Carl’s Challenge Cup Report

Cambridge HC Men’s club headed for the heart of Transylvania to make their EHF European Challenge debut against professional side Odorhei HC of Romania.  Coach Agi Foeglein’s 18-man squad knew that two games back-to-back in as many days would be a tough ask, all the more so against full-time professionals who had trained for as many hours in the preceding week as Cambridge had since the domestic season start in September.

Cambridge were not able to call upon all the players who helped them qualify last season as several have returned to their home countries and registered with other teams, but the level of commitment was amply demonstrated by left wing Marc Briant flying in from his new post in the US and injured half Francisco Seco playing his part as specialist penalty taker despite torn knee ligaments.

Odorhei, currently fourth in the Romanian league but with games in hand fielded a tall, powerful squad assembled from all over Eastern Europe. In fact, only three of the Odorhei sixteen were under 190cm in height and seven players were 196cm or over, including the 2m tall Georgian national keeper Tevzadze.

The Cambridge squad left for the airport at 5 am on the Friday and by 8pm were warming up on court for a 2 hour training session in the Odorhei hall.  Saturday saw the first of the two matches, which was televised in Romania and streamed live on the internet, allowing Cambridge supporters and players past and present to watch from all around the world.  Coach Agi Foeglein was able to play her first choice squad thanks to international clearance for former Hong Kong junior goalkeeper Darren Leung being agreed just 4 hours before the game.

Cambridge are not used to walking out under TV lights in front of a noisy sell-out crowd of 1500, but the players relished the experience.  The formalities over, Cambridge took the court knowing that they would have to be on top of their game for the full hour to avoid humiliation against a Odorhei squad who reached the quarter finals of the same competition last season.

The trend was set for the first half when Odorhei immediately hit Cambridge on the fast break and opened up a small lead before Marc Briant could get Cambridge on the board with a fast break of his own.  When Cambridge could prevent Odorhei fast breaks, they showed they could amply defend the home teams set plays, and excellent saves from keepers Darren Leung and Cedric Gomy were roundly applauded by the raucous home crowd.  At the other end, however, Cambridge were struggling to find the net with regularity.  On several occasions the hard-working left half Zsolt Majoros managed to force an opening in the home defence, only to see his shots fly agonisingly wide.  Indeed, the match was effectively over as a competition by half-time with the home team leading 18-5.  Cambridge re-grouped at half-time and came out very much with nothing to lose.  Odorhei had stopped running so many fast breaks, and for stretches of the second half Cambridge were able to match them goal for goal.  The home supporters were also roundly cheering some excellent Cambridge moves in what for them had become a party atmosphere.  Cambridge however were never able to make in-roads into the Odorhei lead, and the match finished 35-14.  For Cambridge Zsolt Majoros and Alejandro Garcia both scored three, whilst Toby Barber, Chris Bentz and Marc Briant all added 2 apiece

The next day, Cambridge made two changes with reserve keeper Graham Jack coming in for the injured Darren Leung and Kevin Guy replacing line player Jean-Daniel Malcor.  Despite the result of the previous day the hall was once again at near-capacity, and the crowd clearly hoping for a feast of showmanship handball.  Odorhei made just one change to their squad, a mark of respect for the visitors that they were still being taken seriously.

Neither team disappointed the crowd as they exchanged goal for goal in a much more open match than the previous day.  Cambridge made a more assured start, opening the scoring to lead for the first and only time in the tie. Though not able to keep pace with the hosts, they were never disgraced and produced solid co-ordinated defence and smart interplay in attack between Kovacs,Bentz, Majoros and Garcia.

Zsolt Majoros had put the demons of the previous day behind him and was consistently on target, as was Alejandro Garcia as he alternated between positions on the line and the half.  A slightly more credible score of 21:10 at half time reflected the flow of the game, but didn’t speak for the entertaining spectacle it had become.  Cambridge maintained their momentum right to the final buzzer, but were unable to restrict their hosts to under 40 goals, as the game finished 43:21.  For Cambridge Alejandro Garcia netted an admirable 8 goals, and Zsolt Majoros 6. Chris Bentz and Pedro Albuquerque added 2 apiece.

The Cambridge players enjoyed a final lap of the court, thanking and high-fiveing the fans and families who lines the court side.

Club chairman Carl Norman said: “Despite the defeats, I am really proud of what the team achieved here in Romania. For an amateur club such as Cambridge to score 21 in a match against a team of full-time professional players is a magnificent achievement.  Odorhei were excellent hosts and we knew they would be a step-up in class for us, but our players and coaches gave their all, which is everything we could ask for. The home team players were amazed to learn that our players are entirely self-funding and pay for kit and training themselves; their players get salaries and cars provided for them.  We’ll soon be back to the harsh reality of the National Super8, and our struggle to qualify again for this fantastic competition – but I know this experience will continue to inspire our players.”