Echo Sport Replay: O’Donoghue on European glory, Olympic delight and heartbreak and shattering records

By Stephen Leonard

THERE have been some amazing highs and equally devastating lows for Irish men's international hockey over the past ten years and Knocklyon man Shane O'Donoghue as tasted all of those diverse experiences.

Rising swiftly through the ranks of Glenanne Hockey Club in Tallaght, O'Donoghue became one of the key players for Ireland, shattering the country's goalscoring record in the sport with a massive tally of 110 so far.

Shane ODonoghue of Ireland 1

Knocklyon man Shane O’Donoghue has racked up a record 110 goals for the Ireland Senior Men’s hockey team so far

A two-time Belgian League title winner with KHC Dragons, he was an integral part of the Ireland squad that won bronze in the European Championships in 2015 and, a year later, bridged a huge 116-year gap since the nation had last boasted a hockey team on the Olympic Games stage after they qualified for Rio.

Yet, along with such unprecedented glory, O'Donoghue was to share some heartbreaking moments with his Irish international team mates, most recently their hugely controversial loss to Canada in a two-leg qualifier for the Tokyo Summer Games in Vancouver when the hosts were awarded a much-disputed penalty stroke after calling for a video referral on a last-second tackle.

Certainly it has been an unforgettable journey so far for the '2015 FIH Rising Star of the Year' Award nominee who was quickly identified as a gifted player by his boyhood club Glenanne.

Shane ODonoghue right celebrates with Ireland team mates Stuart Loughrey and Alan Sothern 1

Shane O'Donoghue (right) celebrates with Ireland team mates Stuart Loughrey and Alan Sothern

“It was a very proud moment lining out for the Glenanne men's firsts when I turned 15 years of age” said O’Donoghue who, this season, takes up the new role of player coach for the men's firsts and Director of Hockey in Glenanne.

“I started off in the lower ranks, but I was kind of fast-tracked into the men's first and second squad.

“That was pretty cool, playing alongside the likes of Stephen Butler, Graham Shaw, Joe Brennan just to name a few. It was something I aspired to, playing alongside these guys.

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Shane O'Donoghue

“The Irish Senior Cup in 2010 was a big one. That was one of the early memories of glory with the team. And we were playing against Monkstown who, at the time, were coached by my dad which made it a bit of an interesting match-up.

“It was a good game and we beat them 4-2 in the end. I scored the first goal and set up the second or third one for Richie Shaw. It was one of my early memories playing in a major competition final.

“My senior international debut came in 2011 against Canada in UCD. It was part of a series of friendlies against them. It was a very proud moment for family and friends.

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Shane O'Donoghue

“We narrowly missed out on London 2012. I was in around the mix to be selected and was kind of in the first reserves to step in if needed.

“It was a brilliant tournament in London and it would have been great to play in it, but it was not to be and that was heart-breaking for us all and the lads playing that tournament in UCD, coming that close to qualifying for the first time.

“We lost to Korea. They scored with about less than 10 seconds to go in the game and I suppose the hurt and pain of not qualifying for London 2012 and seeing how successful that Olympics was, just kind of spurred us all on.

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Shane O'Donoghue

“2013 was when I really broke on to the scene in terms of being selected regularly and we went to Buenos Aires in early 2013 to play in the Champions Challenge and we won a bronze medal. That was our first taste of silverware in senior international hockey.

“2014 was very much a kind of kick-on year and 2015 was probably one of our most successful.

“We had been building through various camps and games. We went to the World Leagues which would have been the equivalent of the Olympic qualifier.

 

“It was in Belgium, it was in my club, Dragons at the time which obviously made it extra special.

“We finished fifth which we knew would be touch and go as to whether we would qualify or not [for the Rio Olympics] but in the end it was to prove enough.

“So we went into the 2015 Europeans in London with real confidence and a really clear plan of what we wanted to do.

“We had a really close game against Germany in the group stages, we beat France. We had Belgium in our final group stage game and we drew 2-2, so that was a big result.

“And then we played Holland which was an even bigger step-up and we narrowly lost 1-0. You could argue that we were quite defensive in that game, but it certainly stood to us in the bronze medal game [against England] because, in terms of a defensive display, it was probably one of the best we've ever shown as a unit.

“There were just bodies on the line, players diving here, there and everywhere and then we were just clinical on the day. We ended up winning the game 4-2 and I scored two in that game.

“That was our first real high-end piece of silverware, finishing top-three in a European competition which is a very competitive continent in international hockey.

“I was playing my best hockey, moving over to Dragons and getting the taste of winning the Belgian title over there earlier in the summer.

“I was a key player in the Ireland men's team and that kind of shone through in my performances that summer and as a result I ended up getting nominated for World Young Player of the Year.

“The 2014/15 season was my first season in Belgium with Dragons and we won the title that year.

“It was a bit of an interesting season. We had a fantastic team and a very strong squad, but we never just managed to get a run of results and in the second last or final league game of the regular season against Racing we knew we had to win to have any chance of making the play-offs.

“We were trailing and we equalised. We got a corner on the final whistle and so the goal was for me to bring it home.

“I was nervous, but I said 'Look, this was the reason I came over here' and we ended up winning that game by one goal in the end and that put us into the play-offs which we seemed to turn around dramatically. We ended up winning the final over two legs 10-0 against Leopold and we came away with the Belgian title.

“We won the title again the following season and we were far more consistent”

Having enjoyed huge success on the club front, O’Donoghue and his Ireland international team mates could look forward to competing on the very highest stage of their sport, the 2016 Olympic Games, thanks to a little help from Australia whose victory over New Zealand in the Oceania Cup subsequently ensured qualification for Ireland.

