Hot on the heels of a first Olympic summer for the Irish men’s team in over a century, the EY Hockey League provides a major showcase for new fans of the sport to see the Rio stars up close and personal.
The second season of the all-Ireland competition begins with a bang this weekend with a double-weekend, a full series of matches for each team on both Saturday and Sunday in the race to be named Ireland’s best club.
Lisnagarvey are the reigning champions following a breathtaking run last season, losing just once in 18 regular season games before seeing off both Pembroke and Banbridge in the end of season EY Champions Trophy playoffs.
As such, they will be the side that everyone will target. They have retained the majority of last season’s panel bar Michael Watt who has moved to English club Hampstead and Westminster for this season.
Otherwise, they can look to Olympians Jonny Bell, Paul Gleghorne and Timmy Cockram along with rising international stars like Sean Murray, James Lorimer and Neal Glassey while they have added Irish Under-18 captain Peter McKibbin from Annadale.
Coach Erroll Lutton is in his fourth year with the team and the aim for the season is to “replicate the consistency we showed last season and be amongst the contenders for the EYHL and the Irish Senior Cup”.
As national champions, they also have a Euro Hockey League (EHL) adventure to look forward to next Easter when they will play in the last 16 of the world’s premier club hockey competition.
Banbridge, as last season’s runners-up, will also play in the EHL. They become the first Irish club to host the competition when Round 1 comes to Havelock Park from October 7th to 9th.
Their Olympian is Eugene Magee, the second most capped player in Irish history while Matthew Bell and Drew Carlisle are two other current internationals to look out for. They will, however, miss Stevie Dowds who moves to London. Coming the other way, former Bann striker Dane Ward returns to the club from England to lend his skills to their attack.
Leading the Dublin charge, Monkstown will be hoping to become national league champions following success in 2013, 2014 and 2015 along with last term’s Irish Senior Cup.
Peter Caruth has moved back to his home club of Annadale to work as a player-coach with the Ulster Premier club while Jonny Bruton switches to Corinthian in Leinster Division 1 to be an assistant-coach along with playing.
Town’s David Fitzgerald and Kyle Good were both in Rio at the Olympics in a team packed with international caps. With Jason Lynch moving from Pembroke, they now have eight Irish internationals in total.
Munster’s leading lights Cork C of I made the early running last season and will be aiming to get off to a similarly strong start this season. John Jermyn – Ireland’s all-time top goalscorer – takes on the captaincy after a very impressive last 12 months.
Neil Welch takes over as coach and he has Wesley Brownlow, Andrew Power and Ken Twomey adding to his squad.
Looking forward to the season, manager Barry Crowley said: “The team should have a more settled look this year and are hoping to push themselves into the top half of the table and are also looking for a good cup run. The experience of last season’s competition will stand to a lot of their younger players and they are hoping to hit the ground running in the first weekend of the season.”
Mitch Darling and Shane O’Donoghue add to the attractions, returning from Rotterdam and Antwerp, respectively, to play for their hometown clubs Three Rock Rovers and Glenanne.
For both Dublin clubs, they will hope the new arrivals can provide the impetus to push them toward the playoffs. For Rovers, they were in the top four for the majority of the last campaign before just missing out on the top four in the closing weeks.
With a young panel, they struggled in front of goal but will hope that Darling’s arrival along with Clontarf’s Kevin Mullins – who became the first player in the north Dublin club’s history to score over 30 times in a season – will add to their firepower along with Shane Madeley from UCD. They start off with a pair of games on the road, travelling to Banbridge on Saturday before facing UCD on Sunday.
For Glenanne, O’Donoghue can provide a similar boon. The Tallaght side will miss the scoring prowess of South African Shannon Boucher but the returnee is a much more than adequate replacement having scored at over a goal every two games on the international stage including three goals at the Olympics.
They will hope Leo Micklem can step into the goalkeeping pads vacated by Polish star Lukasz Domachowski who has returned home after a couple of seasons in St Mark’s. The arrival of Richard Couse is another boost from Avoca.
The Glens were fifth in the league last season but will hope to move up a rank this term. They start with key games against Dublin rivals Railway Union on Saturday before meeting Banbridge on Sunday.
Pembroke’s squad has been trimmed with Cork quintet Karl and Jason Lynch (both Monkstown), Scott Sullivan (USA), Adam Pritchard (retired) and Nick Burns all moving on. They do have Mossie Elliott back from a spell in Beligum, however.
Instonians and UCD were both promoted last year, the Ulster side taking the short route via the playoffs while the students saw off Cookstown in an all-or-nothing showdown.
UCD have a tough ask on their hands to avoid the relegation places but have retained the services of James Duncan and added YMCA duo Aaron Bailey and Ben Campbell from the Leinster league.
Inst, meanwhile, have grown their squad considerably with Zach McLelland looking the pick of the bunch.
Men’s EY Hockey League, fixtures
Saturday: Railway Union v Glenanne, 2.15pm, Park Avenue; Monkstown v Cork C of I, 2.30pm, Merrion Fleet Arena; Banbridge v Three Rock Rovers, 2.45pm, Havelock Park; Lisnagarvey v UCD, 3pm, Comber Road; Pembroke v Instonians, 4pm, Serpentine Avenue
Sunday: Instonians v Monkstown, 1.30pm, Shawsbridge; Railway Union v Lisnagarvey, 2.15pm, Park Avenue; Cork C of I v Pembroke, 2.30pm, Garryduff; Glenanne v Banbridge, 3pm, Glenanne Park; UCD v Three Rock Rovers, 4pm, Belfield