Caption: Luke Witherow (right) receiving his first senior international cap alongside Nick Page.
WHEN Luke Witherow was an impressionable youngster, he whizzed around at Raphoe Hockey club games with a mini hockey stick in hand, and earlier this year, he fulfilled a life-long ambition of representing Ireland at senior level.
It hasn’t been a simple journey for the 24-year-old but he has a huge passion for his chosen sport and made his first appearances for the International team a couple of months ago when they played two test matches against Spain.
Unfortunately the Ireland team tasted defeat in those outings, but it is still remarkable to see a Convoy native compete at that level.
Witherow is clearly a driven man and his passion for hockey burns brightly. This week he was awarded the Donegal News Sports Star of the Month award for June, in conjunction with Brian McCormick Sports & Leisure.
“My dad Alan was very involved with Raphoe Hockey Club when I was young and I would have travelled with him and his friends all over to watch them play. Wherever they were going, I would be sitting in the car with them.
“I would have joined junior hockey then with Raphoe from when as I was old enough to play really.
“And that got me hooked on it. We would be playing underage blitzes in the north with my friends and then I would be watching my dad and his friends play and that was the whole weekend.”
Witherow was part of a ‘golden generation’ of players who starred together for Raphoe Hockey Club and the Royal & Prior Secondary School, and they were able to hold their own even when up against older players.
Ben Wallace and Alexander Tinney were part of the same team and they soon started to garner attention at both a provincial and national level.
“We had some very good coaches. The late, great Richard Eaton was always there to help and you had Richard Tinney and Paul Stewart as well.
“We had a really strong group with both the club and school and won a lot of competitions against some of the big Belfast teams which is pretty unheard of.
“Myself, Alex and Ben would have been sent up to trials and I played for Ulster at Under 16, Under 18, and Under 21 level.
“I played for Ireland at Under 16 level but I wasn’t picked at Under 18 level, and to be honest, that gave me a real chip on my shoulder and it has pushed me on.
“The coach just decided off a first impression that I wasn’t up to it and that was it. There was no second trial or anything.
“It was very disappointing at the time for me but it did push me on, and I go out to every game I play now giving it everything I have because you never know who is watching for the first time.”
Witherow didn’t allow that setback to hold him back and when he completed his Leaving Certificate, he moved to University in Jordanstown and linked up with the famous Banbridge Hockey Club. He revelled in training and playing alongside some of the best players in the land.
His stock started to rise again and he earned selection for the Ireland Under 21 team and went on to earn vice-captaincy in a European tournament in the Czech Republic.
He was also asked in to train with the senior squad as they prepared for their Tokyo Olympic qualifier.
When the team controversially failed to make it through to Japan, there was always likely to be a rebuild, and the man tasked with over-seeing that is Mark Tumilty, who Witherow knows well through his Banbridge connections.
“Mark brought me into the training panel and I have learned a lot from him down through the years.
“When Covid hit, hockey was considered as an elite sport so I was fortunate to still be able to train at a really high level.“I was making good progress, and then I dislocated my shoulder that October.
“I came back from that and three weeks later, the shoulder popped out again.
“So all in all with Covid and the injury, I didn’t play a lot of games for 12 months, but I was still part of the training panel and I kept working hard and stayed in contention.”
Witherow knew he was close but wasn’t sure if or when his big chance would come.
However, he was then selected for a two-match series against Spain in Sant Cugat at the start of the summer.
A new-look Ireland side lost 4-2 in the opener, and while they finished strongly 24 hours later, had to settle for a narrow 3-2 defeat.
Still, Witherow was a proud man as he took his place on the field.“It was a huge honour for me a boy from Donegal where hockey is considered to be a minority sport. I’m only the second person from the county as far as I know to play the senior team after James Corry, who is a legend.
“To be considered in the top 16 players in the country is just amazing, and all I ever dreamed of when I was dribbling the ball up the sideline as a kid while my dad played.
“I thought I would be completely out of my depth and just not up to it. To be honest, I thought it was going to be horrendous but it wasn’t.
“I actually made a mistake with my first touch but I grew into things after that and I went on to get an assist in my first game.
“I played well in the second match as well and while we were disappointed to lose both games, it was still a good experience.”
Witherow, who also competed in show-jumping when he was younger, as well as lining out in Gaelic Football with St Mary’s and soccer with Convoy Arsenal, is currently based in England, where he is doing a PE PGCE and Masters at Loughborough.
He is now training and playing with the local University team, and their excellent facilities and expertise will help to keep him in the International picture.
“I have gone on to play 15 times since my debut.
“We have had some big games in that time. We lost a European qualifier to get into the A Division against France. That was always going to be a tough game against a team who are ranked tenth in the world so we are in the B Division for another year but we are a young team who are rebuilding.
“There is a big Nations Cup in South Africa in November and I’m hoping to be included in that. There are games against France, Pakistan and the hosts.
“There are two camps planned before that to prepare. I can’t make the one in Barcelona but there will be one in England too and I hope to make that.
“I still have to pinch myself that I’m playing at that level but hopefully I can get included for the South Africa trip.”
Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere