Andy Smyth says the fear factor that may have previously existed for Irish underage teams has diminished markedly off the back of the national senior team’s ability to mix it with the world’s top ten.
The Irish Under-18 boys coach was speaking to The Hook ahead of the EuroHockey Youth Championships campaign which begins on Sunday against the Netherlands. They follow up with games against Scotland and Germany in the group phase before going into their classification matches.Smyth – who has worked with numerous Irish underage teams over the last 15 years – believes this is one of the stand-out crops of players that he has worked with, saying: “This is the best squad I have had for a long time and we are in the best position for the tournament. Maybe it’s a bold statement because we don’t know what we are up against but the lads are going out there to really enjoy it.”
He adds that the mood of positivity around the senior Irish panels in recent times, with the men finishing fifth in World League Round 3 and the women beating a series of top ten ranked sides, has permeated to the Under-18 setup.
“I also think that the success of the senior men’s team in the past 15 years has changed the perspective. At other tournaments, lads would be waiting outside changing rooms, looking to swap gear with the Dutch or the Germans. Because of our recent success, that perspective has changed.
“The top level is what these guys want to play in. In the past, we have won B and C divisions and it is nice to get a medal. But if the guys want to play senior international, they want to be playing the Dutch, the Germans, the English and the Belgians.”
The coach originally named the panel for the tournament in May with a couple of caveats, namely John Mullins and Freddie Morris, but both have passed fitness tests in the interim to see the side at full-strength.
Since then, the side stepped back from training to give full focus on their state exams before the group returned to group training in the past few weeks. That has included four challenge matches, drawing with Pembroke and Three Rock Rovers while they have gone on to win games against selections from Lisnagarvey and an Ulster team.
Smyth says he is delighted with the level of conditioning the side has maintained in spite of the exam period. He adds that he does not know a huge amount about the opposition at this stage but previous tournaments have been informative.
For instance, at Under-16 level his side were carved open by a Seve van Ass-inspired Dutch side. Within a few months, he was part of the Dutch national training panel. As such, there is potential for sides in the competition to have some serious star quality but Smyth says the focus will be on playing to his side’s own philosophy rather than worrying about what might transpire from their opponent.
Indeed, he says that some of his players may cause similar headaches for the opposition.“We don’t really know what we are getting ourselves in for with the Dutch but, maybe unlike some previous years, we are not going to set up to defend on the halfway line. Previously, I might have been nervous in the past about what they are going to do but we will find out in the first quarter what we are dealing with.
“From our side, one or two boys here are not far off making a big jump. My jaw has dropped at how good some of these guys are and they are not far from pushing for a place with the senior squad.”
The campaign begins on Sunday against the Dutch before they face Scotland on Monday and Germany next Wednesday.
Ireland Under-18 boys panel: Peter Coulter (Ashton), James Milliken (Lisnagarvey), Ziggy de Boe Agnew (Avoca), Mark McNellis (Lisnagarvey), Peter McKibbin (Annadale), Kyle Marshall (Banbridge), Keith O’Hare (Pembroke), Daragh Walsh (Three Rock Rovers), Sean Murray (Lisnagarvey), Ryan Getty (Lisnagarvey), David Nolan (Monkstown), Callum Robson (Annadale), Geoff Cole (Monkstown), Freddie Morris (Three Rock Rovers), Matthew Nelson (Lisnagarvey), Julian Dale (Cork Harlequins), Zach McClelland (Portadown), John Mullins (Clontarf)
Coach: Andy Smyth
Assistant coach: Gareth Borland
Manager: Mark Murray
Assistant manager/video: Scott Beattie
Physio: Clare Cooke
Boys EuroHockey Youth Championships (Santander, July 19-25 – all Irish times)
Sunday, July 19: Ireland vs Netherlands, 9.45am; Germany vs Scotland, 12pm
Monday, July 20: Ireland vs Scotland, 4.45pm; Germany vs Netherlands, 7pm
Wednesday, July 22: Ireland vs Germany, 8.45am; Netherlands vs Scotland, 11am
Friday, July 24 – Saturday, July 25: classification matches