In the summer of 2018, we witnessed one of the greatest achievements in the history of Irish sport. Not Irish women’s sport – Irish SPORT. In order to fully appreciate the Irish hockey squad’s incredible feat of reaching a World Cup Final, it is essential to take the three years that preceded the tournament into account. The journey to the podium was one which began in the Spanish city of Valencia, on June 18th 2015.
At the FIH Hockey World League, Ireland were on the brink of securing direct qualification for the Olympic Games for the first time ever. Having seen off South Africa in style with a Nikki Evans hat-trick and a Nicci Daly wonder-strike; and beating USA in one of the most complete performances you could ever see from a team in green, spearheaded by Captain Megan Frazer – the squad found themselves top of Pool B, and into a winner-takes-the-ticket-to-Rio clash against world #5 China. With the sides locked at one goal apiece, a controversial video referral denied Ireland a late winner, and sent the match to a shootout. They were beaten in sudden-death, by the width of a post.
The indelible imprints of that defeat are all over the World Cup medals that now proudly hang around the necks of the Irish hockey squad.
“It was like a death”, then-Assistant Manager Graham Shaw said of that fateful day. There were immediate retirements of stalwart players, and the younger generation who’d put their lives on hold for the sake of following their Olympic dream scattered. Darren Smith stepped down as Head Coach – and his assistant Shaw took took up the mantle, to begin the unenviable job of piecing a broken squad back together.
Only four weeks on from that fateful shootout, Ireland were called back into action, requiring a top two finish in the European B Championships in Prague to secure promotion back to A level – status that would prove crucial to their World Cup qualification prospects, down the line. New talent was injected, to replace the retirees and those who remained undecided about their futures in hockey. The re-build had begun in earnest.
Ireland won the tournament, hammering hosts Czech Republic 6-0 in the final. Emerging talents stood up to be counted; and the victory galvanised those who had been reluctant to return. And so as the world’s top hockey nations prepared for the Rio Olympics, rather than simply look on, the Irish hockey squad re-grouped and channeled their frustrations at not being there into laying the foundations for the next major tournament on the horizon: The World Cup.
Fast forward two years to July 2017, at the Hockey World League in Johannesburg – three quarters played in a battle for 7th place, and Ireland are 1-0 down to India; their World Cup qualification hopes hanging by a thread. Yet there was no panic. The message going into the final quarter was simple: “We are going to win this game. Nobody is going to take this off us.” Back out onto the pitch – two goals in as many minutes, courtesy of Katie Mullan and Lizzie Colvin. Ireland won the match 2-1 – a result which would ultimately secure them qualification for a major tournament for the first time since 2002.
The team had to wait three months for confirmation of their World Cup place, which was bizarrely determined by the outcome of a match between Australia and Papa New Guinea in the Oceania Cup. Qualification was far from headline news – but for the cohort of Irish hockey devotes who’d seen the team come so close down the years, it was HUGE.
Ireland went into the 2018 World Cup in London ranked 16th in the world; and 15th out of the 16 teams in the tournament. An experienced squad, with lots of game-time to their names – they were one of the few teams in the competition whose players are mostly amateur, but there was little amateurish about their preparations. Once again, lives were put on hold, and immense personal sacrifices were made. In spite of a lack of resources, a comparably small backroom team, and the fact that they only secured sponsorship a mere six weeks out from the tournament – they worked with what they had, and found innovative ways to get themselves up to the standard required with a simple squad mantra of “CHASE IT.” All in; no excuses.
Once the pool draw was made, the Irish squad knew exactly what they had to do to to exploit their opponents – USA, India and England – and were forensic in the tactical preparation to do so. The game-plan was clear: secure results against USA and India, so that all hope of advancement to the knockout stages wouldn’t lie on getting a result from the reigning Olympic champions England.
Ireland’s breakthrough came four minutes into their World Cup campaign opener against USA – Roisin Upton’s perfectly weighted long-ball finding Deirdre Duke up top to strike it home; two players who had really come to the fore in that post-Valencia rebuild. Shirley McCay, Ireland’s now record cap holder who’d returned to go again post-Valencia, added a second from a set-piece mere minutes later. The perfect start for a squad who were finally ready to show the world what they could do.
India were up next – and owing to a draw between England & USA elsewhere in the group, it emerged that a win would send Ireland straight to the quarter-finals with a game to spare – and crucially, bypassing the jeopardy of the Crossover Stage in between. Anna O’Flanagan’s decisive goal from a penalty corner sealed the deal. Incredibly, Ireland were the first team in the tournament to secure a quarter-final spot. It was the biggest day in the 125-year history of Irish women’s hockey. The Irish hockey community watching on were in dream-land – was this actually happening?
They still had to play the hosts, England – and although the outcome of the match ultimately didn’t matter to Ireland, the opportunity was seized to rotate key personnel whilst getting the entire panel used to the pressures of playing in a sold-out stadium ahead of the knockout stage. They lost 1-0 to the world #2 side; but the moral victory came in the form of Megan Frazer’s individual performance. After almost two years sidelined with a series of knee injuries, Ireland’s world-class former captain was back with a bang.
