Success for the Irish abroad appears to be a recurring theme as Peter Blakeney’s achievements with Roma followed a week after Ulster trio Geoff McCabe, Eugene Magee and Mikey Watt helped Antwerp’s Dragons to the Belgian national title.
It comes a year after Galway girl Ciara Murphy helped La Gantoise win the women’s top honour in the country and a few years since the Glenanne trio of Stephen Butler, Joe Brennan and Graham Shaw were male top-dogs, again with Dragons.
Indeed, in Holland, the wild geese have come close to glory on a couple of occasions, too, with Phelie Maguire helping HGC to the national grand final while a year later John Jermyn and Iain Lewers reached the EHL finals with the Wassenaar club.
But far going abroad from being a shortcut to silverware, former Banbridge man McCabe told the Hook ambitions were much lower when he and his fellow Irishmen decided to agree terms last summer.
“When we first went to Dragons, our aim was to get into the top four. With seven new players in the squad, from that perspective, to win the Belgian championships and qualify for the EHL was a fantastic success.”
They ended the regular season in second place behind Racing but produced a fine second half performance against the same opposition to suck the life out of their opponents and bag two vital goals to win 4-2.
But the key moment for Dragons occurred five months earlier during the winter break. Despite high self-confidence, McCabe says that a mental block in closing out games hamstrung his side’s early rush at the season but a vital team meeting helped them overcome from whence the side never looked back.
“The first half of the season we knew we definitely had the best squad but drew six games in which all of them we were up until the last minutes.
“So we knew coming into the second half of the season after Christmas, if we could go on a decent run we’d have a chance of finishing in the top four.
“The best thing was to sit down as a team without the coaching staff and say ‘It’s up to us to take control of those final ten minutes’. We adopted a new strategy of going into a control phase, keeping the ball in the channels if we were up in games.
“That especially worked well in the second half of the final against Racing when it was 2-2. If they had gone up, it would have changed things completely but we dominated the second half, keeping the ball wide and in possession.
“We had a lot of video meetings, analysing where we conceded those goals and we definitely eliminated that fault in their team in the second half of the season.”
It’s a fascinating insight into the title-winning season, master-minded in all other parts by coach Colin Batch – the former Australian international of 175 caps who held the record for the quickest World Cup hat-trick until the latest edition of the tournament.
More recently, Batch was the assistant coach in the Aussies gold medal win in Athens 2004. And McCabe enjoyed his laid back style during the season.
“His record speaks for itself. He’s a very relaxed guy. Being involved in an Australian set-up where they don’t need someone hammering down on them to get the best out of them, he brings a calmness and really knows what he’s talking about when it comes to what he wants from the players. He lets us really drive that, especially in training with ourselves and the assistant coaches.”
It also helped the Irish contingent settle in – combined with international team mates playing at KHC Leuven (pictured, Mitch Darling tracking Eugene Magee) and Ulster ladies Alex Speers and Shirley McCay playing at Dragons – that the majority of coaching was conducted in English.
The standard of hockey in the league, meanwhile, was all McCabe hoped for as the support structures in place have helped develop the sport:
“It’s certainly a good step up from Irish league hockey. From our point of view, we had a fantastic squad of 20 players with only two who hadn’t played for Belgium so the standard of training was always at a high level.
“The top six teams were reasonably evenly matched so games were competitive. The players are a lot faster and stronger than Irish hockey.
“There’s a lot of money in the Belgian league to afford to bring in players like ourselves from outside. Even the weaker teams can bring up their standard of training and strengthen their team.
“Wellington, for example, has three Argentinian internationals and even though they didn’t finish high in the league, they’re tricky to play against. From that point of view, because of the money aspect they can bring in that experience whereas in Ireland there isn’t that money.”
And with the prospect of the EHL and the chance to link up with another Irish team-mate next year, McCabe and co have already confirmed they are on board for a second season with Dragons.
“We’ve signed for another year. With the EHL coming up, it would be too good an opportunity to miss and with Stephen [Butler] coming out as well, there’ll be the four of us. From this squad, we’re losing our drag-flicker so it will be great to have Stephen in the team.”
* To see highlights from the Belgian grand final, skip forward to 7:23 of the following video