Whisper it softly but, nine months since the men’s Irish Senior Cup quarter-finals, Lisnagarvey, Glenanne, Cookstown and UCD finally get their shot at reaching the 2020 final on Sunday.
In a sentiment echoed around the grounds, Lisnagarvey coach Erroll Lutton paid tribute to his club’s volunteers for “both getting everything in place so we could return to play a number of months ago and also for preparing the grounds for the arrival for teams, officials and spectators on Sunday”.
Under local regulations, up to 100 fans can support in person at Northern Ireland venues, something which is not currently possible in the south.
All of the weekend’s ties will be played under the 2019/20 registrations which will lead to some interesting selection issues when Garvey host Glenanne and Cookstown host UCD.
For Garvey, Ryan Getty is recovering from a foot injury while Peter McKibbin is now in Germany with Großflottbek whose autumn season also starts this weekend. Scott McCabe has returned to Queen’s and Ollie Kidd is now at Nottingham Trent University and will play with Beeston.
Other than that, Lutton has the majority of the squad that was the stand-out pre-lockdown team with youngsters Troy Chambers and Johnny Lynch earning a place in the Irish senior training panel.
“The last number of months during lockdown has been a difficult time for a lot of people and families,” Lutton added about the importance of getting back to action.
“It was Jurgen Klopp who said [in relation to football during that period] that it was the most important of the least important things. And that obviously applied to hockey and all other sports.
“However, as we looked to return to what the new normal looked like, part of that was players at all age groups getting back to playing hockey after the long months of lockdown and thankfully it appears that hockey at most levels has returned.
“We have prepared well with solid performances against Cookstown, Dublin YMCA, Banbridge and the Ireland Senior Men’s team. We had a terrific game against Glenanne last year in the EYHL at St Andrews and I’m sure Sunday will be no different.”
The Glens led 4-0 that day before Lisnagarvey fought back to earn a 4-4 draw in November, the only points the Ulster side dropped all season.
Since then, one of Glenanne’s most famous sons has returned as player-coach but Shane O’Donoghue will not get to fulfil the “player” side of the role this weekend.
“It is a weird one for myself and there are a couple of others in the same position but I’ll do everything I can to make sure the guys are nice and relaxed and ready for the game,” he said ahead of the tie.
“It’s obviously the oldest and one of the most prestigious trophies around which we have won a couple of times. We obviously go out to win and that is in our DNA. Garvey are a good side, Erroll Lutton’s a top quality coach and were the in-form team last year so it will be a big test.”
Fellow international Sam O’Connor is in the same boat following his return from Beerschot in Belgium while Lisa Jacob has come on board as a key figure on the sideline as assistant coach.
The other semi has plenty of history with Cookstown hosting UCD in Tyrone. Both have relegated the other club in EYHL playoff matches in the past three years with precious little love lost.
For UCD, the ties could act as a swansong for David Nolan and Jazze Henry who have already confirmed moves to Monkstown for the 2020/21 season. They remain eligible for section for these ties, though, and could help the club reach the Irish Senior Cup final for the first time.
The Ulster Premier champions are hoping to reach their first final since they won in 2011 with Greg Allen, Mark Crooks, Paul Thompson, Stuart Smyth, Ryan Millar, Keith Black and Matthew Rollins all veterans of that vintage.
“Although the semi-final is from last season it almost feels like the curtain raiser to the new season” said Cookstown captain Mark Crooks ahead of the tie.
“Never before has the first game back been a semi final of the Irish senior cup so it is very exciting. It is going to be very tough and we will need to be at our best but we are taking a lot of confidence into the game”
“We know UCD have a strong squad- we always seem to have quite thrilling games against them and I’m sure this one will be no different. We haven’t got this far since 2011, the year we went on win it so we are well aware of how big an opportunity this is.”
The men’s Irish Hockey Trophy semi-finals are also on Sunday with South Antrim – fifth in the Ulster Premier at lockdown – are up against Leinster’s third placed finishers Portrane.
Waterford are the only non-Ulster host but any extra advantage of playing at Newtown is negated by the lack of supporters allowed though there will be a live stream for Belfast Harlequins’ visit.
Waterford coach Stuart Greene is thrilled his side will get the chance their defence of the title, especially having missed last year’s final.
Greene is an instrumental in the club’s renaissance, working with David Quinn for several years to oversee their rise from Munster’s Division Three, but he missed out on perhaps their biggest moment in 2019 when they landed the Trophy.
He had coached the side for the first half of that season before embarking on a year travelling with girlfriend Elaine, finding himself in a sleepy Sunday night bar in Wellington, New Zealand for the day of the final.
A club mate had arranged a Facebook Live feed via a drone and Greene says it was hard for the couple to contain themselves in a surreal setting as Waterford nicked a 4-3 rollercoaster.
“It was half one or two in the morning and I did get a bit emotional!” he told the Examiner. “There were plenty looking around at us tucked away in the corner and wondering what was going on!
“From where we started in Division 3 to winning this title… it was so tough not being there but incredibly delighted for the lads and their hard work.”
During his time away, Greene took on two coaching jobs in Australia, continuing in winning fashion as he led both the Sydney Girls High School and the University of New South Wales Met Three teams to league titles, picking up a local coach of the year award into the bargain.
Eighteen months on, Greene has retaken the reins in his hometown but knows the challenges the club face remain the same with many moving on after their school days.
In the wake of that final win, youth internationals Ben Johnson, Harry McCarthy and Ethan McInerney were all snapped up by EY Hockey League clubs in Dublin.
Isaac Johnson will follow them to Pembroke but is eligible to play in this semi-final before completing his transfer with 2019/20’s registration rules remaining in effect. Liam Sorensen, however, returned to South Africa just before lockdown and will not be able to make it back for this tie.
Belfast Harlequins represent a tough opponent based on what happened before the break, scoring 99 goals in 11 games in the Ulster intermediate league.
Irish Over-35 internationals Davy Frazer, John Metcalfe and Chris Lemon will come up against their team mate at that level, Brad Rouhana, who will be a central cog in a youthful line-up.
In the women’s IHT semi-final, Armagh face Lisnagarvey at Ardmore but North Kildare’s game against Portadown is postponed to September 19th due to the localised lockdown in Co Kildare for the past few weeks.
Sunday 6th September 2020
Irish Senior Cup, semi-finals (2019/20): Cookstown v UCD, Steelweld Park, 2.30pm; Lisnagarvey v Glenanne, Comber Road, 3pm
Irish Hockey Trophy, semi-finals (2019/20): South Antrim v Portrane, Friends School, 3pm; Waterford v Belfast Harlequins, Newtown, 2pm
Irish Hockey Trophy, semi-final (2019/20): Armagh v Lisnagarvey, Ardmore Recreation Centre, 2.30pm