A year ago, Johnny Gray was playing at Grange Road in what might have been his swansong, thoughts of retirement abounding after a tough season with Lisnagarvey had just yielded an IHL wildcard place.
Fast-forward a year and the 34 year-old is a club player-of-the-year nominee and is already committed to giving at least one more year – along with former Irish internationals Mark Raphael and Brian Waring – to the Hillsborough club’s cause.
“This time last year, I’d decided that I was stopping. With a lot of young guys coming through and Mark Tumilty taking things a certain direction but when he stopped, we didn’t really know where we were going.
“You get into your mid-30s and you do think about retiring. It’s such a young man’s game and guys like Raph and Brian Waring both have young families which are obviously the priority in life. But none of us were going to stop when we didn’t have a coach and didn’t know what direction the club was going.
“A lot of the older guys in the club were saying we need you to do captain to take things forward and try and organise things. I thought about it over the summer and said ‘yeah, I will’.”
And, while a similar return has come from the Ulster Premier league and the IHL wildcards, Gray has enjoyed an epic season, leading his side to the All-Ireland semi-finals against Corinthian (Saturday, 5pm).
Under new coach Drew Campbell, he has switched to left-back for the first time since his Ireland U-21 days, playing a marauding role which has yielded 13 goals.
Entering the ’Garvey set-up as a teenager, Gray – in tandem with Raphael and Waring – hoped to reignite some of the spirit and standards for the new generation which greeted him when he first entered one of the most successful club teams in Irish history in the mid-90s.
Of the four semi-finalists, Gray is the one interviewee not to cite the IHL as a main target at the start of the season but merely to find the best direction to guide the club’s youth back to being national contenders in the years to come.
“This year, it’s just about passing on some of my experience. I haven’t done it on my own, its guys like Raph and, Brian Waring; fellas I’ve come through mini-hockey with. We worked as a unit.
“What I try and do is set an example for the guys to follow; this is what I expect from you. I came in with the likes of Kirkwood, Taylor, Clarke and Dowd. Those guys who set very high standards that we didn’t live up to last year. We’ve been trying all year to get the message across that this is what our team and club is about.”
“The player of the year nomination shocked me, though. The chairman rang me to say I’d been shortlisted I thought it was a wind-up and that it was for someone else. It’s a fantastic honour but the biggest honour was being appointed captain for Garvey and all years that’s driven me on and hopefully done a decent job.”
An extensive pre-season, including team activities on the north coast of Ulster, set the tone from an early stage of standards required.
Breaking hoodoos at Coolnafranky and Annadale helped up the ante while their growing resilience was probably best defined by their 7-0 win over Three Rock Rovers – a side they lost to 5-2 on home turf but more significantly had beaten them 3-2 just seven days earlier.
And now they have another wildcard qualifier standing in their way of another huge day out but Gray feels the pressure is off, somewhat, having completed the first phase of rebuilding the famous team.
“Corinthian are a tough side, second in Leinster, a sharp outfit and they’ll be tough to beat. All the teams down there this weekend will be tough to beat so we’ve nothing to really lose at all.
“We’ve got ourselves back into a position where we should be and are serious of developing into a force next year in Ulster.
“Now that our younger lads are getting this experience of what it’s like to play in an All-Ireland semi-final, we want to build the squad for next and compete in the league. Whether or not it happens, that’s the plan. We’re positive about where we’re going and looking forward to next year.
“We’re trying to enjoy playing and it’s paid off.”