I could tell you our journey to Luxembourg started with the chime of a 3am alarm. But the truth is the journey started many months earlier.
Our recent matches vs Faroe Islands and Luxembourg served as the qualifying round for the Small Countries Division finals, to be held in Iceland a year from now. It’s a biennial event and a regular fixture in the NI Senior Men’s calendar. Unusually, they also served as the first round qualifiers for the World Championships in Italy in 2018. Finish in the top 2 of your group and not only do you progress to the SCD final, but you also draw 5 of the big guns from Europe in WC qualifying round 2.
The program kicked off with open trials in January of 2015 and a training squad of around 20 players was quickly established. With many of our players based in England, a series of weekend training camps were scheduled. Coached by Gerry Ford and Sarah Jankowitz, sessions ran all day Saturday and Sunday with a midday break for opposition video analysis. Patterns, habits and systems were noted and training tailored to what we’d seen. Specific plans were devised for the teams we’d be up against. Sarah left us in January 2016 for personal reasons but we continued onwards as the tournament got closer.
March meant squad selection time – 20 became 10. Our friends at PVC provided competitive match practice as the days ticked by and we began to peak. And then disaster struck. Mark Fulton, widely fancied to become starting setter, broke his foot during a league decider with his club Richhill. Despite best efforts and a lot of physiotherapy we ran out of time and travelled with a squad of 9.
We arrived in Luxembourg on a Thursday evening – the day before our first match versus the Faroe Islands. Paperwork was reviewed and signed off whilst a 90 min court session allowed the players to get familiar with their surroundings. Somewhat unbelievably this was the first time the 9 had been in a session together. Graham Bell’s additional opposition research provided insight and assurance. Food, sleep, food, a team meeting, a brief Friday afternoon training session, and we were ready.
The referee’s whistle got us started at 7pm Friday local time.
The match was a grinder. If ever there was a volleyball game of inches, this was it. Point for point, neither team was able to establish much of a lead. With sets exceeding the usual 25 point winning mark and multiple set points against, the team showed composure and focus to win 3-1 (25-21, 24-26, 29-27, 26-24).
There was little time to celebrate; we had Luxembourg to prepare for. We repeated our routine and got underway at 7pm Saturday with a bit of an audience.
We started slowly and never recovered. Perhaps the added expectation of beating the Faroes weighed on us, maybe it was an off night at the worst time. Two sets disappeared in the blink of an eye. Our form returned in the third, battling with the hosts point for point but it wasn’t to be our night. A couple of questionable calls at 19-19 gave Luxembourg some space and they closed out the set. Final score 25-14, 25-13, 25-20.
Then the waiting game began. Whilst we hadn’t played to our full potential vs Luxembourg, the win vs Faroe Islands was well deserved. Months on court and months of scouting had served us well – it had probably seen us through to the next rounds of our competitions. But that relied on the final match going to form; if Luxembourg lost, then things would get messy.
We celebrated the end of our involvement on Saturday night. Coincidentally, a sitting volleyball coaching course was being held in the arena as our matches were being played. To help apply what they’d learned, we became guinea pigs for the course attendees on Sunday morning. A narrow 25-23 win over the coaches rounded out a very enjoyable morning.
A quick shower and a bite to eat and we were back in the arena for the final Luxembourg-Faroe match. Thankfully the game went to plan with the home team winning 3-0. With that, we had qualified.
The work for next year’s competitions has already begun. We’ll know in the next few weeks who we’re up against and exactly the size of the task ahead. There’s no question about it – getting ready to face some of the biggest teams in the world will be a tough task. But it’s the sort of challenge you take on gladly, it’s the sort of challenge you hope you get to face.
All of a sudden that 3am start doesn’t seem so bad.
NI Senior Men’s National Volleyball Programme