The men’s Irish Hockey League will have a new champion this weekend as the final four of Lisnagarvey, Cookstown, Monkstown and YMCA vye for the ultimate prize in Hillsborough this weekend.
Indeed, only hosts Garvey have their name on the President’s Trophy – the silverware awarded for the All-Ireland Club Championships, the forerunner to the IHL – making it a potential breakthrough weekend for all.
The first step on that route sees a Leinster/Ulster split with YMCA and Monkstown representing the south in a semi-final switched to 1.15pm to accommodate the UCD exam schedule.
For the Y, it has been over a decade since their last final while 1979 was their last national title, claiming the Irish Senior Cup.
Famous club names abounded in that side, with John Douglas and Philip Hardy among them. Then, as now, the Walker name was also key with Stewart one of the stars of that vintage and his son, Andy, provides a direct link between the two eras.
His return from a broken hand, bringing guile and skill to the midfield, has been one of the features of the Sandymount club’s late season charge, complimented perfectly by David Robinson – another to miss much of the season through injury.
It has been a roller-coaster at times this term for YM but Stephen Barry’s installation as head coach a couple of months into the campaign has provided a steady hand.
A further boost is Will Powderly’s return from a long-term recuperation, now having the dubious honour – in his 17th senior campaign – of having played for the first team for more than half his life.
Marcus Richardson has been banging in the goals, four in the last two rounds of the IHL, while partner-in-crime Jonny Bruton has been dropping deeper of late to provide a creative foil. Jamie Tobin provides the triple threat.
Iain Walker is out but Graham Woods has been a superb deputy between the posts. Allan Dale, though, is a notable absence, the Australian returning home for a family wedding in his homeland.
His absence will be felt as part of two highly functional corner routines, his drag-flicks a big miss. But YM have been very efficient defensively at the set-piece and will hope to carry that form through.
If YM’s health has returned at the right time, their Saturday semi-final opponent’s Monkstown have been lamenting injuries for much of the second half of the season.
Frank Ryan misses the semi-final, too, due to exams. Runar O’Moore has stepped up to good effect while Richard Sykes offers one of the country’s best corner options so there is still a potent attacking force to be dealt with.
Getting over the heartache of recent final setbacks is the big target for the Town, though, as skipper Nick Dee testifies:
“It has been our goal since the start of the season to be competing for a national trophy at the end of the season, and being in the IHL finals weekend is certainly where we wanted to be.
“Coming off a weekend in which we lost both the League and Cup we showed our character as a team by gaining qualification for this weekend, which will no doubt be another test for us that I’m sure we will be up to”
Cookstown, meanwhile, reprise their tussle with Lisnagarvey for the Ulster Premier League title in the other IHL semi-final.
The County Tyrone side finished that campaign strong with the return of a flying Ian Sloan in the wake of the Olympic qualifiers and is the competition’s top scorer with seven to his name.
They have a full squad to pick from with Timmy Smyth the only doubt, picking up a slight groin injury in the Anderson Cup Super 9s, and they hope to end their wait for the only trophy that has eluded them to date.
Speaking about the upcoming weekend, co-coach Michael Haycock wants to return to Europe: “Having tasted the EHL in October, we would love the opportunity to return to that competition as Ireland’s top seeds.
“All four teams will feel that they have a very good chance of winning it. We are most likely underdogs going into our semi with Garvey with them having home advantage. As we found last year you just need a bit of luck at the right time in these games as all of the teams will be pretty evenly matched.”
Standing in their way are Lisnagarvey, a club with all the prior glory to fall back on and an unbeaten run in national competition this term, both at IHL and Irish Senior level.
It is an impressive showing given Jason Lynch’s departure to Brussels, Alex McRoberts to Canada and a couple of students moving abroad. Johnny Gray has also been out injured for much of the campaign.
Other league form, though, was patchy with Annadale and Instonians raiding for wins that ultimately swung the title to Coolnafranky.
IHL finals weekends have provided Garvey with plenty of agony, losing in the decider twice in the competition’s short history but they have the most know-how of anyone at this stage.
It sets up two finely balanced semi-finals with Sunday’s final already going to be a Leinster vs Ulster match-up.
Men’s Irish Hockey League schedule (all at Comber Road)
Saturday, semi-finals: YMCA v Monkstown, 1.15pm; Cookstown v Lisnagarvey, 3.30pm
Sunday, final: 4pm
** The Hook will be covering the tournament live on-site as well as on twitter.com/hookhockey throughout the weekend using the #ihlmen hashtag. We also intend on posting video highlights on the site on Saturday and Sunday evening