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Robson frustrated as Irish left on verge of relegation

Ireland 1 England 2

Little consolation: Ireland ace Michael Robson fires home
Little consolation: Ireland ace Michael Robson fires home
James O’Donoghue

By John Flack in Antwerp

Ireland's hopes of avoiding relegation back into the second tier of the European Championship for the first time in a decade hang by a thread after defeat to England in sun-drenched Antwerp yesterday.

Once again, Ireland conceded two goals in the first quarter to leave themselves with a huge task, before fighting back with a well-taken strike scored by Ulsterman Michael Robson before half-time.

But they failed to build on that boost and were unable to get much change out of a well-marshalled English defence after the long break, despite having plenty of possession.

Playing alongside the other three home nations in the proverbial group of death, Ireland now need to beat Wales tomorrow to have any chance of avoiding the drop.

The Scots were 4-2 winners over Wales in yesterday's opening match and are ahead of England on goal difference, with Ireland third. The bottom two finishers in the pool go down to the second division.

Even a win over Wales might not be enough for Alexander Cox's team to preserve their top-flight status because Scotland and England would both stay up at Ireland's expense if they were to draw in tomorrow's opener.

So Ireland's fate isn't entirely in their own hands and all they can do is pray that there is a winner in the England-Scotland game to keep their hopes alive as they prepare to take on the Welsh, who are the lowest-ranked side in the tournament.

Robson cut a frustrated figure after the game, his goal coming as no consolation after another below-par display by Ireland, who were up against two former team-mates in Cookstown-born pair Ian Sloan and David Ames, who switched their allegiance a few years ago.

Now playing his hockey in Germany, Robson said: "We started quite poorly again although we'd talked about getting a good start, but it didn't happen and we gave them a two-goal lead so it was always going to be an uphill battle after that.

"We got back into it and played some good stuff, creating a few chances, and I probably should have scored before I eventually did get a goal.

"In the last quarter we had plenty of possession but we didn't create enough clear-cut chances, although, to be fair, they defended well and didn't give us much around the circle."

England seized the initiative from the start yesterday and it took a great block from Lee Cole to deny Phil Roper a goal in the first few minutes.

From Ireland's first meaningful attack in the 10th minute, Daragh Walsh and Sean Murray combined well but there was no one on hand to get a touch to the latter's teasing cross.

Within 60 seconds, Ireland were a goal down after Ashley Jackson was given far too much space down the right flank before feeding Sam Ward, whose pull-back from the baseline allowed Zach Wallace to sweep home with a first-time shot.

Having conceded three times and twice respectively in the first quarter of earlier games against Netherlands and Germany, it was a case of deja-vu for the Irish as England doubled their lead within a minute.

After a penalty corner had only been partially cleared, Jackson retrieved the ball on the left-hand side of the circle and crossed for Roper to make it 2-0 and leave Ireland with a real mountain to climb.

They responded well to whatever choice words head coach Cox had to say at the break and, three minutes into the second quarter, Robson went agonisingly close to pulling one back when he went left and then right before firing just past the upright after an overhead pass had left him in the clear.

But he got his reward three minutes later when he latched onto a superb through ball from Eugene Magee and neatly squeezed it through the legs of English keeper George Pinner.

The second half saw England have the edge, with goalkeepers Jamie Carr and Mark Ingram, who again alternated, being busier than Pinner, who didn't have a save to make as Ireland seldom threatened.

They forced just one penalty corner in the entire game and the normally lethal Shane O'Donoghue failed to convert with two minutes left as England consistently stopped the potential threat at source with some solid defending.

Men's European Championship: Semi-finals: Netherlands Spain; Belgium Germany. Pool C: Scotland 4 Wales 2; Ireland 1 (M Robson) England 2.

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