DEAN Birrell is excited to see what Oxford City Stars can achieve this season.

The Oxpens-based side start their NIHL Division 1 South campaign with a daunting trip to champions Streatham Redhawks this Saturday, followed by their home opener against Slough Jets on Sunday.

Stars have not played a league game since coronavirus cut short the 2019/20 season last March, a month before Birrell came in.

The former Chelmsford Chieftains and Peterborough Pirates player has had plenty of time to get used to the club and he likes what he sees.

The head coach said: “It’s a real sleeping giant.

“The club can be as big as it wants to be.

“The potential is there.”

Birrell moved to Abingdon when he became Stars boss, but the constraints of lockdown meant he could have been anywhere in the world.

With ice rinks shut and travel discouraged, his initial signings were sealed over the phone.

He said: “I built a team that didn’t get to see the light of day – I didn’t even meet a player.

“I had to rely on coaches, managers and players to get the lowdown on who I should be looking at.

“We had the squad but we couldn’t get on the ice.

“It’s difficult to phone up players who you’ve never met face-to-face.”

The 2020/21 campaign was cancelled and Stars opted out of a NIHL mini-season in January, so Birrell has had plenty of time to assemble his squad.

Key players including Josh Florey, Joe Edwards and Mike Whillock have re-signed, while youngsters with roots in Oxford, like Lex Smith, Griff Eden-Parish and Theo Bundock, have returned.

Birrell said: “I wanted to give opportunities to Oxford boys who left for pastures new.

“I don’t push players to come and join my club.

“I’m honest and believe that if they want to be with us they’ll join.

“It didn’t take much for those boys.”

Stars returned to training in July, but they only get one hour a week on the ice – although plenty of work away from the rink allows them to go ‘gung ho’ in every session, says Birrell.

They beat Coventry NIHL Blaze 8-0 and 7-0 in a double-header a fortnight ago, their first action for 542 days.

It has all been leading up to Saturday’s game against 2019/20 champions Streatham, who started with two wins last weekend.

Edwards and Danny Williams are unavailable, presenting an opportunity to some younger players, but Birrell is raring to go.

He said: “We don’t know what we’re up against, but neither do they.

“We’re going into the lion’s den – it’s a case of ‘welcome to the league, gentlemen’.

“It’s a real challenge, and Slough are no slouches either.

“I think the league’s going to be a lot tighter than people expect.”