Irish hockey’s future reaches a critical juncture this weekend with clubs set to vote on whether to expand the national league.
Introduced in 2007, most players and clubs agree the Irish Hockey League – a seven-game competition spread throughout the season – has been a positive development for the sport in this country. Debate in recent years has centred on whether the competition should expand to a full-season, 18-game format, taking participant clubs out of their provincial leagues.
Forums were held during the consultation process earlier this year by the Irish Hockey Association’s competitions committee in Dublin, Cork and Belfast, with travel costs, meritocracy and the need for different competition formats on the men’s and women’s side among the flashpoint issues. The IHA believes it now has a proposal which goes some way to solving the majority of concerns, and clubs are being asked to vote for or against a “full IHL” at an EGM in the Stillorgan Park Hotel on Sunday.
The mood for change has weighed heavily on the sport but the story has taken plenty of twists as the EGM hovers into view. Ulster Hockey, seemingly unhappy with the consultation process, have asked their clubs to stay away from the vote.
“We wish to reiterate that all in Ulster are agreed that a change is needed at IHL level, so we are not against change at all,” said Ulster Hockey’s executive manager Angela Platt told The Hook. “We simply want to be consulted properly and effectively in the whole process.”
Ulster say the IHA has not engaged with them over their grievances, which largely surround their schools structure. Many of those games are played on Saturday mornings with pupils and teachers both doubling up to play club games later that day.
However, 10 clubs from the northern province have confirmed they will attend, ensuring a quorom will be reached, although a low turnout at a Leinster forum to discuss the proposals on Monday night suggests there is a weariness of what has been a drawn-out debate.
Those directly involved continue to be passionate about it all. A range of top players have voiced their support on social media while for their part, the IHA has produced a steady stream of articles on their website in recent weeks with stakeholders from all four corners of Ireland – including both national coaches, Darren Smith and Craig Fulton, as well as SFH’s own Andy Gray – adding weight to the proposal. Today, The Hook has published a piece featuring positive noises from Bandon’s Ali Smith, UCC’s Shrew Power and Midleton-based IUCHA president Chris Blaney.
Banbridge coach Mark Tumulty used the example of his side’s farcical 14-0 win over Belfast Harlequins – Bann lost last year’s Ulster league on goal difference – as proof that his side should instead be playing against the best from around Ireland.
“It has to be an All-Ireland League,” he told the Banbridge Leader. “If you came to see (that) game, 14-0, why would you come back?
“I know it’s a selfish view and there or other issues but Harlequins would be better playing in a decent league without the top teams there. It doesn’t do them any good either. I’d rather have played Three Rock Rovers, lost 2-1 and had a good game of hockey. I went home thinking what’s the point.”
David Harvey, one of numerous Cork men plying his trade in Dublin with Pembroke Wanderers, backs up this argument.
“Having played with Cork C of I in the Munster league for a number of years, I know how frustrating it is playing in a league where you only have two or three competitive games per season,” said Harvey (pictured below).
“Almost every week I have a tough game in the Leinster league with Pembroke. The future of Munster hockey is dependent on a full IHL; top Munster teams are well able to compete on their day and the reason they don’t beat top Leinster and Ulster teams regularly isn’t down to ability. It’s because they are starved of high-quality games in their own domestic league.
“The pace of the game in Leinster and Ulster is much higher and from what I have seen from my time in Leinster, the teams are much more tactically aware than those in Munster. If Munster teams were exposed to this standard of hockey on a weekly basis, it can only be good for them and for Irish hockey.”
Inez Cooper, chair of the IHA’s competitions committee, believes that without a flagship national competition, the 100,000 schoolchildren who have played hockey in past year in the Republic of Ireland are devoid of something to aim for.
“At times, I think we are like an underground movement. We need to create heroes, attract sponsors and bring more money in through sponsorship and the Sports Council to increase the visibility of hockey. Funding currently is really poor compared to other sports. When we see women’s rugby getting in €1.3m with 3,700 adult players, we’re missing a trick and are not helping to promote ourselves.”
Cooper cites the Belgian example as one Ireland can follow. In the wake of professionalising the men’s league there, they are now ranked in the world’s top four having missed Olympic qualification for 32 years between 1976 and 2008. Participation rates are also up – a decade ago Belgium had a playing population less than half the size of Ireland’s, but is set to overtake this country in the next year or two.
The conjecture will matter little if clubs don’t turn up to vote on Sunday; the game’s future at the elite level is in their hands.
*To find out more about the proposal and details about this Sunday’s EGM, click here