“So when we finished fifth in that qualifying event [in Belgium in 2015] we had done enough to put it in the hands of somebody else now” recalled O’Donoghue.

“Australia are a pedigree team and they generally get the best over New Zealand on the men's side.

“Myself and my girlfirend were up late watching that game in Belgium. It was one of the most nerve wracking moments of my life watching that game up until the final seconds. And then it was almost a 'pinch me' moment when Australia clinched the victory and we knew then we were guaranteed qualification for our first Olympic Games.

“We got over there [to Rio] well in advance and we had a couple of days to soak up the Olympic experience.

“We didn't get to go to the opening ceremony which was a little bit frustrating at the time. We were playing our first game of the tournament the following morning against India.

“It was a game we should have got more out of and we didn't and we ended up losing and putting ourselves in a tricky position in trying to claw our way out of the group.

“It was the top four who qualified from the group and we finished fifth and Canada finished sixth. We had two tough outings, one against the Dutch and one against the Germans, back-to-back games and both teams went on to compete for silverware in the end.

“Argentina, who we narrowly lost out to 3-2 in the final group game, they ended up being the Olympic champions. There was a little bit of solace in that.

“Disappointing not to get out of the group stage and create a bit more history, but we were very proud of our efforts.

“In 2017 we were maybe anticipating a bit of lull after the Olympic Games. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into that campaign. A number of guys hung up their stick after a massive commitment to hockey in this country for many years.

“We brought on a number of youngsters into the squad and 2017 was actually a very successful year for us.

“We went to the Hamburg Masters and we ended up winning that, playing against the Germans who, only the year previous, had come away with a bronze medal from the Olympic Games. So it was nice to beat them on home turf.

“We went on to the World Cup qualifier in Johannesburg and we qualified directly.

“Then were went on to the Europeans later that summer in 2017. It was bit more tricky as we were missing a number of guys due to work commitments and not being in a professional programme which is obviously one of the biggest talking points around hockey here in Ireland.

“So we didn't go with our strongest outfit, but again we gave it our all and we managed to secure Division A status.

“On to 2018, and the anticipation of the World Cup, but in the early part of that summer in 2018 we lost our coach Craig Fulton and that was a bit of a blow.

“We'd had him since 2014 and we'd gone through a four-year stint with the highs of the European bronze medal and going to the Olympic Games during his time. So you have to attribute some of our success to him of course.

“We got a very experienced successful Dutch coach Alexander Cox. He came in quite late around August/September time, not giving us much time to get to know him before we went to the World Cup in November.

“Again for the World Cup, the publicity was built up, obviously off the back of the ladies’ [World Cup] success in the summer which was just amazing.

“We should have be going in all guns blazing, full of confidence and belief and for one reason or another, it just didn't click, it just didn't happen.

“It was over in the World Cup where I broke the goal-scoring record for Ireland to get us back in the game against England, albeit it wasn't enough in the end.

“It was obviously a very proud moment, but it came at a time where we had a disappointing campaign in the World Cup.

“2018 was a really good year from a club point of view. I was back with Glenanne and we were coached by Joe Brennan at the time and he did a fantastic job.

“We won the [EY Hockey] League, To captain the team and be able to lift the All-Ireland League Trophy was something very special. It's always nice to bring a bit of silverware to your boyhood club, the club that gave you so much.

“But [on the international front] last year was probably one of our worst years. Things weren't really working with the Dutch coach who had come in.

“The culture wasn't there and the enjoyment wasn't there and maybe we were outsourced too much. We were training over in Holland a lot which meant were weren't really having much visibility here in Ireland, which is quite disappointing for a sport of our size. The community loves seeing the men and women play here on home soil.

“We did enough in the Olympic qualifying tournament. We finished top two which was our goal, but obviously we wanted to come away with a win there and then the Europeans was a complete disaster to put it very simply.

“Being relegated from that was definitely one of the low moments of my career and definitely for all the guys who played in that tournament.

“Our Dutch coach left and so did his assistant coach and we were 10 weeks out from Olympic qualifiers [against Canada in Vancouver].

“But we ended up turning things around quite drastically and a lot of credit has to go to the current coach Mark Tumilty and obviously his assistant at the time Jason Lee.

“The two guys re-transformed the group, re-energised us going into what was going to be two massively important games against Canada.

“We left everything out there in Vancouver, but look, what happened, happened. It didn't go our way in the end.

“When you look back on the video, you see the clock run down and I'm embracing one of my team mates. We were celebrating and we think Canada are throwing a Hail Mary here, trying to see what they can get out of the video call.

“We didn't really pay any attention to it in the first couple of seconds and then it went on for about 45 seconds to a minute to 90 seconds and we were thinking 'ok, it shouldn't be taking this long here'.

“And then he comes out with some bizarre call to give a penalty and obviously they put it away and we didn't capitalise on the one v ones and I had a chance to win it.

“I had everything right in my head, a script almost of step one, step two, step three and celebrate and it just didn't pan out that way.

“That, without doubt, is the lowest moment in my career and it led into a few dark weeks and months to follow. It was a real taste of how cruel sport can be.”

Despite signing off in 2019 in such heartbreaking fashion, O’Donoghue remains positive regarding the future of Ireland men’s international hockey.

“It's difficult when there's no dangling carrot. We're so used to having a Europeans or a qualifier or even a series of games and there's none of that here at the moment obviously with COVID.

“But credit to Mark Tumilty and the guys who have been organising the new programme going forward, because it's full of youth, it's full of energising high potential and talent.

“There's a new sense of direction where were want to go and the potential is massive.”

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