After a couple of breakthrough seasons, Monkstown reach the pinnacle of the club game in Europe this weekend when they debut in the Euro Hockey League in Barcelona.
The Rathdown club completed their competitive build-up with a 3-2 win over Railway Union last week and team captain Stephen Cole admits that his side are “naturally excited” to be playing in the competition for the first time.
They are grouped with fellow newcomers Daring from Belgium and Racing Club de France, battling it out for the one place on offer in the KO16. Cole said that he reckons Daring are the favourites on paper having gone unbeaten in the Belgian league thus far but his sky-blues have plenty of threat themselves.“It is certainly an interesting group, having three sides that are all new to the competition,” he said. “At a glance Daring would have to be the favourites. With a strong Irish contingent in Belgium perhaps we will get some further information on them.
“I would imagine that Racing Club de France would be similar to ourselves in many ways and a really tough team to beat. However more than anything we will be focusing on our own performance to give us the best chance of progressing.”
Monkstown are playing in just their second European club competition – albeit their second in just five months – having won the EuroHockey Club Champions Trophy last June in Sardinia.
It continued their big trophy haul in recent seasons after a huge drought. Indeed, when they won the 2013 Irish Senior Cup, it was their first national title in 99 years and they duly added the Irish Hockey League crown – the biggest title in the country – in both 2013 and 2014.
They also won the provincial Leinster league in 2013/14 for the first time last spring while a Mills Cup has been won along the way. This glut of silverware has all come since the arrival of Graham Shaw as coach.
He is a veteran of over 150 international games with Ireland and reached the KO16 with Glenanne in Bloemendaal a couple of seasons ago. Having won everything in the Irish game – and a European Trophy in Paris – with the Glens, he gave the club a winning mentality they had lacked in a couple of national final defeats.
And Cole paid tribute to that work: “The arrival of Sharpie [Shaw] two seasons ago has certainly helped us bring home trophies. He brought with him a lot of experience, which is something which we probably had been lacking.
“There was no doubt that we had a talented side before and coupled with Sharpie’s experience and determination we started winning titles. It was a good fit, an ambitious club with a young coach with high aspirations.”
His arrival coincided with a large number of youth international players reaching maturity with Stephen one of three brothers in the team. He played for Ireland at the Euros last August while younger brother David has caps while Lee was with the Under-21s in the summer. His youngest brother Geoff may not be too far away from a regular first team call, too.
His father is a former international while the club has a large family feel with many of the players that won the Leinster league in the 1980s now seeing their sons play at the top level.
“Family connections play a huge part in Monkstown; names such as Watkins and Horsfield have been appearing on team sheets for decades. For me it is really nice to play alongside two of my brothers each week.
“These connections on and off the pitch have been pivotal in helping the club arrive at the top table of Irish hockey over the past number of years while establishing a thriving junior section. The club takes great pride in this ethos.
“It gives us great on the sideline each week no matter where or how we are playing! Obviously we had a successful trip to Sardinia for the trophy in June and will be well supported again in Barcelona. For the supporters, these tournaments are nice rewards for their continued support.”
They are a side packed with international players with striker Davy Carson and goalkeeper David Fitzgerald regular Irish players but they could be without key man Peter Caruth and Andrew Ward, limiting their forward options.
Swiss international Fabien Wullschleger brings EHL experience from his time with Luzerner while Richard Sykes and New Zealander Andy Ewington are powerful drag-flickers. German player Thomas Sonntag is also a strong addition.
And Cole says the blend is right for them to make an impact in Barcelona.
“I think all the teams in our group have the ability to progress and that is definitely our main target heading to Barcelona. We will be confident knowing if we perform as a team that we are in with a shout of the KO16.”
EHL Pool B fixtures (all Irish time)
Friday: Monkstown vs Racing Club de France, 2pm
Saturday: Monkstown vs Daring, 2pm
Sunday: Racing Club de France vs Daring, 1.30pm