Irish U-18 coach Andy Smyth and manager Chris McCandless have from their posts with immediate effect this week following a stand-off with the IHA over funding and their views on the long-term good of the sport.
But the IHA have quickly denied to the Hook and BBC Radio Ulster that any Junior Age Group team will be “scrapped”, as suggested was the cause for the resignations by a Belfast Newsletter article yesterday.
With Irish Sports Council funding reduced by roughly €275,000 in the past two years to a new level of €425,000 and the Council’s expressed intention that greater focus go on elite level sport from a more youth-based brief in that time, the funding of the Junior Age Group teams was always likely to feel the pinch.
But the administration of the new structure, which will see every international from U-16 to senior pay a contribution every year regardless of their upcoming programme, has left Smyth and McCandless at an impasse they feel cannot be bridged
Andy Smyth outlined his decision to step down following 12 years of coaching national teams from U-16 up to senior level.
The contention is that the manner in which this levy has been administered could make the sport increasingly ‘elitist’ and unavailable to more people in society.
“I have witnessed many decisions taken which were based on what was best for the players, the parents, supporters of Irish hockey and also the sport itself in order that we move forward and develop.
“Recently, I have serious doubts over whether this is still the case.”
Smyth said: “Figures supplied to me from the IHA for this season are requiring a player contribution of €425 [to include a target of local lotto sales of €175] to play.
“When we received our budget for the year, myself and my manager Christopher McCandless sat down and tried to come up with cost cutting measures to keep these costs down to a minimum. All of these were rejected.
“We asked for the programme to be reviewed. I advised, as an FIH coach with years of experience in Junior Age Group coaching, that we did not need a large program in a non-European year.
“We were advised by the High Performance Director that the programme we had was in his opinion the minimum requirement for this age group. The programme was costing €10,500 and yet they were giving us €4,000 with the rest was to be funded by parent contributions and local lotto.
“We asked for a review of funding allocation. We felt that, as the Irish U-16s are going to Europe, they should get the majority of the matches.
“Currently, they have none going into a major tournament whereas [the U-18s] have nine in a non-European year.
“This review was also rejected under the point that 'contracts' had already been agreed to play these other countries.”
Smyth does believe, though, that in these financially constrained times, such a player contribution is a necessary evil but how it has been conducted has made his position untenable.
“I am not opposed to pay to play. I feel it is necessary in order to secure Junior Age Group hockey in Ireland.
“What I am opposed to is the blanket charging for every squad regardless of what phase of competition we are in.
“We asked that player contributions be pro rata to the amount being held in a squad. We had to raise €4500 euro in player contributions.
“We asked that this be shared between 24 players and not 18. This would help with developing ‘two-year’ players and wouldn't limit the size of the squad.
“We were told that this could not happen. Regardless of squad size we were to charge €250 per player and the excess could underpin squads for the future.
“I am not adverse to charging players if I felt that everything and every avenue had been exhausted with regards keeping the costs down. In my opinion this has not been the case.”
Smyth and McCandless called for cost-cutting reviews of the upcoming series of against Scotland and the Home Countries tournament in July as well as the allocation of kit where a partial agreement was reached.
Speaking in support of Smyth’s decision, McCandless added: "The programme for the U18 boys was set prior to any certainty concerning funding. This has resulted in a 'cart before the horse' scenario with the resulting shortfall in funds being expected from parental contribution.
“I do not and will not accept that the fund raising i.e. local lotto is anything other than an additional levy upon players and their family. This is inequitable and unreasonable especially in light of our head coaches [Smyth] opinion that a reduced program would be acceptable in 2010. His opinion and authority has been undermined and this is completely unacceptable to me.
“The decision to levy may cause hardship and embarrassment to certain players and their parents and contribute to our sport becoming elitist in the future.
“This is not a policy supported by the vast majority of the hockey playing and supporting public and I believe a policy that could cause long term damage at grass roots level at a time when we should be encouraging youth into our sport as one open and accessible to all."