From Annadale to Germany - the three Robson brothers enjoying international honours

By Padraig CoyleBBC Sport NI
Workout time with the Robson brothers

We have a sporting heirloom in our home. It is at least 100 years old.

My wife's grandfather played hockey for his native Wales. We have one of his representative caps - soft black velvet, gold braided and tassled, with an ornate embroidered badge.

It's stowed away, carefully wrapped in worn tissue paper, a cherished part of the family's history.

If Hockey Ireland was to hand over a cap each time one of the sons of our neighbours, the Robson family, made an appearance in an Ireland jersey, they would seriously have to consider building an extension to their home.

To date the eldest, 24 year-old Michael, has been awarded 111 senior caps. Younger brothers, 22 year-old Callum and 20 year-old Tom, are also making steady progress through the international ranks.

Following in their brother's footsteps

With more than 70 outings between them through the Ireland underage system, they are focused on following in their older brother's footsteps.

While the current crisis has put all sporting activity on hold, their collective ambition to emulate Michael is not even slightly diminished.

"I've been been involved with the Ireland set-up for a while," says Callum, who has made three senior appearances. "I want to be picked for more tournaments and competitions and to win a few more caps."

In Michael's opinion, time is on their side.

"I guess that a top hockey player's career today can run between the age of 18 and 33," he says.

Michael and Callum Robinson are both full Ireland internationals
Michael and Callum Robinson are both full Ireland internationals

Former Annadale players Michael and Callum have been playing in Germany's Feldhockey Bundesliga with Crefelder Hockey und Tennis Club, based in the industrial town of Krefeld, 20 kilometres from Düsseldorf in North Rhine-Westphalia.

"I'm in my third season there," explains Queen's University accountancy undergraduate Michael, who is taking time out to experience the professional game.

"Two of my colleagues in the Irish team were there already. One of them got in touch to ask if I would be interested in playing in Germany. I was delighted. I spoke to the club and everything has gone well."

"This is my first year at the club," says Callum, a physiotherapy student at Ulster University, who could equally have focused his considerable talents on cricket, golf or tennis.

"Michael had put in a good word for me. I was lucky that they wanted me as well. Tennis was my main sport until I was 11 or 12 but hockey at Sullivan Upper slowly took over.

"I found it hard being by myself in tennis and I couldn't cope with any mistakes that I made and that it was all my fault. With hockey it's nice to have the support of your teammates around you." 

Tom, who is studying economics at Queen's, is also giving thought to a career move from Annadale.

Tom Robson
Tom Robson hopes to follow in his two older brothers' footsteps

"Considering how good Queen's and Jordanstown have been in allowing Michael and Callum to take time out to play in Germany, I would hope they would treat me in a similar way," he says.

"Everything we need is there," says Callum. "We have a house and car. We can use the pitch whenever we want. It's an ideal situation to be in. You couldn't really ask for more."

"We train three nights a week, have two to three gym sessions, as well as pitch work," continues Michael. "Due to the travel distances involved, we play double headers every Saturday and Sunday. We travel long distances by train. It's five hours to Nuremberg. All the games are live streamed."

And how are they getting on with speaking German?

"Not very well," laughs Michael. "We did have language classes for a while, but these fell by the wayside. Everyone speaks English. However, we do understand the hockey tactics called out in German."

Michael and Callum with their Crefeld teammates
Michael and Callum with their Crefeld teammates

While most of the Crefeld squad is German, the Robson boys share the company of three other Irish players, a Welshman and an American. Michael acknowledges the benefit that playing European club hockey is bringing to the game in Ireland and Britain.

"When I was growing up, watching Ireland and aspiring to play for them, very few players would have gone away. As I was breaking through in 2018, Ireland was beginning to get global recognition for producing good players. The trend of more people going to play at top clubs in Europe began to grow.

"A few years abroad will give you a different experience of hockey in another culture. You can bring that back to the Irish League and make it stronger."

Standard in Germany 'higher than in Ireland'

Callum agrees: "The standard in Germany is much higher than in Ireland. It has taken me a while to adapt. I'm really enjoying it now. Hockey has a following there. It's maybe the fourth or fifth most popular sport."

The German Feldhockey Bundesliga consists of 12 clubs playing in two pools of six. As the campaign shut down, Crefelder were fourth overall.

As the Coronavirus crisis unfolded, Callum and Michael gathered up their gear as quickly as possible and rejoined Tom at the Holywood home of their parents, Janet and Peter.

It was their father, himself a keen sportsman, who started coaching them as soon as they were old enough and big enough to hold a tennis racquet, golf club, cricket bat or hockey stick.

While Tom accepts the necessity of restrictions during the epidemic, he reflects on how strange it is to see all the playing facilities closed.

"You can't even get out to run with a stick and hit a ball about. It's needed, of course, but I miss the social aspect. Your week is based around hockey, teammates and friends, the game on a Saturday."

Michael Robson was part of the Ireland squad that just missed out on qualifying for the Olympics

However, in the face of adversity, the Robson siblings have each other to help in their quest to remain fit and focused. Necessity has brought technology face-to-face with the Flintstones

"About 20 players attend regular Zoom sessions," explains Callum. "Our fitness trainer Matthias in Germany sends a link to the WhatsApp group 10 minutes before the session begins. Everyone signs in from their living room or wherever they want."

"It's really tough and a good workout," says Michael. "He gives instructions on what he wants. He can see what everyone is doing. And you can't be late for these. No excuses. "

'Creating a DIY gym'

Meanwhile, Tom explains how they have been inventive in creating their own DIY gym: "We've got the back garden and some home-made equipment. Callum went to the Glenlyon forest nearby and got a big, broken log and carried it home. He carved handles into it and we use it like a bench.

"We've evolved a fitness programme for weights and running, doing 5k runs or mixing it up with shorter sprints. We exercise twice a day and make full use of our once-a-day outing."

And while they hope this self-motivating regime will keep them in shape, Callum isn't convinced that it will have them ready for a return to the professional game any time soon.

"The word from the German board is that we might be able to play in June, but it changes every day," he admits. "It could be a bit of a shock when we get back. We could be very tired."

Michael is more positive. "Our coach says that it will be the same for the other teams. Most won't be doing very much and we could have a head-start over them".

Michael and Callum Robinson are both full Ireland internationals
Michael and Callum with their Ireland teammates

Claiming a European Championship bronze medal, raising the Burney and McCullough Cups and fifth place at the European U-18s have all been occasions for joint celebration in the Robson household. However, the mention of missing out on Olympic Games qualification dampens the mood noticeably.

Michael was in the Ireland squad that competed in Rio in 2016 and was quietly contemplating the Tokyo Games until the calamity of that sudden-death shoot-out defeat against Canada at the end of October.

A controversial umpire's decision in the last second of normal time will forever remain a bone of contention throughout the sport. Is Michael over the disappointment?

"No." It's followed by a long pause.

"The most disappointing thing about it is that we had been two goals up. We have to look to our own performance."

Ireland Olympic qualifier 'hard to watch'

Tom is more vocal. "I was watching it in the living room here at home. I felt very powerless. Umpiring is very subjective but that was the wrong decision and very hard to watch."

That is all history now and there is the future to consider. When hockey returns, Ireland fans can be comforted by the fact that an ample supply of talent and commitment is available and ready to continue the search for global success.

As these three competitive young sportsmen head for their back garden, to embark on another session of weights and exercise accompanied by lots of brotherly banter, Tom, the youngest, tries, but fails, to have the final word on which of them is the best player.

"I'd have to go for myself," comes his mischievous reply.

"Yeah, right!" is the raucous response from his two big brothers.