Caren and Irish junior men left to reflect on harsh realities of European relegation

Men’s EuroHockey Junior Championships
Pool C: Ireland 11 (L Madeley 5, S Wolfe 2, J Mullins, C Empey, G Cole, J Dale) Portugal 2 (J Basilio, V Ribeiro)
Ireland’s Under-21 men claimed their first win in the EuroHockey Junior Championships top tier since the turn of the century but it will be of cold comfort to Jonny Caren and his side who suffered relegation to the second tier for 2019.

At the start of the day, Ireland needed to cause a 19-goal swing in their favour between the Portugal tie and England beating Austria by a decent margin. But the English were unable to break down a stubborn Austrian defence often enough, closing out a 1-0 result.

Geoff Cole is consoled by Portugal’s Vicente Mourao. Pic: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

It left Ireland needing a massive 18-goal win though there was an outside chance given the Portuguese had conceded double-figures on three occasions. Ireland started brilliantly with Simon Wolfe turning home a Julian Dale cross from the right for 1-0 after two minutes.

Wolfe again netted in the third minute with a ripper of a shot from the top of the circle. But the goals slowed up after that with the third coming in the 20th minute when John Mullins tapped in. Luke Madeley scored the first of his five goals from the first penalty corner.

Portugal, though, replied with their first goal of the tournament from Joao Basilio which added to the goals required tally. A Conor Empey finish made it 5-1 at half-time with 14 more strikes needed.

Madeley and Vasco Ribeiro exchanged goals in the third quarter to advance the score to 6-2 as hopes dissipated markedly. Five final quarter goals from Ireland augmented the score with Madeley adding three while Geoff Cole and Dale weighed in but the final score was greeted with little joy.

It means Ireland have been unable to retain their place in the top level of this competition since 1984, going three separate promotions and relegations in that time.

Jonny Caren said of the final outcome: “It wasn’t about today, it was about the points we lost through the tournament. The Austria game was very hard to take because it was factors outside of our influence which caused the issue. If we took three points out of that game rather than one, we would have stayed up. We left it was too little, too late today.

“There’s a lot of hard lessons to come out of this tournament: the coaching staff, the players pushing for senior spots and those guys who will be around in two years time. It’s important we debrief this properly and learn.”

By comparison to many of their rivals in Valencia who trained together on a regular basis since last December’s Junior World Cup, Ireland had a curtailed preparation programme.

As with all Irish underage squads this summer, it was wholly self-funded. A number of sponsors were secured but there was still a contribution of €500 per player that had to be made to represent the side.

“You can either complain about the situation and put your energy into that or put energy into doing something about it and that’s what these boys do,” Caren added. “It’s not right and it’s not fair that a group of 21-year-olds be expected to pay to play for their country, to fundraise to go to a tournament. It’s not right at all.

“The thing is the squad were proactive about things and got the job done. Programme-wise, we would have loved to have three or four trips away and to gel as a group. We didn’t get them and so we did the best we could with games against the [Irish] senior squad, Pakistan men and Scotland came over. We had a little bit of content there but not enough to compete at this level.

“This is my passion, to help younger guys pushing for an international spot. You can’t ask any more of them. The thing for me is we go from this tournament to probably not being thought about until the next European tournament in two years time.

“That’s not right. This needs to be a continual programme, we need to be training. Otherwise, the gap is too big. Against England was an example of that – a full-time Under-21 programme versus how we came together just in time for a tournament.”

As for things that could have been managed better during the tournament in Valencia, Caren said his panel conducted themselves admirably.

“One of our values is professionalism. These guys took care of everything in their control with regards to sleep, hydration, rest, recovery, the technical and tactical sessions prior.

“Everything was covered. Hotel-wise, it had everything we needed. Food-wise was bad but obviously not as bad as the Spanish teams. We can’t look at excuses from that. We will look to ourselves and see what we can do next time around.”

The panel did endure a large number of suspensions over the course of the tournament with 11 different players spending time in the bin including eight yellow cards in five games. Asked whether discipline was an issue, Caren felt that the appointments of umpires left a lot to be desired.

Mark Samuel and Thiago da Sousa battle for possession. Pic: Frank Uijlenbroek/World Sport Pics

Indeed, the pivotal moment for him came in the 4-4 draw with Austria when a stroke and a yellow card for Peter McKibbin went against the side.

“When we watch that game back, the amount of cards we were given and that they weren’t given, what are cards are for, it was a disgrace.

“European Hockey will have to look at that because to have the same umpire for three out of five games is a joke, especially when that umpire has cost you a game [against Austria].”

As for whether Ireland should have shut up shop against England, giving themselves a chance to nick sixth place on goal difference in the relegation pool rather than going for broke, he said that would have been contrary to the side’s nature.

“You can play tactically safe like that and try your luck or you can try and play. This group made a decision to be a team known for playing. It’s how we trained. To go against that would have been unnatural. We tried a few things, I tried a few coaching things that went wrong on the day which cost us goals.”

All of which means the Irish Under-21s ropey record in the top tier continues. Every Junior European campaign since 1981 has ended in relegation with this latest drop meaning the 2019 vintage will not be in a position to try and qualify for the 2020 Junior World Cup.

Ireland: J Carr, L Madeley, K O’Hare, M Samuel, S Wolfe, F Morris, R Getty, G Cole, J Dale, P McKibbin, M Crookshanks
Subs: K Marshall, S Grace, D Nelson, J Mullins, C Empey, D Mawhinney, J Milliken

Portugal: R Oliveira, C Almeida, V Mourao, F Vieira, A Caramalho, V Ribeiro, P Wenzel, A Teixeira, T Ventosa, C Magalhaes, D Gamito
Subs: A Ribeiro, J Valinhas, N Wenzel, J Santos, J Basilio, T Hilt, R Teixeira

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