Craig Fulton comes as the men’s chief coach at a critical time for Indian hockey and will have his first test during the upcoming European leg of the Pro League starting in 10 days. But the South African, in his first interaction with the media, appeared clear in his vision.
“The priority is to qualify directly for Paris (Olympics) by winning the Asian Games and using the Pro League and the Asian Champions Trophy to try and set us up as strong as possible for that,” he told select media on Tuesday, adding that there were also plans to have more European tours to ensure consistent competitive exposure.
In charge for just over two weeks, Fulton already seems to have figured India’s biggest hurdle to be more mental than physical. “I think India is a very exciting team, full of talent and flair, and very difficult to play against at home.
“The challenge is how consistently successful we can be away. Almost all major tournaments in the next two-year cycle are outside India and the objective is to be consistent away from home,” he explained.
Need to be composed
Talking about the team’s strengths and weaknesses, Fulton said, “What I want to focus on is our ‘defend to win’ attitude so that we can play to our strengths. That means turning over the ball and being able to counter-attack because that’s what India is fantastic at, the ability to intercept and move the ball and play aggressively into opposition space. We want to harness the DNA of the team which is fast, skilful, connected, strong in set pieces and penalty corner defence, fantastic goalkeepers.
“What I would like to work on is from a composure point of view — that when we are under real pressure, everyone is calm and confident and knows what to do and play ourselves out of difficult situations and be composed enough to do it.”
Former coach Graham Reid had spoken in similar terms, indicating the need for a mental trainer and Fulton revealed the federation was in talks for one. “I have been in conversation to try to secure the services of a specialist, this is definitely a priority and we are working out something,” he acknowledged.
Admitting that getting a balance of youth and experience was important, Fulton stressed he would be keeping an eye on the domestic talent beyond the national camp. “You are always on the lookout for young talent and then how to bring it in. Domestic hockey yes, I am in touch with David John, he’s involved at that level but I think the step before that is to focus on the Under-21 block of players. We play three games against the juniors now and there is some real talent in that squad. They have their Asia Cup and I will be keeping an eye on that,” he said.
With the Asian Games in less than four months, Fulton was hopeful the team could go all the way at the event but declared that, eventually, it was up to the players to step up while captain Harmanpreet Singh refuted any talk of complacency post the Olympic bronze. “We spend almost the entire year in camps only to get better. There is no comfort zone for a professional athlete,” he declared.
Fulton signed off with what may well be the new motto of the team: Start strong but finish stronger.