From brink of extinction to “highest honour” on the Portrane rollercoaster

Irish Hockey Trophy final

Portrane 3 (D Eustace, S Rogan, S Graham) Belfast Harlequins 3 (M Patterson 2, S McGrath), Portrane won shoot-out 1-0

A century in the making, it was beautifully fitting that Portrane’s finest hour would see a Neville flick in the winner and a Henchy on the sideline, calling the shots.  

The Fingal club have been through it all, from the brink of extinction just over a decade ago before this latest remarkable renaissance. With a gloriously situated water-based pitch in the heart of Donabate, nearly 200 kids in the youth section, a place in men’s EYHL2 and seven adult teams, you could argue they have never had it so good. 

Chris Neville lifts the Irish Hockey Trophy

And last Saturday’s Irish Hockey Trophy success was the cherry on top, “the highest honour in our history” according to Adrian Henchy, a history dating back 101 years in 1919. 

They almost blew it; they should have been in cruise-control when they built up a 3-0 lead by the 45th minute. Dylan Eustace set the ball rolling after Stephen Rogan robbed the ball on halfway and slipped to Ossian Elmiger to shoot. The half-saved effort fell to Eustace to clip home.  

Moments into the second half, straight from the tip off it was two after an excellent run down the right wing, Sean Graham found Rogan who pirouetted on the flick spot to score. 

Graham nabbed the next, played in by Adam Agnew and then Eustace, and it could have been even more comfortable but for the post.  

Quins, however, stormed back into contention with Michael Patterson netting a penalty corner in the 48th minute and it was game on when Stephen McGrath scrambled in at the third attempt.  

That set nerves jangling as Portrane conceded six corners in the closing quarter, the sixth of which came from the very last play of normal time when Patterson struck once more. Quins had beaten Waterford in the semi-final with a buzzer-beater and they had a repreive 

Portrane, however, got the only of the shootout when Neville flicked high into the net for a 1-0 victory with Dan Graham keeping out all five of the Quins shoot-outs. 

“We started to defend too deep, maybe got a bit nervous but we certainly imploded a bit!” Henchy said of those nervous final moments.  

“Chris getting the winner was fitting – he’s the grand-nephew of Paddy Neville and there’s that connection going back through the generations. We won the Irish Challenge in 2011 and the Irish Junior Cup in the 30s and 40s but this is certainly the highest honour.” 

A dozen years ago, this was scarcely believable. Numbers had dwindled to the extent they needed to amalgamate with St Brendan’s/Phoenix Park for a couple of seasons before reforming as a single team near the bottom end of the Leinster league ladder. 

Among many steps was the arrival of Mukhtar Ahmed, a motivated and hugely positive coaching force and a more than decent player to boot. 

“We were pretty much gone; that gave us a year or two and we just got back together as one team in Division Five. We won the Challenge in 2011 – that was Mukhtar’s first season with us and has been there since. That was the seed of our survival, going from 5 to 4 to 3 to 1.  

“Two years ago, we were bottom of the league until the last match of the season, finishing second from bottom on goal difference with a last day win. But last season was fantastic – we only lost to Railway and Clontarf, home and away to both.” 

It was one of the pities of Saturday’s final that Ahmed and Imran Khan – a former Pakistan and Azerbaijan international – could not be present. The duo have played key coaching roles in the local schools and the club but returned to their homeland when lockdown fell; they have their work permits in order to return but the Department of Justice did not yet clear their return in time for this final. 

But, within that, it laid more experience on the club’s young guns who have come through the resurrected youth section formed 12 years ago. 

“We struggled to attract and retain boys but there’s a good crew who have come through the youths and they are getting better and better. Marry in [former youth international] Brian McMahon from Skerries and Chris Neville and Adam Agnew as well who has been a great addition.  

“Then when Mukhtar and Imran are around and with Derek Ledwidge back, there’s a good balance between lads who have been around the scene and emerging players.” 

Numbers have swelled to introduce a third adult team last season but it is on the women’s side that the club has absolutely “sky-rocketed”. 

On the same day, their firsts won the Division 9-10 cup final against UCD 6ths with eight first half goals; many of their number have helped Loreto Balbriggan and Drogheda Grammar win a couple of schools cup titles of late. 

They are currently working through the divisions one at a time but Henchy believes they should be bumped up a few leagues to match their abilities.  

Friendly matches against Division 3 and 4 teams have yielded wins and the hope is it won’t have to require pulverising teams by double figures regularly in the lower tiers to make their case. 

In the past, Kilkenny, Monkstown and YMCA have availed of a couple of gaps in higher divisions to hasten their rise and he is hopeful a similar opportunity can open up. 

“We don’t want to spend 10 or 12 years [to work through all the divisions],” he continued. “There has to be a bit of vision there to see we are doing things in the right way with our coaching.  

“I feel there should be clear pathways for first teams from EY to Division One to Division Two for first teams. There is about 30 clubs so there should be like a senior league, inter league and junior league for first teams to move between and find their level in a reasonable short period of time.” 

Much of this has been made possible by what the club’s Twitter account is keen to label Henchy field. It was almost consigned to being a white elephant before getting sorted. 

He is passionate and steeped in the club’s history with his father Percy part of the club’s golden era and a former president of the Leinster Branch. More than that, Adrian is a pivotal figure on the peninsula in Donabate as a local councillor while he managed the local Gaelic football team, St Pat’s, to four promotions in five years up to Division One. 

In his playing days, he lined out with current Dublin manager – and Irish Under-21 hockey player – Dessie Farrell and Kieran McGeeney in the Na Fianna senior team, men “you can only but learn what high performance is really about”. 

That GAA influence and his own hockey history steeled his passion to get a facility to be proud of for his community. 

“In 2011, disaster – three days after getting the keys, it flooded and we had to decamp to ALSAA [15 km away] for three or four years while it all got sorted.  

“It disconnected us from the schools and community. The pitch is at the centre of the Donabate community, in between the village, every housing estate and the major schools. Everyone in the area is aware of the club and we are beginning to see it with parents in the club who have made Donabate their home and their kids are joining the club. 

“We have so many coaches now who never played the game but are getting involved with their sons and daughters. We are fortunate with some great people on the admin side. Then with Mukhtar and Imran on coaching and development in the club and going into the schools, it has planted the seeds of the game.” 

Portrane: D Graham, R McKeon, B McMahon, D Ledwidge, O Elmiger, S Graham, C Neville, J Skehan, A Agnew, A Darroch, S Rogan 

Subs: S Healy, C Shoebridge, C Best, D Eustace, R Shoebridge 

Belfast Harlequins: C Andrew, J Metcalfe, M Patterson, D Frazer, R Quigley, S McGrath, C Gardner, B Patterson, M Gray, C Lemon, C Callender 

Subs: A Kenny, N Anderson, A Murphy, R Yousaf, N Wilson, I Kelly 

Umpires: M Coombes, C Kavanagh 

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