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18 for 18: Ireland's teenage sharpshooter set for big year on and off the pitch

Hockey player Ben Walker is one of the most-talented young players in the country and has already won 13 senior caps.

Walker celebrates his first Ireland goal against Ukraine last March.
Walker celebrates his first Ireland goal against Ukraine last March.
Image: Adrian Boehm/Irish Hockey Photographers

Over the next 10 days, our 18 for 18 series will look at 18 Irish athletes aged 18 or younger set for a big 2018. You can read the rest of the series here

THE OLD ADAGE, coined by Sir Matt Busby, was that if they are good enough, they are old enough and that certainly rings true in the case of Ben Walker, the teenager whose prodigious potential knows no bounds after a remarkable breakthrough year.

When Craig Fulton, the Ireland head coach, called upon the St Andrew’s College schoolboy last January for a four-game trip to Spain, he did so in the knowledge and confidence that Walker’s talent negated his tender years.

On the back of impressive, imposing and influential performances for St Andrew’s en route to the All-Ireland schools title, as well as for his club, Three Rock Rovers, Walker made his debut in the third game of that series.

At 17 years and seven months old, he became the youngest player on record to represent Ireland in a senior international and 12 more caps followed over the course of 2017, most notably at the World League 2 tournament Ireland hosted and won in March, as well as the EuroHockey Nations Championship in Amsterdam.

To put Walker’s rise through to the senior ranks at such a young age in greater context, his call-up to the squad for the WL2 tournament in Belfast was delayed as he was unable to answer the phone call from Fulton during his fifth year French class.

He obviously had to put his studies on hold for the duration of that campaign, but made an almost instant impression with a first senior goal during the opening game demolition of Ukraine, a fixture which also marked his ranking tournament debut for his country.

“Ben is a very intelligent, hard-working and a mature individual for his age,” Fulton says. “He was selected on those very merits and has an eye for goal as well. He had a fantastic year with the Irish senior men’s team.”

Walker’s versatility is also a strength. He plays in midfield for Three Rock and St Andrew’s — whom he captained to another All-Ireland crown in October, the Booterstown outfit’s fifth title in six years of dominance — but has started his international career in the Irish forward line, notching two goals so far.

Kyle Good and Ben Walker Walker (right) in action for his club Three Rock Rovers. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

“He is a very good athlete which is key,” Fulton explains. “He has a calm and composed way about how he plays but is very competitive. Ben fits seamlessly into our tactical plans and his ball skills are very good for international level.”

High praise indeed, but Fulton is fully aware of Walker’s capacity to lead Ireland’s next generation into 2018 and much further beyond.

Aside from the small matter of his Leaving Certificate in June, Walker will then hope to stake his claim for inclusion in Fulton’s panel for Ireland’s first World Cup appearance in nearly two decades in late November/early December of next year.

“We look forward to working with Ben after his exams are completed,” the coach adds. “And if he continues with the work-rate and inner drive he has shown to play top international hockey, the future is bright.”

A big year lies ahead, both on and off the pitch.

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

18 for 18: Aoife Casey & Margaret Cremen keeping the future bright for Irish rowing

18 for 18: David Clifford still on course to sit on the throne of the Kingdom

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Ryan Bailey

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