Banbridge head out to Barcelona this weekend, hoping to match their incredible exploits from 12 months ago as they look to progress from ROUND1 of the Euro Hockey League once again.
A year ago, they delighted their home Co Down fans at Havelock Park, beating French side Saint Germain and drawing with Belgium’s Royal Leopold to top their group in the world’s premier club hockey competition.
This time, their task is similarly big. They face another Belgian side, this time packed with Olympic silver medalists like Tom Boon, Jeremy Gucassoff and Cedric Charlier as well as Irish international Conor Harte.
They also meet Poland’s WKS Grunwald Poznan, a side who have featured in all 11 seasons of the EHL to date.
Bann, meanwhile, have seen their highly effective central defensive partnership of Kyle Marshall – to Beeston in England – and Matthew Bell – to Crefelder HC in Germany – snapped up by top European clubs.
It has meant a number of changes to their line-up with Zach McClelland, Luke Witherow and Alex Tinney all coming in.
They did win win their only pre-EHL ROUND1 match last Saturday afternoon as they eased to a 4-0 win over Railway Union on the delayed opening day of the EY Hockey League.
Despite this comfortable win for Bann – who won two of the three national trophies last season – it has been a tough start to the campaign for Mark Tumilty’s side.
The last two weekends had seen national level competition cancelled due to a dispute between Hockey Ireland and the Irish Hockey Umpires Association relating to support for the umpires development plan and expenses.
It has left Tumilty with few games to get ready for the EHL in Barcelona, especially as he looks to forge a new defensive unit following Matthew Bell’s move to Crefelder HC in Germany and Kyle Marshall to Beeston in England.
Injuries sustained on Ireland duty in the summer for Eugene Magee and Jonny McKee has also made things difficult.
“Pre season hasn’t been great due to availability of players due to injuries,” Tumilty said of his preparation. “I am delighted with the players we have added to the group. I feel we have added some very young and exciting talent who will be major players for Banbridge in the coming seasons.
“We will miss Matthew, Kyle and Jake [Rowe] who have moved on but this is a common problem for Irish teams now so we just have to get on with our season.”
“It has been very frustrating not having games. When you look at some other teams coming into this EHL weekend, they will have played four or five competitive games.
“Eugene probably won’t make the tournament as it will probably come a weekend too soon for him. Unfortunately, Johnny was back playing last weekend but picked up a nasty ankle injury and is now out for a number of weeks.”
As for the opposition, Tumilty expects two huge battles.
“Racing are a top class side with talent all over the pitch. They will be firm favourites going into the weekend and will be looking to progress a lot further in the competition.
“Our big game is against Poznan as our aim is to ensure Irish Hhckey maintain two places in the EHL. Poznan will be a very difficult game with substantial EHL experience. I expect a very physical game and a dangerous penalty corner.
“We do have a large travelling support as always. Last year was a fantastic journey with an amazing group of supporters. They had a huge impact last year, none more so than in the second half against Leopold. I am certain they would love the same opportunity next weekend against Racing!”
EHL ROUND1 (Pau Negre Stadium, Barcelona)
Saturday: Banbridge v WKS Grunwald Poznan, 11.30am (Irish time)
Sunday: Banbridge v Royal Racing Club de Bruxelles, 10.45am