Lurgan ladies won the Denman Ulster Shield for the first time in the club’s history last season and they are determined to hold on to the prestigious trophy by beating an in-form Queen’s side on St Stephen’s Day at Stormont (1pm), writes John Flack.
However, coach Robbie McMinn rates the students as marginal favourites to reverse the result of last year’s showpiece in which the majestic midfielder Sarah McClure scored twice in a 3-1 victory.
McClure, who captains the side this season, will have a key role on Tuesday as will other proven goalscorers like Charlene Hull, Jo-Anne Wilson, Lauren Wright and Chloe McCann to name but a few.
However, Queen’s are in a rich vein of form – when the recent wintry weather has permitted – and have made several important signings, including Irish senior international Erin Getty and former Lurgan League and Shield double-winner Emily McStea.
The teams have played each other twice this season and Queen’s won both – a 4-1 success in the group stages and 3-2 in the opening game of the Ulster Premier League season.
However, form often goes out the window, as they say, in finals and McMinn will be hoping his team can prove the theory on Tuesday while recognising the size of the task ahead.
“This time last season we had a 100% record, winning all matches and confidence was sky high.” said the Lurgan boss.
“We were playing some terrific hockey and were very fit and teams were not looking forward to playing us.
“This season we are going along pretty well, fitness is improving and the girls are starting to focus in on things a bit more.
“I think there was a bit of an understandable hangover from the double Premier and Shield success with training dropping off a bit and some of our in-house rules and standards slipping.
“That said we have tightened up a bit defensively and in attack we are creating good chances.
“We have new players who have come in and it takes time for them to find their feet and everyone to build up an understanding.”
The roles have been reversed this season as it is Queen’s and not Lurgan who have the 100% record in domestic hockey, going into the final.
“Queen’s are the team to beat on paper in all Ulster competitions – Jess McMaster and Erin are full internationals.” McMinn added.
“They are playing well and their experience of senior international hockey make them players that should dominate games in the Premier.
“Emma Kernohan and Tori Hastings are Under 21 internationals- Emma is a calm player who runs the midfield efficiently.
“Tori is a tough tough competitor with a tremendous eye for goal, Robyn McKee is one of the best midfielders in the league- she is skillful and gutsy with great composure.
“They have added quality players- Sarah McCabe in goals and Emily up front, in particular, as we know will score 10-20 goals in a season.
“Simon Bell is a top, elite level coach and the addition of Drew Campbell simply adds more quality as they both bring great experience and insight, they are very astute tacticians and will have a detailed game plan to beat us.”
Bell while no doubt happy to accept the flattery which his opposite number has bestowed upon him, believes Lurgan will pose a difficult test as the students go in search of a first Ulster Shield triumph since the 1932/33 season.
Queen’s are unbeaten in domestic hockey this season and their only losses have come against EYHL opposition in the shape of UCD in the varsities final and Belfast harlequins in the Irish Senior Cup.
“We have to be pleased with our season so far in terms of results – we won all our Denman Ulster Shield group games and then played very well in the semi-final against Banbridge to reach our third consecutive final” said Bell.
“We have only managed to get five league games played to date but five wins leaves us well in contention as we go into the Christmas break.
“We have played very well in some of our matches but we do tend to be a bit inconsistent and there is still lots of room for improvement.
“Lurgan are a top side – current Ulster Shield holders and Premier League champions. Our matches against them are always tight affairs and I don’t imagine this one will be any different.
“They have strengths right through their side and Sarah McClure has consistently been one of the top players in the Premier League and often a match winner for them.
“I think the big concern for both sides will be the very disrupted preparation in the run up to the final.
“From our point of view, we will have gone over a month without a competitive fixture due to the weather and we have also been hit by illness, injury and university assessments.
“We were disappointed with how we played in last year’s final so hopefully this year we can make amends.”