Ards breathed new life into the ailing patient that is indoor hockey in Ireland with their magnificent achievement in preserving second-tier status at the EuroHockey Club Indoor Champions Trophy tournament in Dundee at the weekend, writes John Flack.
True, they stayed up by virtue of finishing seventh out of the eight competing teams and winning just one match but their performance should be put in context.
Without exception the teams they were up against, play the indoor version of the game for weeks on end when outdoor hockey takes a back-seat during the winter.
In contrast Ards had just one day of competitive action to prepare for the Dundee event as they claimed the Irish title for the fifth year-in-a-row.
Younger readers won’t remember the days when indoor hockey was treated seriously by clubs other than Ards and a few others in this country and Ireland enjoyed considerable success at international level.
In the day when we had fully-fledged provincial indoor leagues, Randalstown represented Ireland in Europe on three occasions, winning the old B Division in Vienna in 1993 and then finishing a superb fifth in the top flight in Berlin the following year.
The national team finished a very creditable fifth at the European Championships in Elmshorn, Germany in 1990 but, sadly, the then Irish Ladies Hockey Union decided to withdraw the side from the next such tournament three years later.
Ards stalwart Gillian Murphy was a member of the Ireland side that did so well in Germany and she was delighted at her club’s performance at the weekend 26 years on.
“We were disappointed at the ILHU’s decision to pull out the national team but not surprised because all the emphasis was on preparing to host the 1994 World Cup in Dublin at the time.” she recalled.
“In those days we had an Under 21 indoor set up, inter-pros, a home nations tournament as well as the European Championships and we managed to fit in our outdoor hockey as well!
“Huge crowds – well into four-figures would turn up at venues like the Valley Leisure Centre to watch the inter-pros and all-Ireland club championships.”
Back to the present and Ards captain Caroline Adams would love to see the re-introduction of an expanded indoor set-up, having been one of many non-international players to spend several weeks without a match earlier in December and January as the EY Irish Hockey League took a break.
“I would love to see Ulster move to a similar set-up that they have in Scotland, England and most of the continent with a winter break and an indoor league format. ” said Adams. “This would solve the issue of six-week long break and also the issue with postponements due to the weather in the winter months.”
Caroline’s predecessor as team captain, Naomi Elliott, formerly played for Bowdown Hightown when she was a student in England where indoor hockey is an established part of the calendar.
“Having had no experience of indoor hockey I was quite unaware of their indoor specialism and success in both England and Europe which was harboured and driven by ex-international Tina Cullen.” she said.
“Sally Walton, who played against us in Dundee, also plays an influential role in the success Bowden have had. They are realistic in their approach to indoor – their outdoor performance and preparation is not compromised.
“Indoor preparation usually begins late October-early November which is compulsory for all 1st X1 squad players. They train once weekly in addition to their outdoor training.
“As the indoor season approached there was a real buzz in the club – it was an exciting time and I could tell the Bowden girls held high expectations of getting to the ‘Super Sixes’ finals day in Wembley Stadium.
“England have worked hard to increase the profile of indoor. The finals day is hosted at Wembley Stadium where over 4,000 spectators come to watch. “They have marketed it as ‘super sixes’, the atmosphere is electric – music, lights, commentators and TV coverage and, for me, getting to that finals day was an incredible experience.
“I feel my indoor game is of a high standard because I was lucky to learn from, and train with, some of the best indoor players in England and possibly Europe.”
By their superb performance in Europe, indoor women’s hockey in Ireland has perhaps come off the life-support machine and moved into intensive care to continue the medical analogy.
More by accident than design we now have a mid-winter break from the IHL at least, with warm-weather training for the international players a norm in January.
The introduction of an expanded league, along the lines of the men’s set-up in Leinster, might just see the ailing patient that is indoor hockey in Ireland moved into the recovery ward.
European Indoor Club Champions Trophy results: Ards 1 (T Macleod) Dundee Wanderers (SCO) 8; Ards 1 (C Brown) Royal Pingouin (BEL) 8; Ards 2 (C Brown, K Harvey) Bowdown Hightown (ENG) 3; Ards 2 (C Brown K Harvey) Mladost (CRO) 1; Ards 2 (C Brown, A Benson) Highway (TUR) 3.