Barely two weeks into his new role as head coach of Indian men's hockey team, South African Craig Fulton is pretty clear about his goals -- to make the side number one in Asia and qualify for next year's Olympics in Paris. (More Hockey News)
Fulton, who witnessed the rise of Belgium hockey since 2018, wants India to first dominate Asian hockey and then gradually translating it into the world stage.
"What I have in my head is to be the no.1 team in Asia. Definitely, it is one of the goals which we want to achieve and be there consistently and then push because if we are sitting on world ranking 4 and 5, you need to consistently try to reach the podium," Fulton said in his first media interaction, held virtually.
"When you have built enough experience and have a game plan which suits all the individuals then you can definitely push on to get into the finals and win them.
"The priority is to qualify for Paris Olympics through the Asian Games. This is our no.1 priority. By using the FIH Pro League, the four-nation in Spain and then the Asian Champions Trophy we want to really set us up to be strong and be in a position to qualify straightway," he added.
Fulton has achieved exemplary success in his previous stints as coach. His rise to fame began with a stint as Irish men's team head coach between 2014 to 2018 when the team qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
That was the Irish team's first Olympic qualification in 100 years. The historic feat also won him the FIH Coach of the Year award in 2015.
Fulton also worked as assistant coach with the reigning Olympic champions Belgium en route to the gold medal in Tokyo. He was also part of the Belgian coaching staff during their 2018 World Cup win in Bhubaneswar.
The South African was candid about his assessment of the current Indian team, saying there is a gap between it and the top two or three teams in the world.
"We are not the best team but we are a good team. We have some work to do but at the same time we are very difficult opponent to play, not many teams like playing us," Fulton said.
"But realistically the place we are right now, there is a gap between us and world no.1 and 2 teams and we need to work (to bridge the gap)."
Fulton's first assignment as India head coach will be the European leg of the FIH Pro League, beginning May 26.
India will hope to continue their winning momentum as they take on formidable Belgium and Great Britain in London, followed by matches against the Netherlands and Argentina in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.
In their previous Pro League outing at home, India remained unbeaten against reigning world champions Germany and Australia which helped them top the points table.
"The bottom line is that we have found a bit of confidence (from FIH Pro League matches in India). The group did well, some tactics changed after the World Cup which I can't comment because I wasn't there. Hats off to them to get Indian hockey up in the rankings and get a bronze in Tokyo. Unfortunately, it didn't work out in the World Cup for whatever reasons," Fulton said.
"By using the Pro League, the four-nation tournament in Spain and then the Asian Champions Trophy, we want to really set us up to be strong and be in a position to qualify straightway (for 2024 Paris Olympics)."
Fulton isn't interested in tweaking India's structure of play much but wants the team to give more emphasis on defence while maintaining its attacking game.
"Personality wise I like to have my defensive structure in place because that is the first step of attacking. If you want to play counter-attacking style that doesn't help you. But at the same time you can't sit in your own half, you have to press the opposition, put them under pressure, you need to do both.
"I am a very forward attacking coach, I like to score goals but I also like a solid defence," he said.
He is well aware of the high pressure associated with his new job but he is taking it in a positive stride.
"It goes without saying that Indian men's team job is one of the hardest in world hockey in the sense of expectations. But the way I look at it is I expect and want to do well. I am not coming here half hearted. I am really positive to be in this position and I liked what I have seen in the team.
"I am looking forward to the year ahead, specifically the build up to the Asian Games to make that final and qualify."
Fulton also revealed that he was in talks with Hockey India to avail the services of a psychologist, a demand which India captain Harmanpreet Singh also vouched for.
"I am aware of that and is in talks with Hockey India to get services of a specialist in that field. In Belgium, it's slightly different, they don't have mental conditioning coach, it's more of personality testing they do. But this is a priority for us," he said.
Harmanpreet said: "It would be great to get the services of a mental conditioning coach as the coach (Fulton) said, but it all depends on the federation."