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Hockey stars plan to turn tears into cheers

Nine Ulstermen are ready to live Olympic dream in Rio

By Graham Hamilton

It was all doom and gloom on that fateful day in 2012 when Korea scored with just eight seconds left in hockey's Olympic qualifying final in Dublin to deny Ireland the chance of competing in the London showpiece.

Grown men don't often cry but many tears were shed that day as they missed out on a golden chance to play in one of the greatest sporting events.

Fast forward four years and it's all smiles and optimism as the Irish squad - with nine Ulstermen aboard - are bedded down in Rio and ready to realise their dream.

This was the last chance saloon for around half of the panel who are now 30 or over, but their superb fifth place finish in the World League semi-finals in Antwerp earned them their place on the plane to Brazil.

"Missing out at the death for the London Olympics was the lowest point of our careers," said Ulster's most capped player, Banbridge's Eugene Magee as he collected his kit ahead of the Rio trip. "We were devastated and a lot of tears were shed.

"Many of us could have stepped away but instead we used it as fuel to make it to Rio, and now we've done that.

"It has taken hard work, considerable preparation, numerous training camps, and going almost full-time.

"You have to have understanding employers to get time off to do all the preparation, and don't forget a lot of us have wives, family and mortgages.

"It's a major sacrifice to concentrate on one goal but if you are to focus on one, then it has to be the Olympics ... after all, it's the pinnacle."

Magee is joined in Rio by fellow Ulstermen John Jackson, Jonathan Bell, Paul Gleghorne, Peter Caruth, Michael Watt and Chris Cargo in coach Craig Fulton's 16-strong squad while Timmy Cockram and Michael Robson are among the three travelling reserves.

Most of the players have family members travelling out to Rio, and in Paul Gleghorne's case he'll run into bigger brother Mark around the Olympic Village - he is in the Great Britain squad having moved to England and switched allegiance eight years ago.

But just how good a chance do the Irish team have of making the medals, or indeed the knock-out phase?

Well, realistically, very little.

But then many critics never believed they would have qualified from the World League semi-final series, or have finished in bronze medal position at the Europeans.

Coach Fulton has changed the players' mentality since he took over, his man-management encouraging them to believe they can achieve.

Now the Green Machine take on the world's top hockey nations on a regular basis - he believes his players will never get better until they consistently play the best.

Mind you, it's hard when most of the Irish players are trying to hold down jobs but yet take on nations whose players are professionals.

Yes, six of the Irish squad are now based abroad but the bulk still live and play here and have been juggling between their jobs and a hectic pre-Rio schedule which took in training camps abroad, a considerable number of games against top opposition and weekly four-day training camps here over the past few months.

There are those who are grateful to employers for allowing considerable time off; those who took a year out of work or university; and those who took unpaid leave to ensure their Olympic dream would come true.

All this commitment deserves success but the reality is the Irish are ranked to finish fifth in their pool ... and they need to finish fourth to reach the knock-out phase.

That won't be easy when you consider they are 12th on the world ladder but will face World No. 2 Netherlands, Germany (3), India (5), Argentina (7) and Canada (13).

But there is a special bond among the players who have endured a lot - remember when there wasn't money to send them to Argentina in 2012 but the hockey family coughed up to ensure they made the trip ... and they came home with bronze.

And once again they've had tremendous backing from fans and sponsors who contributed towards the €225,000 shortfall for their Rio preparation.

Before the squad flew out, Garvey defender Jonathan Bell praised the work that has gone on behind the scenes to prepare the players.

"We're very fortunate to have had the full package of strength and conditioning and nutrition, and it has helped us excel physically," he said.

"We are different animals to what we were two years ago!"

And Chris Cargo, who started his career with Bangor before spells in England and Belgium, reckons their appearance in Rio will drive hockey forward over the next few years.

"This will inspire the next generation - just like it did when Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood won gold in 1988 - and hopefully many kids will see it as an enjoyable and skilful game worth pursuing."

Belfast Telegraph


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