New India hockey coach Craig Fulton seen easing into the hot seat
Belgium's stalwart ex-chief coach Shane McLeod backs his former assistant to absorb the pressure the India job brings after he takes over this month end
India are busy playing in the Pro League in Rourkela while their new chief coach Craig Fulton is wrapping things up things in Belgium before he comes to take charge by the month end. Indian hockey fans are keen how the South African can guide the team to qualification for the 2024 Paris Olympics.
One person who knows the Indian team and Fulton well is confident he will ease into a role that is perhaps the toughest in world hockey.
“He is a pretty easy-going, relaxed and very good with players. He built a very good relationship with the athletes, who enjoyed playing for him. That is one of his big qualities. He is also a big thinker. He studies the game a lot, invests a lot of time making sure his strategies are good, especially against tough opposition,” said legendary coach Shane McLeod.
McLeod took Belgium to the 2016 Rio Olympics silver, 2020 Tokyo Games gold, 2018 World Cup crown and the 2019 EuroHockey Championship, making them the kings of the sport. It was under him that Fulton joined the Belgium set-up in 2018 as an assistant coach after heading the Irish men’s hockey setup for four years. After the major highs between 2018 to 2021, McLeod left to spend more time with his family.
"We (as Belgium head coach) had been watching his (Fulton’s) work in Ireland. We were looking for someone that’s versatile and was very good at working with elite athletes. Craig had quite a bit of success with Ireland and was a high performer coaching wise, so we got him to join our staff," said McLeod, who was asked by the Belgian federation to assist the team at the 2023 World Cup, when they were runners-up. Fulton was the assistant coach.
“When he came in, he had a variety of roles -- in-charge of rotations, subbing. He accepted goalkeeping responsibilities when the goalkeeper trainer was not available. When I was in New Zealand, he took over the striker line and did quite a lot of work with them.”
As a player for South Africa, Fulton earned 195 caps from 1996 to 2005. He played at the 1996 and 2004 Olympics. The 48-year-old, as Ireland head coach between 2014 and 2018, guided the team to the Rio Games, the team’s first Olympic qualification in 108 years. He guided Ireland to bronze at the 2015 EuroHockey Championship and helped them qualify for the 2018 World Cup. He was named FIH Coach of the Year in 2015.
With Fulton as an assistant to McLeod, Belgium won the 2018 World Cup in Bhubaneswar. He also helped Belgium win the Tokyo Olympics gold and reach the World Cup final this year.
He was named Belgium Coach of the Year 2023 after taking Racing to the league title last season. Currently coach of Belgian club KHC Dragons, he has had club stints in England, Ireland and South Africa too.
The big question is whether Fulton can settle down in an Indian set-up infamous for changing coaches regularly.
"Look, everyone in world hockey understands pressure that comes with that type of job. If you are doing well in the Indian team, you get massive support. You get a country behind you. If you aren’t, then it’s quite a pressure cooker,” said the New Zealander.
“But he is a pretty level sort of guy. He won’t read too much into when his team is doing well. I don’t think he will be surprised or caught up with that. He is a strong enough character. Every team has to go through a process and often in that you go backwards and forwards to improve. That will be the hardest thing.”
Asked what will be Fulton’s biggest challenge coaching India, McLeod said: "It will be that of coaching a top 6 side. The expectation is a little bit different than when you coach a side like Ireland that is often satisfied with a draw. With India, they won’t be happy with a draw. They want wins. That is going to be his biggest challenge – to make sure he continues to develop whilst still giving results.”
McLeod is confident Fulton will live up to expectations in India.
“One of his strengths is that he is incredibly positive. He will always look for opportunities and back his team and staff. You can trust the guy immensely. That is a huge strength, especially in coaching terms,” said the 54-year-old.
"He is very good at player management. He will get alongside players and help them develop, which is a massive strength. In a head coach role, he will have that but he will use his expertise as an assistant to help that process.”