Phelie Maguire admits that thoughts did persist that he might “not realistically get another chance” of playing in a top level tournament but he is now looking to shine having enjoyed a new lease of life in green since Andrew Meredith took the coaching reins.
The former Three Rock Rovers man made his debut in the same game against Belgium, coincidentally the same day as current record caps holder Eugene Magee way back in 2005. Both went cap for cap in their early years but Maguire endured a sticky period on the fringes of the panel during Paul Revington’s tenure, missing the 2009 and 2011 Europeans, the 2011 and 2012 Champions Challenge campaigns as well as last year’s Olympic qualifiers.
But he is now looking forward to playing in the “highest calibre” tournament of his career at the World League round three which gets underway on Thursday in which Ireland have their best chance of reaching an elite level competition since 1990’s World Cup.
Ireland tip off their campaign against India on Thursday afternoon before meeting New Zealand and the Netherlands in the group phase. Using the same, much-maligned format as last November’s Champions Challenge I in Argentina, the group stage solely determines who Ireland will meet in the quarter-finals on June 19.
It makes that tie a do-or-die affair with a win virtually guaranteeing qualification for the 2014 World Cup in the Hague. Lose and they must win their next game to keep their hopes alive though there are a myriad of permutations that could ensue from this point with nothing set in stone until the end of each continental championship.
Such a format does place a lot of pressure on that fourth game of the campaign but Maguire says that the first three ties are vitally important to set in place the right processes for the key ties.
“Win your quarter-final and you’ve qualified. That’s pretty much the safest bet. To give ourselves the best possible quarter-final, you have to get results against the likes of India and New Zealand to make sure we don’t face Australia. We have experience of beating any of the other sides.
“But, like anything, it’s a process. People will look at it and say, look you only have to win the fourth game. But you need to get in the habit of putting in good performances and winning to make it that much easier rather than focusing on one the fourth game. I know it’s a cliché but you need to treat each game the same. The more games we win in the group stage, it should give us an easier quarter-final.”
He’s relishing back in the mix, especially having been given a greater role in his preferred midfield where he usually roams at club level for Hurley in the Netherlands, helping them to promotion back to the Hoofdklasse last month.
Since then, Ireland have enjoyed some tough but productive training camps, notably toppling the Olympic champions Germany 3-2.
An intense six-day session then took place in Dublin and while Ireland have had precious few warm-up games ahead of Rotterdam, Maguire says that the nature of the current panel means that days of triple training can reveal more in player’s character.
As for his own personal return to the panel, playing in World League round two in Delhi in late February, Maguire said that he never contemplated stepping away from the international scene despite missing the cut for the big events.
“Under [Paul] Revington, I was always in the squad of 23 or 25 and pushing for the squad. There was never a moment where I thought about quitting. You continue to believe in yourself and give everything in training camps.
“I actually played 35 games under Revington; it’s not like I didn’t have the chance to prove myself but the coach can only pick the best players available in his eyes.
“As a player, you’ve two choices. You can moan about it and let it get the better of you. Or you can go out and work hard and if it comes off, it comes off. I was under no illusions.
“If, for example, David Ames and Ian Sloan were still here, my chances would be a lot tighter but the fact is, you have to stay in there. It’s nice to play the tournaments but I never stepped out of training or quit.
“You keep going until you feel you can’t go anymore whether that be because of work or fitness or injury. Each player will reach that point somewhere in the future.”
Perhaps one of the key motivators in keeping him going – though he does not admit it directly – is playing alongside Andy McConnell who is his club captain at Hurley. A schoolmate at Wesley growing up, he says the effervescent utility man will provide a huge unseen benefit to the Irish team this week.
On a number of occasions in Delhi, Meredith loudly called for greater communication between the back four and midfield. Maguire says that McConnell – who missed that tournament – will be pivotal in this role.
It is especially so with Eugene Magee’s knee injury adding to the experience unable to play in the competition. Geoff McCabe, John Jermyn, Mitch Darling (all through work and personal commitments) and Bruce McCandless (injured)
“He’s a very good communicator which he also brings to the Irish team and leads not only by example but by actual leadership. Some captains lead just by example but he has the extra vocal side.
“It’s undoubtedly something he brings to the side, helping with the organisational structure of the defence. He plays a very important role in gelling the team together, something that often isn’t seen or written about. How the team goes about its processes relies a lot on this kind of individual.”
And while there absentees, Peter Brown joining the list of those unavailable on Monday due to illness, Maguire says that it is an easy tournament to focus the mind.
“We’ll sit together at the beginning of the tournament and talk about what we need to do to reach our goals. There’s no doubt about it, World Cup qualification is the goal and that’s our focus.
“I’ve played in a few different tournaments and they’ve all been different formats. Whether it comes from getting top four, five or six; as long as you get there, it doesn’t matter.”
** Full tournament preview to follow later today