Irish Journalist Paul O’Hara Catches Up With IOHA President in Qatar

Having recently begun his third three-year term as President of the IOHA, Dubliner Fintan Lyons was in Qatar last weekend as a guest of the IHF as the World Championship reached its climax in Lusail.Fintan is a true pioneer of Irish handball, having been introduced to the sport by his PE teacher Lindsay Pennycook, who went on to establish the Irish Olympic Handball Association in 1975. As well as helping to set up and run the IOHA, Fintan was initially a player and coach with Tallaght Handball Club throughout the 1980s and made several appearances for Ireland in the same period.
Just before the final threw off in the opulent surroundings of Lusail Multipupose Hall, we chatted about his presidency, the state of  handball in Ireland today and how the association plans to mark its fortieth anniversary.
Paul O’Hara: Hi Fintan, so what was your vision when you took on the role of IOHA President?

Fintan Lyons: Well I wanted to help build an organisation capable of running the sport at a sufficiently high level to host international competition. Once we can host international competition, I felt it would be axiomatic that we would put more effort into our international teams.Now, when you’re working from a very low base, resources and money have to be substituted with blood, sweat and tears. So in order to inspire people to do that, we need to create opportunities for them to see a bigger picture.
With Irish cricket, for example, Sky Sports coverage has provided that bigger picture. When Ireland beat Pakistan and England in the World Cup it was such a huge thing for casual fans.
PO’H: I spoke to IOHA coaching director Dr Andrea Ongaro before the start of the World Championship, and his view is that the national team shouldn’t necessarily be the biggest priority for the association – he takes a pragmatic, step-by-step approach based around getting the best playing environment possible for club players in Ireland. What’s your view on the importance of regularly fielding national teams?
FL: I would have a different view. First of all, my job isn’t to be an administrator or a coach. My job is to be President, so my job is to provide leadership and vision as per my job description.
Ireland produces athletes perfectly capable of competing at a very high level in their chosen sports, the same level as these guys in Qatar.

We need to make handball as attractive as possible to this generation of athletes who are much more capable than ever. That’s partly down to resources, but it’s also a matter of visibilty. 

At the moment, we’re doing lots of stuff on this front. For example, Tom Ó Brannagáin is known throughout Europe as the voice of handball. He’s a superb guy in terms of engaging people and talking about the sport – he knows everything about handball.
Now, we need to find a vehicle that Tom can use to engage with the Irish public.
PO’H: What, then, does the IOHA do to make handball a visible part of the Irish sporting landscape?
FL: OK, I do have to talk about problems at this point since we’re talking to our home audience. There hasn’t been enough effort put in, with people saying ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that’.
There’s been a bit of negativity in the past few years, about the fate of the national teams, and it is complete rubbish. I look and these young guys and girls and I think they’re heroes. They’re going out often to certain defeat, but they go out cheerfully and they get results. Those results might be a narrowing of the gap in the scoreline from say fifteen, twenty goals down to four or five.
You’ve seen how the game can go against you if you go behind and I think they’re magnificent for what they’ve been able to achieve.

So how do I communicate to the coaches, officials and organisers that international handball is a worthwhile project? It’s not just a case of being rational, inspiration is also required and we should celebrate our successes, small as they might be.We’re participating in Europe – that’s really big news, ten years ago we couldn’t participate in Europe. We weren’t even on the same stage.Therefore, I see the international element of what we do as being hugely important. When you’re trying to inspire young people to take up handball, they’ll ask: ‘Who do you have? Who can we look at?’ and I can show them Donal (O’Doherty), Chris (O’Reilly), Paddy (McAuley) and other guys who we can put forward as our heroes.We need examples of local team heroes like these to inspire people.

Another important, practical reason for keeping the international dimension going is the €40,000 a year infrastructure programme we’ve just signed with the EHF, which is the same level of funding that we get form the Irish Sports Council.

The IHF and EHF treat us fantastically well, but we also can’t overstate the importance of hosting the EHF Congress last year. We are the only non-traditional handballing country to host it and one of the few emerging handball countries to have hosted anything like this.

PO’H: So what is the biggest obstacle for the IOHA to achieving a more prominent position in the Irish sporting consciousness? Is it money, suitable venues for games, or both?
FL: Money. Also for me it’s still about awareness and creating a ‘can-do’ spirit. I’m fed up with people saying we can’t do this or that. I could use nasty, four-letter words to describe my feelings on that attitude, but money is important too. We’re bringing €120,000 into the sport through the infrastructure programme and I know it might not sound like big money, but to us it certainly is.Ourselves and Scotland signed the very first infrastructure plans at roughly the same time, after the IOHA and yours truly first pitched the idea four years ago. It’s another practical reason why we should engage with Europe.
PO’H: Could Ireland host an international handball tournament? Not necessarily the World Championship, but something bigger than anything we’ve done before? FL: I like to be optimistic. I think the Congress last year has helped raise our standing at home and abroad, though I appreciate that Minister Paschal Donoghue, who spoke at it, is a politician and he was never going to go away from it as a champion of the sport.
We need to put in efficient, day-to-day organisation. Good equipment and clubs for children and adults to play in. We could do some things better but we’re always working on it.In terms of us bringing major events to Ireland, those are less critical at the minute but we always have an event every three or four years. We need to look at scheduling something as simple as hosting a tri-nations with England and Scotland. I’ve spoken to them both and they’ve responded positively.
PO’H: Ireland versus England, and Scotland of course, is a big deal in pretty much every sport. Surely that could be of interest to the casual sports fan and potential new recruits if presented properly to the media? 
FL: Absolutely, I completely agree. If we get a bit of media coverage for Ireland-England-Scotland we could create a bit of a buzz around it.
To cover handball adequately on TV you need things like experienced handball TV producers, a camera in the goal, the spider cam that swoops around on wires would help too. We need good coverage, not just one camera angle pointing down on the game. The Basketball Arena is our best venue at the moment, but not necessarily for that kind of broadcasting.Ideally, we’d need something like the Copper Box Olympic venue in London. They (GB) ran their national championships there last year. They told me it cost them a fortune but the impact on the attendance made it worthwhile. They also made a big effort to market it.
We rely heavily on volunteers, so the more funding we can put in place to free up volunteers, the easier we can host these events.
PO’H: We might not have a Copper Box of our own, but I could see Ireland versus England in the 3 Arena or RDS drawing a decent crowd some day. That’s a good way off, perhaps, so what are the immediate plans for the IOHA this year?FL: We’re forty years going this year. Unfortunately our founder, Lindsay Pennycook, died suddenly and unexpectedly late last year, still a relatively young man.We’re going to have an event in his honour to mark the fortieth anniversary, inviting back as many people as we can from the old days. A tournament might be a bridge too far at the moment, but if we can have a celebration and get all these people together we’d be delighted – that would be a great way of marking the milestone of forty years as an association.