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Stephen Martin: Irish Hockey deserves an apology from FIH but must accept the decision and move on

Diving in: Ireland’s Sean Murray attempts to block Brenden Bissett of Canada
Diving in: Ireland’s Sean Murray attempts to block Brenden Bissett of Canada

By Stephen Martin

While it will be no consolation at all, I can only hope that the FIH world governing body debrief will conclude that a mistake was made and apology given to Irish Hockey for the hurt and disappointment caused by Sunday night's controversial snatching away of a place in next summer's Tokyo Olympics.

Ireland were agonisingly close to reaching back-to-back Olympics in Vancouver. The team and supporters were celebrating qualification for Tokyo only for that opportunity to be cruelly seized from their grasp by a video referral decision on the final whistle, resulting in a controversial penalty stroke being awarded to Canada.

Leading 5-3 from the first leg on Saturday, Ireland were going through at 2-1 down on the night. But the disputed penalty gave Canada the chance to make it 6-6 on aggregate and they went on to win the ensuing shoot-out.

In truth, Ireland will regret not having built up a greater lead in the first game when the margin of victory should have been much higher in lieu of their excellent attacking display. They certainly felt the loss of No.1 goalkeeper David Harte prior to these matches, with elementary errors enabling Canada to stay in contention.

A two-goal lead should have been enough, though it was no surprise when we saw a much-improved performance in the second leg by the Canadians.

Ireland sat back, lost their discipline with yellow card infringements and tried to protect their two-goal advantage. Canada were the better offensive team on Sunday and Ireland were unable to build on the pressure from the previous evening.

While Ireland's defence seemed capable of taking them to a second consecutive Olympic appearance, one could not help but feel it was only a matter of time before Canada might draw level, although not in the circumstances that followed.

With the clock clicking down to one minute, Ireland had the ball on the Canadian baseline - "just keep it there, play the clock down" we said on commentary. But they lost possession, missed a tackle and the ball reached a Canadian forward, James Wallace, in the circle.

Ireland defender Lee Cole had the situation under control, shadowing his player to the baseline, with Wallace falling over in an attempt to cross the ball as the final hooter sounded. The umpires did not see any infringement but the Canadian players called for a video referral (as they are entitled to do) in hope rather than expectation.

In the BBC studio, Nigel Ringland and I watched in disbelief as the video referral official awarded a penalty stroke for an alleged foul in the circle. At worst, the replay showed the Canadian forward slipping on Cole's stick. Unlike in major tournaments, the video angles were limited.

My understanding is that the rules state that a penalty stroke can be awarded if there is a deliberate foul in the circle or deliberate prevention of a probable goal. Neither occurred in this case, therefore it is inconceivable that a penalty stroke should be awarded.

The video umpire, Diego Barbas of Argentina, had two choices - award at worst a penalty corner, or state that there was no deliberate foul and allow Ireland their qualification for Tokyo.

Social media exploded with calls for Irish Hockey to appeal, but that now seems unlikely as the International Hockey Federation (FIH) stated: "Umpires' decisions are final, and as a general principle FIH does not comment publicly on individual umpiring decisions."

Having competed in three Olympic Games with Great Britain hockey, I know the daily effort required by the players, the choices or sacrifices they have to make in order to compete against the best in the world, many of whom are full-time paid athletes. Careers are put on hold to chase the Olympic dream. Players adopt a professional (unpaid) approach to being the best they can be individually and as a team.

Every day they have that dream at the forefront of their minds, time and energy are directed to continually improving their fitness, tactical awareness, technical ability, and mental capacity to perform at their best. Alas, they can only control their own performances.

The FIH will, I'm sure, review the video referral technology available for match officials, and the interaction between on-field umpires and video umpire officials to ensure better processes are in place for the future.

Some players will get a chance to play in Paris 2024, and the experiences in Vancouver will hopefully make them even more determined to get there next time (just as it did for the 2012 team who eventually qualified for Rio 2016).

It will be a long journey home and will take time for the group to cope with the disappointment. Everyone will be looking at what they could have done differently, beating themselves up, but accepting the outcome as soon as possible and starting to look ahead to the future is important now. They will need to talk it through. Resilience has never been more important for this very talented group of players.

In an Olympic year, Ireland will be an attractive team to play in preparation for Tokyo, so hopefully the fixtures list can give some competitive outlet.

The National Federation will have to convince their funding partners, namely Sport Ireland, to retain their funding as a result of relegation from European top-flight hockey and non-qualification for Tokyo 2020.

Sport can be cruel, however Irish hockey has another opportunity next weekend, coincidently against Canada, for the women's team to qualify for Tokyo. A chance, perhaps, to right the wrongs of Vancouver. It will not help the men's team's recovery but would provide a much needed lift for the sport and nation.

  • Dr Stephen Martin MBE OLY; Business Consultant, double Olympic hockey medallist and motivational speaker

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