Ireland’s Under-21 women used 33 players across three games this weekend as they won their series against Wales with two wins and a draw at Santry Avenue.
On Friday evening, they went 1-0 up when Sara Twomey volleyed in from a corner from a Ruth Maguire cross that popped up at head height.
The impressive Edel Nyland – who hails from Tipperary but is currently in the US with the Longwood Lancers – added the second after the big break, bursting by a couple of tackles and then shooting in on her reverse. She then played a part, along with Sophie Barnwell, in setting up Abbie Russell to slot the third goal.
Saturday’s tie was a 4-1 win amid a deluge of rain. Nyland, Taite Doherty, Hannah McLoughlin and Hannah Irwin all scored for a second successive win.
They closed out the series with a 0-0 draw, creating numerous chances with a series of penalty corners not going to plan while a couple of other openings clipped the post.
Nonetheless, it marks an upbeat starting point for an extensive programme for the squad as they prepare for the Junior European Championships in Valencia which start in late August. The plan has been put together by coach Dave Passmore in what he sees as a vitally important age group to develop.
“We played 33 players, including 17 who played underage last year and four or five of them who have never played international hockey [at younger age groups],” he told The Hook
“We have three months until we go to the tournament the European Championships. It’s been really about giving the players an opportunity to play international hockey. Some of them really stood up.
“The second objective is to get together for a longer period. We have had loads of one-off days but to get a series and to work on specific objectives for three games.”
He described the squad’s approach as “a very athlete-centred environment”, encouraging players to lead the post-match debriefs and video sessions and also to come up with their objectives for games and apply them on the pitch.
In total, the group will have 17 matches with three games against Scotland in Belfast in three weeks time before a fitness block and two against England on July 8 and 9.
A training phase of three-day camps follows before they go to Madrid to play a top-notch Spanish side who were narrowly denied a Junior World Cup bronze last year. That takes place in Madrid in August.
The panel of 18 will be selected after that and they will go to Belgium for a series and then on to Valencia for the tournament.
Putting together such a programme has been quite a feat as they have effectively been given zero budget from Hockey Ireland with the scope of their programme based on what they can raise themselves.
This includes buying their own kit, putting money toward balls and cones and making contributions for each training session and match they take part in.
“I want to pay testament to the girls to commit to that kind of programme with zero budget,” Passmore said when asked how they have been able to finance it all.
“We have been very fortunate to get a donation to the squad for over half of the programme. It’s an investment from that person for young females in sport – not a hockey person or a parent, a really generous person who wishes to remain anonymous.
“The girls raised €15,000 in a raffle and then the players have paid every day that they have played with the panel.
“When players and their families are paying a lot to go to college, it’s tough. It’s tough having no funding; they have to pay for their kit; right down to the balls and cones.
“There’s no shortfall; they just have to pay each time they come along and we would love it if there could be a kit sponsor if anyone there is anyone out there!”
Passmore sees it as hugely important to have a programme of this ilk in place, not just to prepare for the Euros but on an ongoing basis to make sure that a cycle of players does not get left without elite hockey.
“What I am really keen to do is to keep a development squad running so that it is not just the Europeans and then nothing happens. After we got promoted three years ago, there was nothing.
“What he haven’t done is develop the older players [from that squad]. The girls that have another two years after this year will have another two years going toward the next Europeans.
“I want to keep the programme going with them training with this squad even if they are not going to Valencia.
“That’s how we need to view hockey in this country. It is where we got good senior teams from, through good coaching at underage level on a cyclical basis rather than one-off tournaments.”
And having an ongoing group in place can underpin a push for the 2020 Junior World Cup and feed into the national team. Qualifying for that is via the 2019 Europeans where the qualifiers will come from the A division. Therefore, staying in the top tier in 2017’s Euros is a priority.
“There’s enough potential in this group to be competitive against anyone but the real target initially is staying up and that allows us to try and qualify for the next World Cup. Get there and that’s where real development comes.”