Say the names – Owen Nolan or Brendan Shanahan, to a North American sports fan or ice hockey enthusiast, and soon we’ll realise that there could be a case of “they got away.” Belfast-born Nolan won World and Olympic Golds for Canada and was a six-time NHL All-Star.
A bruising point-scoring right wing, he is loved and hated, yet respected. Shanahan’s parents emigrated to Canada, where he was born, and one of only 26 players in the History of Hockey to join the ‘Triple Gold Club” – winning Olympic and World Gold and a Stanley Cup.
He won three of the latter for good measure! Having worked with the NHL after retirement, he is now President of the Toronto Maple Leafs. As late as 2009 both expressed wishes to promote ice hockey in Ireland.
Fall back just under 20 years and an approach was made by a Canadian, Ottawa-based sports agency to the Irish Ice Hockey Association and Mary O’Rourke (the Minister for Public Enterprise with sport). The offer was to find players, preferably young Junior level talents, interested in representing Ireland through birth, parents or grandparents.
At the time the agency had three such Major Junior (top-level of Junior hockey) on their books as well as a list comprising more than 30 potential targets. The project was very simple, envisaging Ireland (voted into the IIHF in 1996) fielding a team in the lowest tier of the World Championships in 1998.
All that they needed was co-operation from the IIHA and Irish government to ensure passports would be issued to those entitled to them and that players travel and accommodation would be paid for in camps and Championships.
The project never had a formal name, though the architect saw a mix of North Americans lining up next to local amateur players with support from Irish media and, eventually, business. At the time there was substantial goodwill from pro managers and clubs in North America – particularly those with an Irish connection – including Doug MacLean.
Ireland eventually made a bow in the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2004 as the credit madness gripped Ireland and with Dundalk’s Ice Bowl as centre of operations, plus there was a professional team based in Belfast (Giants).
The team won promotion to Division II twice between 2004-13, but have since failed to field a Senior team, only last month narrowly avoiding their membership of the IIHF being stripped for not having a home base. Yet when there was the offer from North America in the late-90s Eircom Park was going to be able to host a range of ice events, including a team to play in the British Pro leagues.
The head of the agency in Ottawa turned her focus on more profitable business after flying to Dublin to meet Mrs. O’Rourke, only to be left waiting for an hour to be told she’d have to come back “some other day”. The IIHA were little better.
Instead of having a vibrant national team with an opportunity to have a club play in British leagues and then on into the current KHL (Continental Hockey League), we have a surviving club in Belfast with no island-wide structures to feed players into it.
A chance for Ireland to make money and develop sportspeople and events was lost and will never return. Even in Croatia the long-term vision of their Hockey Federation, with a pittance for years and heavy reliance on diaspora, puts our own authorities to shame.
When Shamrock Rovers qualified for the 2011/12 Europa League it looked like finally an Irish club were not just going to break ground, they were going to pave a path for other ambitious Irish clubs to follow.
The supporter-subscription based model of the Tallaght club had seen them grow back into a top club and making history in Europe was well deserved. Yet since retaining the league title in 2011 and a League and Setanta (and two Leinster Senior) Cup wins, they’ve failed to reach such heights again. Indeed no other Irish team has looked likely to surpass this feat either.
Why? We have the raw materials – players, coaches, supporters. We have the weather for it – especially since the change to Summer football. So what has been done at the top-level and Government to make a difference? Do we wait for the next proposal for an English Premier League club to land in Dublin, or even a leftover Scottish club to look for an Irish refuge?
Since our LOI clubs have nailed their colours to the FAI mast and show no signs of taking the initiative to develop something better, surely this is something that the Government can step in and put together.
South Dublin County Council made a great deal in getting Shamrock Rovers to Tallaght. An excellent move for local PR and Business. League titles and European success, set against the twin backdrops of the Dublin Mountains and Square Shopping Centre gave Tallaght an International and National boost.
Now Dublin City Council is buying Dalymount Park for the best part of €4 million of tax-payers money, yet what will happen next? Shelbourne were knocked back when trying to off-load their money pit.
So what plan is there in place to have Phibsboro welcome big time European competition, or even contribute to the local economy? What plan is there to keep our best young talents in Ireland long enough for clubs or the FAI to sell them on at a substantial profit? If this were a movie a tumbleweed would roll across the screen and those leading us would shift uncomfortably in their seats.
The FAI, as stated in the last article, is a mish-mash of dysfunctional warring tribes, each looking to feather their own sites. None has the greater interest of the game at heart and even less the greater interest of the players and supporters.
Ireland is not alone, for sure. I had the experience of organising a media conference to announce the signing of a local talent, from one of the youth football schools under our umbrella, to a full-time pro contract, only to find out that the school had sold him the day before to Spartak Moscow for $4000.
They did it for two reasons – 1) to get quick cash as they would only be due their development fee if he were sold on, 2) to spite us. Ireland is little better. We need to keep our young players in Ireland longer and develop a proper, functioning National League system. Otherwise we will continue to be in crisis after crisis and our national team dependent on agents and the British game.
But what does this last bit have to do with sports events? Simple. Football needs to be more GAA than the GAA, to allow clubs to move up and down safely and aspire to something better – to develop fanbases, even co-operation with other sports clubs.
The government can drive this very easily. The FAI can then improve further their coaching infrastructure and organisation. Better facilities and competition (as well as organisation of the same) will bring punters in, the level of competition will rise, better coaching and development contracts will keep more young players at home longer – allowing for more stable club development and financing.
Sponsors will be interested, media and advertising will improve and this rising tide will lift clubs into European Group stages almost every season. UEFA Champions and Europa League matches in Ireland will become regular events and there will be a further growth in the domestic game because the Government and FAI drive it forward.
It won’t be done on a borrow and spend method of Shels, and certainly not the money laundering schemes in operation in many European countries (Cyprus, Azerbajian, Romania, Russia). It will be done on a sustainable model that may take two or three years to develop, but will work.
The Croatian model is a decent example, so too Finland. While the model of BATE Borisov could well be studied to show how stability and drip feed investment can result in success.
That Ireland is capable of hosting events of scale is beyond question – we’ve proved it time and again with US College Football, Rugby, Football, GAA. What we don’t have is the full interest of Government to ensure that we not just match, but surpass other countries in hosting events and producing world-class athletes.
Too often it has been leveled at the Irish that we are a nation of “event junkies”, the same as the British, Russian, Croatian (from their own media), yet if we had access to a regular schedule of proper events, well-managed and promoted, with an energy emanating from the calendar – the Six Nations/Heineken Cup and GAA fervour would be found in League of Ireland grounds, and their jaunts in European Group Stages.
Just a little care and support from Government would make Ireland truly eventful.