Ireland’s two most experienced hockey players of all-time, Stephen Butler and Graham Shaw, confirmed last night they would hang up their sticks from international hockey, following glittering careers which totalled a combined 314 appearances in the green jersey.
It brings to a close a decade in which the Glenanne pair forged a prolific partnership for Ireland, honed over more than 20 years on this island and in Belgium.
Shaw and Butler first played together at U-8 level at the Tallaght club and competed at every level thereafter, going on to win every trophy on the domestic circuit.
After a superb schoolboy career, representing Ireland at every level while also winning a European school’s competition with Newpark, Butler was the first to graduate to the senior team as a teenager back in 1999 – a 1-0 win over Japan.
Since then, the powerful midfielder has broken all individual Irish records, setting the highest caps tally at 163 while also netting 79 goals as he transformed Ireland’s ability to score from penalty corners. His nearest rival for that title, John Jermyn, lies 24 goals back.
Included in that number lie some particularly famous strikes with five hat-tricks in his back pocket, he also fired home twice in Ireland’s only ever win over Germany in 2007 while he struck twice against Pakistan in the World Cup qualifier 2-2 draw.
Shaw’s route was slightly different, attending non-hockey playing Colaiste Eanna with thoughts of a potential, professional soccer career on the cards. But he followed his close friend into the international set-up in 2002, earning his first cap on the same day as David Hobbs in a 3-1 win over Wales.
He was to amass 151 caps over his seven year tenure as a tactically gifted midfielder, captaining the side in the summer of 2006, and ending his career in the role of vice-captain.
Both players cited the ever-growing pressures of the international, now at near professional levels, while staying amateur and having to fulfil full-time working careers.
Commenting on his decision Butler said “After lengthy discussions with family and close friends I have decided to draw a line under my International Hockey career. This has been an extremely difficult decision for me and one that I have thought about carefully since the World Cup Qualifiers in Argentina. The commitment needed for International Hockey is growing each year and I have decided after 11 years of commitment that it is time for me to focus on other aspects of my life.”
Shaw added that the timing, with over a year before the scramble for Olympic qualification begins in earnest, was a key factor.
"Given the natural break in the international competition calendar I believe that now is the right time to call an end to my international career. There is a wealth of young talent coming through the system and it is essential that they are given the opportunity to experience hockey at the highest level while they have the time and energy to put that experience to good use.”
Such know-how was invaluable to spur on club mate Joe Brennan to keep fighting for a place back in the national set-up.
“Had the lads not have been there, I might have found it hard to get back into the international set-up. Obviously, I’m very close with the two of them, playing abroad together and club level for over 12 years. It’s been unbelievable and everyone in our team would say the same; to have two of the best guys in the country to help you out and give all their knowledge
“As captain of Glenanne, it’s been an unbelievable experience for two of the most-capped players ever and what they’ve brought to our club is invaluable. From a personal ponit of view, I’ll sorely miss them in the international team and my best memory was being able to stand next to them during the national anthem at the European finals.“
For national coach Paul Revington, it means he will have to prepare for the 2011 European championships and subsequent Olympic qualifiers without two key players but he was quick to praise the impact of the duo in his first year in charge. The pair delivered a second European ‘B’ level title as well as silver in the Champion’s Challenge II.
Speaking about their decisions to step down, Revington paid tribute: “I have been very fortunate as a coach to enjoy the 2009 season with both Stephen and Graham as key members of the Irish Hockey Team.
Stephen fulfilled an important role for the Ireland Team in the middle of the field throughout 2009 and put in several strong performances during the Champions Challenge II and Euro Nations Trophy during the summer of 2009.
“I will always remember Stephen’s ability to pass the ball beautifully around the field and his important penalty corner strike against Wales to secure promotion to the European A division for 2011.
“Graham provided a young Ireland Team with good technical strength in midfield during 2009 and was a key figure in building the confidence of a new generation of players at international level for Ireland in 2009. Graham provided the Team with experience and drive in his role as vice-captain and this was hugely influential in the Team’s successful summer in 2009.”
Revington added that he could yet find a place for either in the future as part of the Irish set-up, be it in coaching or management. To this end, Shaw has already been helping out with Loreto’s ladies firsts and sees it as a natural progression to move into coaching in the upcoming years.
For now, though, they can reflect on mightily impressive careers with Shaw singling out his time leading the team as a personal highlight.
“It has been an enormous pleasure and privilege to represent my country but the highlight for me personally was being given the captain’s armband during the summer of 2006 – leading your country is an honour that very few people in any sport achieve and I will treasure the memory for the rest of my life.”
Both have stated in interviews with The Hook in the past that reaching a major with Ireland would be the icing on the cake of their careers but, alas, was not to be.
“It has always been my dream to play in the Olympic Games or the World Cup. Like the rest of the squad I gave everything possible to make that dream a reality and was bitterly disappointed to miss out.”
Both, though, will be able to look back on a particularly special time in their lives in which they received support from many different areas; from club to family to all the support networks and coaching staff that have helped them along the journey.
Butler paid tribute to the myriad of people who helped him along the way before concluding: “Playing Hockey for Ireland has been a very special part of my life and one that I have enjoyed immensely. I have made many friends for life and have memories that will stay with me forever.
“It has been an honour to represent Ireland and I have achieved more than I ever dreamed of.”
The pair will continue to play for Glenanne, fighting it out on three fronts in the remaining two months of the season, starting with a key IHL tie against Cork C of I on Saturday while Butler will captain Leinster in the upcoming interprovincials.