The Irish Over 40’s stumbled over the line on Sunday with a hard fought 2-2 draw against Scotland thereby confirming their status as Home Nations champions, writes Dug Good.
Off the back of excellent wins over Scotland and Wales earlier in the competition, it was enough to get them over the line.
The match was an extremely tense affair with lots of nip and no small amount of tuck, tired Irish legs and a lack of intensity handing the Scots the initiative in a high speed, high quality first half.
The Irish struggled to wrestle control of the game back, upping their effort and better maintaining possession – after several smart saves from “Flash” Gordon Clarke and a hard running in midfield from Julian Costello and Jason Milne.
Half time arrived as sweet relief for the Irish, the sides going in at 0-0. Lisnagarvey’s legendary hockey rubicon, Mr Ian Raphael, spoke stern words in the half time huddle, demanding more effort and increased intensity, reminding all squad members of their responsibilities.
The second half started brightly as Raphael Jnr, Garvey legend, began to weave his golden magic on the right, constructing pretty triangles with fellow former senior International, Andy Barbour and current PSNI donut tester, Peter Bland.
As the pressure was ramped up, and Mark “Flossy” Lappin and Warwick “Waz” Armstrong set about the Scottish defence a goal seemed inevitable. And that goal duly arrived…… for Scotland after a slick short corner switch was deflected into the net by a diving William Bunter.
Back came the Irish with intent, winning a corner almost immediately which Jonny “the blade” McMeekin despatched to the net with aplomb.
Matters turned feisty with cards handed out like it was Christmas but, again, after sustained pressure and several corners being won and not being converted, finally with pressure at its peak, up stepped McMeekin once more, ice in his veins to beat the keeper with the now famed “slower ball”.
Twelve minutes to hang on for a famous victory. Pedersen, Carley and Rablo Escobar held possession frustrating the Scottish press … for approximately 90 seconds until they duly equalised, sparking anxiety amongst the Irish now facing 10 uncertain minutes to hang on for the draw required to claim the trophy.
Up stepped the fresh young legs of David Andrews, John Enright and Julian Hinds to bring fresh impetus to the Irish resistance and once more Barbour relieved pressure with driving runs deep into Scottish territory allowing the now exhausted back line to step up for a breather.
And yet, still there was time for drama (Shakespeare on BBC2) as late short corners for Scotland were thwarted by the heroic Clarke and with some stout defending in the final minutes, Ireland were home and dry for a historic Home Nations victory.
The pressure and anxiety of those final moments had all seemed so far away in the earlier games of the tournament as Ireland first blazed past Wales in the tournament opener with a compelling show of strength.
Hat-trick hunting Lappin (the hunt goes on) notched two, one from the penalty spot, McMeekin two, one from an incisive driving run into the D from the left followed by a resounding smashed finish, the other a silky short corner routine, complimenting well worked efforts from Barbour, Milne, Bland and Costello.
The second half featured several notable saves from new cap, Bryan Madden. The resounding win in the Friday night leg stretcher built confidence amongst the newly established squad and a strong bond of trust between the playing staff and the calm hand of Irish Hockey’s Yoda-like guiding strategist, Ian Raphael.
The scene was set for the showpiece event on Saturday evening, traditionally the tournament decider, Ireland vs England.
The marauding English had stormed through their opener with a four-goal dismantling of Scotland. They rode a wave of confidence into the match and sported fully co-ordinated sponsored tracksuits, sweatshirts, training tops and puffah jackets into the warm-up.
England flew out of the blocks playing with great pace and structure and moving at mesmerising pace. However, their tiki taka combinations met stern resistance from the Irish defence – Stephen “Enigma” Jones, McMeekin, Carley and Morten “Thug Life” Pedersen repelled wave after wave of attack.
They then secured a foothold and fastidiously erected a platform allowing Mark “Merlin the Magician” Raphael to take proceeding by the scruff of the neck.
No matter how they tried the English could lay neither hand nor hair upon Raphael, like liquid mercury, he eluded ever more robust challenges starting one masterful flowing move that ended with a bouncing Lappin cross being acrobatically despatched by the irrepressible Barbour.
Half time arrived without further incident bar a green card for Pedersen for a robust challenge that pales in comparison to the agricultural treatment meted out to Mr Mercury, Raphael.
Again, the soothing words of the elder Raphael had the desired half time effect, Ireland exploding out of the blocks like Usain Bolt on uppers to storm into a 2-0 lead through a precisely worked short corner finished to the net by the Duracell powered Barbour (Andy, brother of the more famous Phillip!).
Ireland were inspired now, playing like giants and the result seemed inevitable but England didn’t build an empire without stout hearts and proud men of oak.
Back came the Roundheads, refusing to be beaten, buying some hope with a fortuitous corner rebound after an incredible double save from Clarke.
Again, Ireland pressed forward driven on by Scott “Aber-” Crombie and crafted chance after chance winning and failing to convert several short corners.
In a Titanic (Quarter) battle, England hit on the break to fashion a corner and snatch an unlikely and possibly undeserved equaliser. The cost was magnified as repeat offender Pedersen spent ten in the bin for a healthy chop in the build-up.
Now the match peaked, red hot intensity giving way to the white heat of two immovable objects colliding at the height of their powers. Ireland dug deeper than anyone imagined possible, upping their effort to impossible levels and the wizardry of Raphael combined with the muscular intensity of Barbour and the craft of Lappin to manufacture a penalty stroke for Ireland.
Five on the clock, the maestro Lappin stepped up to despatch the stroke, panenka style down the middle. The stationary goalie put out his cigarette, stopped laughing and merrily palmed the ball away. 2-2 and the game still very much in the melting pot.
Indefatigable and irrepressible, back came the Irish. With Ireland’s Call ringing in their hearts they pressed for the richly deserved winner – several short corner opportunities were passed up by the Irish as the match drifted towards a seemingly inevitable draw.
But there was drama in the final act as classy baseline work from the now revived Lappin provided one final golden opportunity for the inspirational skipper Peter Bland to slam high into the net, sparking furious celebration and after 90 seconds of resistance Ireland had grasped their destiny, victory and glory for the men in green, every one a hero.
Despite the lull in the final match, the emotion of that famous victory carried Ireland home.