well – in Ireland that faces England in any game that doesn’t get excited! Over the last three, four, maybe five years, we have enjoyed facing the lads across the water. It’s a fair reflection that we have tried to emulate some of the things they have been doing in the past. In 2009, they won it the last time it was in Amsterdam and we want to try and match that!”
They arrive in Amsterdam in an upbeat frame of mind with World Cup qualification in the bag from the World League Semi-Finals in South Africa with their new generation bedding into elite hockey. Ireland missed their first chance at qualification against Spain when they could only score one of 10 penalty corners but they bounced back with a gritty shoot-out win against France and then a first ever win over New Zealand to take the last automatic ticket to India 2018.
“We can take so many positives from Jo’burg with a huge learning curve from missing out on the direct qualification when we actually played our best hockey against Spain in the quarter-final, the best stats, and didn’t win. Then, the New Zealand game – and maybe the French game too – where we were, in certain areas, below par but came away with the win. It’s always a roller-coaster for the emotions in these tournaments. Heading to the Euros, you can only take confidence from it, breaking that gap from 1990 to qualify for a World Cup. We will definitely be in good spirits and positive for the start of the Euros.”