**Ulster-based reporter John Flack gives his views on a cracking EYHL tie between Hermes and Pegasus as well as mobile phones in the dug-out, the making of leaders and the craic associated with the new league
Hermes and Pegasus have had many titanic battles over the years but last Saturday’s 3-3 EY Irish Hockey League draw in Belfast will go down as one of the best ever contests between these two great rivals.
The national league has had its critics, particularly north of the border, but anyone who was privileged to have watched the game at Upper Malone couldn’t deny that it was a superb advertisement for the competition.
Hermes led three times but, on each occasion, Pegasus came storming back and both teams agreed that a draw was a fair reflection of a pulsating 60 minutes.
The Dublin side were without several regulars including injured Ireland duo of Nikki Evans and Naomi Carroll but they had an ace in their pack in the shape of Anna O’Flanagan who was the orchestrator-in-chief of many of her side’s attacking moves.
O’Flanagan ran herself into the ground and set up two of the goals, one of which was finished off by Ellen Curran, just as the ball was about to cross the line.
During the often fraught debates that preceded the introduction of the expanded IHL, then Irish Hockey Association Chief Executive, Mike Heskin, talked of the role models that the league would create and the 25-year-old striker certainly fits the bill.
Any youngster watching Saturday’s game would have learned a lot from O’Flanagan’s performance and, in general, the pace and intensity of the hockey that was on offer from both sets of players.
“I don’t think missing players had any impact on my performance personally, my role never changes.” said Anna. “I am aware of what my role is and I try to stay focused on doing that to the best of my ability.
“I always try to give 100% each week no matter who is playing on our team or who we play, so Saturday would have been no different.
“I thought the result against Pegasus was probably fair. Despite leading at certain points in the game we were always hanging on by a thread, a win for us probably never looked overly convincing so I don’t think disappointment really came into it.
“Considering the amount of chances and corners they had, especially in the first half, it was great to come away with a point. We knew it was going to be one of our toughest fixtures, especially missing a few players, so in the overall scheme of things a draw was a positive result for us.”
There was a never-say-die attitude on display from both sets of players and it was a game played in a superb spirit from start to finish.
Before the start, Technical Officer Norma Gartside refused Hermes coach Rudi Wortmann’s request to move out of earshot some yards from the neutral bench, with a smile.
“Okay then I will sit here and say nothing.” said Rudi. “The hat I’m wearing isn’t particularly appetising but I will eat it if you’re true to your word.” was Norma’s response. Needless to say, her hat remained in situ throughout the 60 minutes.
What also struck me was the participative nature of the team discussions during the quarter-breaks and at half-time.
Several players chipped in and expressed their views and, at one point, Anna O’Flanagan borrowed the white-board from Rudi to say her bit.
I recall watching a 16-year old Randalstown player doing exactly the same thing a couple of years ago when she demanded the tactics board from coach Harry McNeill. I remember saying to myself at the time: “There is a future leader. She will go far in the sport.” her name was Zoe Wilson and, yes, she is going places as four senior international caps for Ireland last month in Valencia illustrate, with the prospect of many more to come.
I would tend to split my reporting duties on a Saturday between the Ulster Premier League and the IHL and, unsurprisingly, the standard of the latter is higher.
But there are things that even less gifted players can learn by merely observing the top players in action and indeed when they are sitting on the bench.
It annoys me when I see players sitting fiddling with their phones when awaiting the call to action instead of concentrating on the game in front of them. One Premier League club in the north I know has banned mobile phones from the bench. In fact the players are not allowed to talk about anything other than the game they are watching until it’s over. I’m glad to say none of the Pegasus or Hermes players, when on the bench, looked near their mobiles until the final whistle.
The introduction of the ‘full’ IHL has also, perhaps inadvertently, re-introduced something that, in the north at least, was very much a thing of the past. The craic.
Obviously when teams travel long distances, they need fed and watered and, on Saturday, both sets of players intermingled after the match in the palatial clubhouse at Queen’s University’s Upper Malone base.
These days the social scene in the domestic leagues, certainly in Ulster, is dead. Players arrive changed, shake hands at the end of the game and get straight into their cars and head home.
Let’s leave the last word to Anna O’Flanagan and her thoughts on the IHL as we approach the business end of the inaugural competition.
“I think it’s is a really good concept. The quality of hockey week in week out has improved and the consistency of this quality can only serve to improve everyone who plays.” she said.
“It is something Ireland had to move towards in an attempt to improve the game. A lot of the European leagues have similar structures and its important to keep up to enable us to compete on an European level.
“I understand the travel/costs makes it tougher, especially for the teams with longer journeys each week, but over time as we get used to the idea and see the level of hockey improve we will notice that the pros probably outweigh the cons.”