Glenanne and Pembroke Wanderers will hope to break new ground this afternoon, both bidding to become the first Irish club to reach the quarter-finals of the EuroHockey League.
Their exploits in the group stages last October were enough to give Ireland two KO16 places in Amsterdam for the first time but they enter a whole new level of competition this time round.
He is one of three players – brother David and Joe Brennan the others – to make both trips and while his side had a rough time on the pitch, losing to Harvestehuder, Cannock, Grunwald Poznan and Scotland’s Grange.
“Very fond memories. That was a catalyst and a kick-start we needed to get to the top of Irish hockey for the next ten or 12 years. That really helped us, getting the experience, playing the top clubs.”
The Glens face 2008 finalists HGC but will be buoyed by the Dutch club’s poor domestic league form and player-coach Graham Shaw admits it was the draw he had hoped for.
Nonetheless, he is well aware of the task ahead: “If I’m honest, this would be one of the slightly friendlier draws. But they still have the experience of Kenny Pereira, Rob Short [who surpassed the Canadian national caps record against Ireland in midweek] and Rodrigo Garza who has played in three World Cups and won a bronze medal.
“On form, it’s not a bad draw but when you look at their players, you’ve got to respect that experience.”
Shaw has just one injury worry, that of combative defender David Keogh but will be hoping his side can, perhaps, profit from some Dutch over-confidence.
“You never know what they’re going to do against a side like ourselves because they’re not used to playing against our style.
“The way the Dutch are, maybe they’ll be a little bit cocky going into it, might under-estimate us a little bit and we can catch them off guard. They’re definitely not used to our style, it’s completely different and may take a little bit of time for them to adjust.
“If I’m honest, this would be one of the slightly friendlier draws. Before the draw, it would have been one of two I’d have picked out. They’re not going that well in the league and have lost a good few players like Barry Middleton, Ashley Jackson and Iain Lewers from last year.”
That is not to say that his side believe they are the overdog in any respect, especially given the quality of opposition player. Shaw cites the likes of Kenny Pereira, Rob Short, Australia’s Brent Dancer and David Vila, not to mention Rodrigo Garza – a veteran of three world cups and a bronze medal winner.
“They’re guys who’ve been there, done that and played in the final of an EHL. You can’t look at their form and under-estimate them in any way. They’re well used to playing under pressure. On form, it’s not a bad draw but when you look at the players, you’ve got to respect that.”
Shaw admits he was surprised both Short and Pereira played in midweek for Canada against Ireland while the Glens were able to have full access to Brennan as well as new caps Gary Shaw and Shane O’Donoghue.
“That’s the fifth international we’ve had in the last 14 years, it’s a fantastic achievement from where the club has come from. Shane’s a real up-and-coming young player and there’s no doubt he has the potential to go on and play for Ireland a number of times.
“It depends on keeping himself in shape and how much he wants it. Gary has been in the panel the last year and a half and I thought he did very well when he came on on Sunday night, showed an international quality in his strength and his speed and hopefully they’ll carry that confidence into this games on Friday.”
Pembroke’s task may be tougher still as they play recently crowned Spanish cup winners Club de Campo from Madrid, featuring in their number former Wanderer and current Irish captain Ronan Gormley.
Gormley left for Spain at the end of last season but not before helping his home club secure the services of South African Brendon Carolan as coach.
He brought with him the springbok trio of Gowan Jones, Brandon Panther and Jethro Eustice who played a huge part in their group stage success.
But, with their three-month visas not renewed, Pembroke’s panel is light of their talents while the international talents of veterans Paddy Conlon (broken hand) and Gordon Elliott are also out.
Goalkeeper David Williamson is ineligible as he only moved to the club in mid-season meaning Simon Thornton is the number one.
He recently stood in to fine effect in an Irish Hockey League game against Monkstown to good effect and he will need to hit form if his club is to cause a major upset.
With the personnel changes, Carolan told the Hook he is aware of the challenge Pembroke faces but all he can do is put a plan in place and see how it turns out – the team’s analytical and winning mentality, the central facets needed to fulfil such a road-map.
“Obviously I’m positive about the challenge ahead. We worked hard to get to the second phase. It is a big test for us and we have lost a lot of players but the thing is, even with losing that amount, with this group of players we’ve still managed to stay competitive and right up there in the league and the IHL.
“We always have an analytical mindset and if we think tactically about what we try and do, we generally are always going to be competitive. We respect them but they have to respect us, too.
“Campo are one of the best sides in Europe with a really big squad. All we can do is analyse them and come up with a game plan and do the best we can. But we’re confident and will give it a good go. They play a high intensity, but if we can nullify their front three and their corner attack, that would be pretty important for us. If we get that covered, we should be ok.
As for lining out in opposition to Gormley (pictured, below left), Carolan expects no favours nor special treatment.
“The guys obviously know him very well – Mossie Elliott is probably his best mate – so there’s already been talk about lining each other up on facebook. But Ronan is such a competitive guy, when the white-line fever sets in it will be business as usual.”
Carolan recently signed up for a second year with the club and he believes the 2011/12 season can be one of real possibility after the challenges which beset this term, potentially with a roving star or two returning home.
On his maiden year with the club, he said: “I have enjoyed it. It was one of the tougher years, coming into the club environment after Craig [Fulton] had done so well over four or five years.
“You do get apprehensive when you come into a club that has done that well. Expectations coming in are very high; the club are realistic with what we have done this year. We set goals and achieved most of them so next year, I think we’ll be a different entity. We’ll have far more depth than our initial squad from this year but I’m very happy where I am.”
EuroHockey League, KO16 fixtures (Bloemendaal, Netherlands):
Friday (Irish time): Pembroke Wanderers v Club de Campo (Spain), 11am; HGC (Netherlands) v Glenanne, 1.30pm
** The Hook will provide twitter updates for both games while the games can be watched live on the EHL’s website. For the full TV schedule, Push Hockey magazine, have put together a good synopsis of the TV schedule available on British Eurosport