Is this the biggest ever sporting event to hit NI?

Havelock Park will be awash with colour in October. Pic: Presseye.
Havelock Park will be awash with colour in October. Pic: Presseye.
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Banbridge is set to host possibly the biggest sporting event ever to come to Northern Ireland.

Stage One of next season’s European Hockey League is due to be played at Havelock Park from 7-9 October, with Banbridge taking on some of the elites of world hockey.

And Banbridge Hockey Club Head Coach Mark Tumilty says it will mark one of the biggest weekends in Northern Ireland’s sporting history.

“No sporting event in Banbridge’s past even comes close. Has there been any bigger sporting event in Northern Ireland?” he mused. “Ulster Rugby have played some big matches but to have so many Olympians in one place at one time is unbelievable. Yes, hockey is a minority spot but hopefully with Ireland being at the Olympics, its profile will be up.”

The event, effectively the Champions League of hockey, will see some of the world’s biggest hockey stars descend on the area - perhaps even some Olympic champions by the time the competition rolls around.

The big names include world goalkeeper of the year David Harte along with his Kampong side. Add to those Team GB stars Iain Lewers and Ashley Jackson of Holcombe Hockey Club and it’s a field full of stars.

“I didn’t see it coming at all,” beamed Tumilty after last Tuesday’s announcement. “We’ve run two very successful All Ireland finals in recent seasons, which definitely put our name in the hat.

“I knew the club had been sounded out about it but I didn’t think it would get over the line. It came as a real shock when I got the phone-call from John Bell to tell me it was happening.”

Among the clubs that Bann will be coming up against are Belgian giants Royal Leopold, Holland’s Kampong, England’s Holcombe as well as Cardiff & Met (Wales) and Kelburne from Scotland.

And with those will come supporters to add to Bann’s own famous bunch of fans.

“It’s a big boost for the club and for the area as well, in a tourism sense and everything else that comes with it,” said Tumilty.

“It’s a big step for the club. It will take a lot of effort but that’s all been considered. It’s the biggest club hockey event in the world.

“Kampong will come with Olympic medal winning players because Holland are very, very likely to get a medal. What if GB got the gold? The place will be bouncing.

“There will hopefully be good TV coverage too. That maybe depends on how the Olympics go but the matches will the on the EHL TV app anyway.”

Of course, a lot of water will go under the bridge between now and then. Bann men Eugene Magee, Matthew Bell and Drew Carlisle are all vying for a spot in Ireland’s Olympic team.

And back at the club, Tumilty says the IHL remains the priority.

He said: “Hosting the EHL will give us as a squad a big boost. I met with the players last week and there’s already a big focus there.

“We can’t wait but at the same time, we have to remember its a bonus for us. Our main goal is still to close the gap on Garvey. It was too big last year and we know we have to be more consistent. We didn’t adapt well enough and the mentality was an issue, which the coaches have to take responsibility for and look at.

“We will be better next year,” he vowed.

And Tumilty didn’t rule out bringing in a few new faces to help with that improvement.

He said: “There are a few players I want to talk to. If I didn’t get anyone else, I’m happy with the squad but I’ll ask a few players and see. It helps to freshen things up and keeps up competition for places, which is key.

“We’ve learnt a lot from last season. The lads are all hungry and keen to get going again.”