** To vote for The Hook and help its bid for funding from The Arthur Guinness Projects, click the image below; you can vote once a day
John Jackson says that Ireland’s young stars have the potential to fill the considerable midfield boots that are unavailable for the European Championships this week with a semi-final place the clear target.
The recently installed skipper has lauded the ability of Kirk Shimmins, Stephen Cole and Peter Brown as Andrew Meredith’s side looks to find its next generation.
With John Jermyn and Geoff McCabe currently on international hiatus and David Ames moving to England, the turnover in midfield players was put into sharp relief at World League round three in Rotterdam in June. But Jackson says that the Euros is the perfect stomping ground for the new faces to make their name.
“Kirk Shimmins’ progress in the last few weeks has been nothing short of outstanding. He has shown he is more than capable to tackle this tournament,” he told the Hook.
“International hockey is a different kettle of fish but what we have experienced in Hamburg, knowing the rate they have progressed, I feel confident that in this tournament they will continue to progress and hopefully people will see these guys are more than capable.”
It came as part of a typically positive interview from the Mossley man who says that the side is very keen to “break moulds” and breach the top four of this competition for the first time.
A World Cup berth is on offer for the overall winner of the competition but, with five of the top ten ranked nations in the competition, the competition looks a stern test.
Indeed, they open up on Sunday with a tie against the Netherlands who put them to the sword in Rotterdam and also beat Ireland in the Hamburg Masters in July.
The other two ties in the group represent opportunity. Poland on Monday are a mixed back in similar transition. They feature YMCA’s Krystian Makowski but are without stalwarts Artur Mikula and Tomasz Dutkiewicz who provided the backbone to their side for many years and have dropped to 20th in the world.
England, meanwhile, are much changed from the side that reached the Olympic semi-finals with just eight of that panel still in situ. Creative fulcrum Ashley Jackson is out injured along with Mark Gleghorne but Iain Lewers is included after almost a full year out of competitive action.
Ally Brogdon is another strong returnee from injury but if there was a time to catch England on the hop in tournament play, this might be it.
“First place is obviously the Holy Grail and if we’re lucky enough to get to the semi-finals, that would be our target. The big thing for this group over the past number of years is about breaking moulds.
“The group represents a fair chance of us making the semi-finals for the first time. It’s well documented Ireland have never finished beyond fifth at the European championships but I’m confident we can turn a few heads and get a top four place.
“Poland shouldn’t be under-estimated and will be very difficult to break down but we have a good tradition of beating sides ranked below ourselves. Hopefully that will continue.
“Against England, it will be incredibly competitive. I know there is ten places in ranking between us but their squad has changed immensely from the Olympics last year. We would be quite confident for what may be a tense, nervy affair with a semi-final place for the winner.”
He takes over the captaincy from Ronan Gormley for the tournament but says that is set in stone for the future, especially with the uncertainty over what the 2014 men’s international programme will bring.
Jackson, though, does have a decent record when wearing the armband, leading the side to Celtic Cup success in 2009 and 2012 but says the leadership is always more of a collective effort.
“For this tournament, I’m obviously very proud but we’ll see what happens after the tournament.
“We’re lucky enough to have more than a handful of leaders in the group who have served the team well in recent competitions. We rotate it throughout competitions with the likes of Andy McConnell, Eugene Magee and Geoff McCabe who are more than capable of leading Ireland.”
Ireland enter this competition with a much reduced build-up programme but Jackson says, comparatively, it is always something the side has had to cope with and does not believe a reduced number of warm-up games will unduly affect the side.
“It’s just a fact of the situation but I think we have been quite at dealing with it. It’s something we will always have to contend with; there’s always going to be teams with larger budgets being able to prepare more.
“We just deal with it. It’s quite a strong trait of ours to just get on with it and prepare with whatever time we do have by making the most out of it. Last weekend, we had a camp where we trained three times a day. We are quite happy doing that. It will show in Boom that, even with limited preparation, we can still perform to a top four standard.”
Ireland mens team for European Championships, August 18-25, in Boom, Belgium: J Bell (Lisnagarvey, 23 caps), P Brown (Banbridge, 11), C Cargo (Reading, 77), P Caruth (Braxgata, 73), S Cole (Monkstown, 7), M Darling (Three Rock Rovers, 101), D Fitzgerald (GK, Monkstown, 17), K Good (Monkstown, 15), R Gormley (Krefeld, 172), C Harte (SCHC, 118), D Harte (GK, Kampong, 116), J Jackson (captain, Braxgata 127), S Loughrey (Team Bath Buccaneers, 40), E Magee (Krefeld, 168), B McCandless (Banbridge, 50), S O’Donoghue (UCD, 34), K Shimmins (Pembroke Wanderers, 3), M Watt (SCHC, 132)
Group B fixtures (all in Boom, Belgium; times are Irish)
Sunday: Ireland vs Netherlands, 5pm; England vs Poland, 9am
Monday, August 19: Ireland vs Poland, 3pm; England vs Netherlands, 7pm
Wednesday, August 21: Ireland vs England, 10.30am; Netherlands vs Poland 7pm