Given the history between Glenanne and Pembroke in the last 15 years, it is perhaps fitting that Stephen Butler – the Ireland record caps and goalscoring holder – gets one last shot at his club’s arch-rivals before sailing to shores anew.
The two face off on Saturday afternoon in the semi-final, a stage earlier than last year, with the Glens looking to hold a few extra pre-game aces in their deck.
Bouyed by last week’s Irish Senior Cup final win, the Tallaght side have no EHL qualification concerns to worry about but are gunning for a first ever national double, the upshot of which may draw an easier draw in Europe next time round.
And captain Joe Brennan is hoping to right a few wrongs from days gone by: “The last time we were in this situation, we lost 7-1. We were exhausted as we’d made it quite far in all the competitions. This year, Arul and the management have managed it quite well.
“We were criticised for what happened at the end of the Leinster league. After we lost to Fingal, we gave up and said ‘we’re going to take a proper break’ and took three weeks off so everyone is very, very fresh.
“I do think Pembroke have a lot of pressure on them. For them not to qualify for the EHL would be a disaster because of the team they have but it’s just the way the draw has fallen. Honestly, I’d prefer to play them in the semi-final but it’s going to be an absolute cracker of a game.
“For our club, it would be outstanding. We don’t have the luxuries of a lot of clubs. We struggle in a lot of ways to try and do things because the financial backing isn’t always there.”
Pembroke are the one men’s side remaining with injury concerns with Timmy Lewis ruled out through injury while Justin Sherriff has work commitments. Gordon Elliott faces a race against time to be passed fit while Alan Sothern is said to have a slight niggle but is likely to play.
For captain Alan Giles, though, he believes that Pembroke are one of the sides who can absorb this kind of setback.
“Certainly they do bring masses of experience and strength but the squad has been together for the last two or three years and has grown. We do have a lot of depth and experience in the squad so I wouldn’t be overly concerned.”
The day’s second semi-final pits the two wildcard entries together – Corinthian and Lisnagarvey. The reds have surpassed many expectations this season, pipped to the Leinster title and semi-finalists in their maiden competition.
They face a Garvey side whose division of form has been stark – awesome in the country’s premier competition, patchy in Ulster’s top tier. And CHC player-coach Andrew Cronje knows that it is a format which suits the Hillsborough outfit’s all-action approach.
“They’re in the semi-finals for a reason but we’ve had a good look at them [at last week’s wildcard playoffs] and will have our tactics. They play a high tempo and intensity game so it should be a cracker and we’re looking forward to it.”
Just two competitive fixtures in the last six weeks has allowed Corinthian’s squad to reach full fitness and Cronje believes his side are in ‘perfect’ condition as they seek to add another chapter to a memorable season at Whitechurch Park.
“To put it bluntly, it’s been an amazing season. I knew we had the potential to do really well this year. We set targets at the start of the year which might have sounded unrealistic but getting into the IHL semi-finals was one of those.
“We had a good squad throughout, the guys trained from July all the way through so it didn’t surprise me at all; the guys certainly had it in them.”
As for ’Garvey’s Johnny Gray, this season has resembled a resurrection. The 34-year-old was close to hanging up his stick at the end of last season before being named captain – in a similar manner to Glenanne’s Clinton Murphy a few years back.
A switch to left-back has yielded him 13 goals this term and a nomination for club player of the year has helped the side bounce back to being contenders on the country’s main stage.
“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.
“This year, it’s just about passing on some of my experience. I haven’t done it on my own, its guys like Mark Raphael 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.”