Matthew Crookshanks and Ben Johnson are buzzing to get going on Sunday in the men’s EuroHockey Junior Championships II when they face Belarus in the Czech Republic.
Ireland go into the competition looking to bounce back following relegation two years ago in Valencia.
Their preparations concluded with a 4-0 practice match win on Friday in Litice over Scotland, following up three wins over the same opposition a couple of weeks ago.
“Everyone just can’t wait to get out and start playing in the tournament,” said Crookshanks, a former Annadale man now playing with a star-studded Beeston side in Nottingham where he is in university.
“The Scottish series was a massive help for us both on and off the pitch in preparation for the tournament. We were able to gauge where we were at and identify things we needed to work on before the opening match.
“Overall the series gave us great confidence going into the tournament winning all 3 games against one of the tougher opponents in the B Division. It was also fantastic to play a series at home, not a regular occurrence for us!”
At just 17, Crookshanks was one of the young guns two years ago, a frustrating tournament in which strong performances against Germany and Belgium yielded only creditable losses.
The key game with Austria was drawn 4-4 having led 3-1 early on and Ireland ultimately went down on goal difference.
This time around, Ireland will probably be one of the sides to beat and they have the likes of Mark Samuel, Conor Empey, David Mawhinney and Crookshanks looking to make amends in the side coached by Denis Pritchard.
— Irish U21 Mens ☘️ (@U21Mens) July 10, 2019
“We had a great team and coaching staff behind us and were prepped however we were unlucky with some of the results, especially the Austria game. Our role now is to fix this and get us back to the A Division where we belong.
“A massive learning point which we will have to take into the B Division is not to underestimate teams. Even though we are the highest ranked team, the teams can still cause us danger, therefore, we just need to focus on ourselves and ensure we can win every game.
“We will go in fresh to the game against Belarus not knowing what to expect but we shall just focus on our own game. We may be the team to beat but for us every game is winnable if we play our own way and work hard for each other.”
For Waterford’s Johnson, he is just a couple of weeks after his Leaving Certificate but is flying high following an incredible season which yielded two All-Ireland titles.
Both times, he was the leader-in-chief with Newtown School in their maiden All-Ireland Schoolboy Championship title and Waterford HC in the Irish Hockey Trophy – their first national title in 97 years.
Such a ground-breaking season has been tough to manage but Johnson fired three goals in the series win over Scotland, showing he is getting back into the groove quickly.
“With the two All-Ireland titles during the year, I found it suprisingly easy and straight forward to keep training and improving throughout the season as club and school sessions became very enjoyable,” he told The Hook.
“I think this made it easier to study as it almost provided a break from hockey some times as opposed to the other way around!
“Sitting my Leaving Certificate did hinder my programme slightly but definitely manageable for the most part. Certain conditioning sessions and fitness did become hard to carry out whilst also balancing my studies but, again, keeping the balance was key.
“It also mentally challenged me where a lot of the time I would return from a hefty club session or Under-21 regional and dive straight into the books once I got home from a two-hour car journey. Leading up to my actual exams and selection was also a stressful time but thankfully I was able to manage.”
He moves straight up from the Under-18s who stayed up in the A division in dramatic fashion, beating England 1-0 to complete a great escape on goal difference.
“It is a day I won’t forget and will be held for the rest of my life,” Johnson reflected. “From what I remember, the reason for that day’s victory was down to the strength of our defensive structure and raw passion.
“Knowing that a draw or a loss in that game would have resulted in relegation also fueled the team and was key to our success.”
And that passion will be a crucial factor that Ireland will need to reproduce this week.
“I am very excited and feel very fortunate to be among such a great bunch of friends and also to play along side some of the future Irish stars. We are very aware of the different styles and backgrounds of the teams in our pool.
“We will take every game as it comes and not get ahead of ourselves and especially not judge a team based on their rank or status.
“Belarus, Turkey and of course the hosts Czech Republic will all show as much passion as the next. From the tournament, I can only expect a high paced and high standard of international sides to come up against who will all show varied styles of play which I am looking forward to play against.”
EuroHockey Junior Championships II, Pool A (Litice, Czech Republic; all Irish time)
Sunday, July 14: Ireland v Belarus, 2.45pm
Tuesday, July 16: Ireland v Czech Republic, 5pm
Wednesday, July 17: Ireland v Turkey, 2.45pm
Ireland Under-21 men: Luke Witherow (VC, Banbridge), Scott McCabe (Queens), Alex Tinney (Banbridge), Luke Roleston (Banbridge), Josh McCabe (Cookstown), Matthew Crookshanks (Beeston), Callum Robson (Annadale), Conor Empey (Three Rock Rovers), Sam Hyland (YMCA), Harry MacMahon (C, Three Rock Rovers), Matthew Walker (Three Rock Rovers), Alex Flynn (Three Rock Rovers), Guy Sarratt (Monkstown), Ben O’Grady (YMCA), David Mawhinney (Edinburgh University), Mark Samuel (UCD), Alistair Empey (Three Rock Rovers), Ben Johnson (Waterford)
Coach: Denis Pritchard
Manager: Emer Keogh
Assistant Coach: Adam Louden
Physio: Rachel Fitzpatrick
Video Technician: Ralph Billings