There was major success for Ireland at the 60th European Youth Championships as the Irish Cadet Boys team set the tournament alight in Guimaraes, Portugal.
For the first time in the modern era, the boys became the only Irish team to ever reach the elite, Top 16 Division following an astonishing run of results throughout the championships, before eventually finishing the event in an unprecedented 10th place!
Cadet Boys Team Event
Starting in a group of four teams including Ireland, Slovenia, Cyprus and Iceland, the team of Owen Cathcart, Art McLaughlin & Thomas Joyce were in good form right from the off as back to back 3-0 wins set up a group decider over the strong Slovenians.
This was always going to be a tough one for the boys, as they faced a side that got the better of them by a 3-2 scoreline at last years event in Zagreb. With the score level at 1 match apiece, the doubles was crucial and the pairing of Owen and Art stood tall when it mattered most to take a 3-1 win and give Ireland a 2-1 advantage, with Owen to go on against number 1 player Matja Novel. Owen delivered in a tight match 3-2 to give the boys a 3-1 win and with it securing top spot in the group.
This result sent the boys into unchartered teritory, as they now faced a playoff match for a place among the best 16 countries in Europe. The draw could have been kinder, as they were pitted against Spain in what was a massive match! Owen and Art were in for both the singles and doubles on this occasion. Owen got Ireland off to a good start, defeating the Spanish number 2, 3-1. Art then went in and put on the performance of his life, pushing number 1 player Guttieriez (ER30) all the way before eventually losing by the tightest of margins after 5 sets. Again the boys now faced a crunch doubles and they duly delivered, taking it 3-1 following some excellent play. This left Owen with the responsibility of sending the boys into the last 16 and he didn’t disappoint as he stepped it up another gear to cruise past Guttieriez and seal a 3-1 match score.
The pairing of Cathcart/Mclaughlin won an impressive 5/7 doubles matches throughout the event
In the last 16 the boys were up against the 4th seeds and highly fancied Belgium team, who boasted a lineup capable of going all the way in the competition. Despite their underdog status, the boys played an unbelievable match and led by the outstanding Owen Cathcart, pushed Belgium all the way! Owen put the pressure on right from the off, beating the top ranked U14 player in Europe Adrian Rassenfosse 3-1 to put Ireland 1-0 ahead. The Belgians bounced back, as Olav Kosolosky (European Number 9) beat Art 3-0. At 1-1 the boys kept up their excellent doubles play under the most severe of pressure, as they matched the Belgians point for point before eventually losing 3-1 (14-12 in the 4th, having had a set point to go to a decider). Owen was back in the fray at 1-2 down and he wasn’t ready to give up on the battle despite the doubles loss as he produced one of his top performances to topple Kosolosky in 4 sets and force the match to a decider! In the last match Art showed some of his very best Table Tennis in an entertaining contest, but Rassenfosse proved his pedigree at this level as he went on to take the match in straight sets.
Owen Cathcart taking some tactical advice from Coach John Murphy during that epic battle with Belgium
The boys couldn’t afford to let up following this defeat, as they now knew that they needed at least one win in the 9-16 play-offs in order to secure Ireland’s place in the top 16 for next year. They didn’t disappoint, as they went from strength to strength, beating Ukraine and Croatia to put themselves into the playoff for 9/10 position. More of the same from Owen in the singles as well as a great win for Thomas versus Croatia proved decisive here.
In the final playoff match, Owen was afforded a rest following his own heroics throughout the event in winning 12/12 singles matches, so the two young guns, Art and Thomas, battled it out versus the strong Czech team for 9-10 place. Despite the superior ranking of the Czechs, the boys played some great stuff, with Thomas in particular coming very close as he lost in 5 sets versus top 20 player Skala. Nonetheless, despite a 3-0 defeat, the boys finished in 10th place following what was an amazing event throughout – what an achievement!
Cadet Girls Team Event
With the boys reaching such incredible heights, it would be easy to assume that this was where the success ended for the Irish at this years European Youth Championships. This wasn’t the case however as the Cadet Girls team of Mia O’Rahilly Egan, Sophie Earley and Nicole Scott showed outstanding promise for the future as they won a record equalling 5 out of 8 team matches on their way to a top 30 finish.
In truth, the draw didn’t do the girls any favours throughout the event. Pitted in an opening group of 5 which included Italy, The Netherlands, Norway and Finland, the girls always faced a massive task if they were to make a push for a high finishing position. Despite this however, 3-2 wins over both Norway and Finland guaranteed what was a very respectable 3rd place in the group.
The match versus Norway was an epic from start to finish, with a singles win from Mia and a tight loss for Sophie versus their number 1 player leaving the score at 1-1 going into the doubles. This was a key point in the match and the girls delivered under huge pressure, as they saved a match point in the 5th before winning 12-10. Mia then went down in a close match versus the number 1 which left 11 year old Sophie to do battle in the decider. She duly delivered, taking the match 3-1 to seal the win for the girls.
The Cadet Girls taking advice from Coach Mark O’Flynn during the big match versus Norway
Against Finland, it was Nicole Scott who stood tall when left in the pressure match at 2-2, following one win from Mia and a doubles success. Nicole made no mistake, keeping composed throughout as she ran out a 3-1 winner.
Unfortunately this was as good as it would get in the first phase as Italy and The Netherland showed why they are rated among the best in Europe as the girls lost out 3-0 on both occasions.
In the second stage, the girls were placed in a 3 team group as they aimed to finish 25th. However, despite being one of the seeded teams in the section, we were faced with a tough test versus Portugal and Cyprus. The home nation proved just too strong here, despite an excellent display by Mia as she won both singles. The girls recovered valiantly though, as they got the better of Cyprus by a 3-1 scoreline.
Playing off for 29-32, the girls were eager to push on. They first overcame a difficult opponent in Latvia by the tightest of margins in what was a great team effort, as one singles win each came from Mia and Sophie, while Mia and Nicole paired up to secure the all important doubles to give them a 3-2 win. This left us playing the final match for position 29-30 versus a strong Austrian team. The girls were on a roll now though and one win each for Sophie and Mia and the doubles combination of Mia and Nicole again came up trumps as they ran out 3-1 winners. A great result to finish what was a fantastic run by the girls!
Overall, between the 2 teams, Ireland won 11 team matches and lost just 5 at these European Youth Championships. An incredible achievement by all involved!
Commenting on the results, Table Tennis Ireland President, Ken Strong said;
“I am delighted, as President, to congratulate our teams and coaches at the European Youth Championships in Portugal. These were our best performances ever at these Championships, especially with the Cadet Boys finishing in 10th place and our young Cadet Girl Team in 29th place. Well done to all!”