In the quarter-final, Ireland would once again meet the familiar foe of India. The match was shown live on RTÉ Sport, bringing hundreds of thousands of fresh eyes upon the squad. An intense battle ended in a scoreless draw, which meant the game would go to a shootout – Ireland’s first high-stakes deadlock decider since that day in Valencia in 2015.
Back then, a 19 year old goalkeeper named Ayeisha McFerran had come off the bench to replace the veteran Emma Gray between the posts for the shootout against China. Earmarked as an emerging ‘shootout specialist’, McFerran saved the first attempt – her first touch of the entire tournament. Whilst the result ultimately didn’t go Ireland’s way that day, a future star had announced herself.
Three years on in London, Ireland’s now #1 was ready to shine in a shootout to decide the Hockey World Cup quarter-final – doing so with searing precision, to deny three consecutive Indian attempts on her net.
The outfield players had decided amongst themselves who was going to step up to shoot it out. Roisin Upton and Ali Meeke successfully converted their efforts; and behind them in the line of duty stood Chloe Watkins. Watkins been there in Valencia that day in 2015, too – in fact, she’d been the one who scored the equaliser against China, to send the game to a shootout.
She hadn’t been one of the five in the shootout that day. But now, three years later in London – the decisive final strike in the World Cup quarter-final shootout would fall to her.
Watkins stepped up… and a nation held its breath. The whistle sounded, and she drove straight towards goal. Switch left to send the ‘keeper the wrong way; spin right to round her; put weight behind the strike off the back foot to make sure of finding the net before the buzzer. The most intense eight seconds in the history of Irish hockey… and also the most significant.
The squad’s celebrations in the immediate aftermath were about SO much more than winning that match and booking their place amongst the final four of the World Cup. A massive psychological barrier had been demolished, in the most public manner possible – and the sense of release for the squad was palpable. Years of hurt, of heartbreak, of setbacks, of sacrifice; of persevering when nobody was watching, or indeed cared. It all poured out, for everyone to see in glorious sun-soaked HD.
Ireland were through to the World Cup semi-finals – but what was on Graham Shaw’s mind immediately post-match? “It’s a life changing moment for this group… to win in a shootout, and to bury these demons from 2015 – I’m absolutely over the moon, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
Another familiar opponent in the form of Spain lay in wait for Ireland in the semi-final. There’s a good relationship between the two nations, having frequently joined forces for training camps and test matches. It’s an arrangement which suits Ireland’s limited resources – cheap flights and discounted accommodation are key when you’re operating an amateur setup on a shoestring – but who would’ve thought it would prove so beneficial in the World Cup knockout stages? With only a two-day turnaround, the squad had a ready-made database of knowledge on their opponents to draw upon, and were already well up to speed with the finer details of Spain’s strengths & weaknesses.
Anna O’Flanagan once again struck from a penalty corner set-piece to get Ireland off the mark early, three minutes in – another dream start to settle the nerves. Spain drew level in the third quarter, and that’s how the match played out. For the second time in the space of two days – Ireland found themselves in a shootout.
The players once again convened to decide who was up for the challenge. Gillian Pinder, another Valencia veteran, opted in. She went first. She scored. Three saves from Ayeisha McFerran followed by another Chloe Watkins special sent Ireland into sudden death – which meant that someone had to go again. Pinder backed herself as the woman for the job.
Ayeisha McFerran held her nerve to make the save on Georgina Oliva, and set up the pressure shot… 8 seconds to dice with sudden death, and score a goal that could lead Ireland to the promised land. The whistle sounded – and Pinder didn’t put a foot wrong. The Green Army were marching on to the World Cup Final. The first Irish team EVER to reach one. The scenes on the screen spoke for themselves.
Ireland’s opponents in the final would be none other than the seven-time champions, world #1 The Netherlands. In the previous 44 years worth of World Cup finals, since the first in 1974 – all had featured of Netherlands, Australia, Germany and Argentina. Only once before had a team outside The Big Four broken through – Canada, in 1983. Now, here were Ireland – an amateur side, and the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament – ripping up the form book and cementing their place in sporting history.
Less than 24 hours on from that semi-final sudden death shootout, Ireland lined out against The Netherlands in the World Cup final. With physical & mental recovery time at a bare minimum, facing a fully-funded professional setup proved a bridge too far. They lost 6-0 – but they went down fighting, in spite of visible fatigue. It’s not the result, but rather their place on the podium is what will be remembered – the precious metal earned so much more than a silver lining.
Ayeisha McFerran was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament. The outcome of the World Cup saw Ireland ascend to 8th in the FIH World Rankings. Significant government funding for the sport was promised. SoftCo extended their sponsorship of the squad – and many new brands coming onboard as partners. Irish Hockey reported a spike in participation. The team themselves swept the board on the end-of-year sports awards circuit.
The World Cup Final was watched on TV by an available audience share of 41%, peaking at 439,000 people – RTÉ Sport’s highest viewing figures outside ‘the big three’ of Gaelic Games, rugby & soccer since Katie Taylor’s 2012 Olympic gold medal triumph.
Returning from their major tournament bubble to reality, the squad were visibly shocked by the amount of people present at their homecoming reception in Dublin – it was written all over their faces as they walked out onto that stage on Dame Street, to a rapturous reaction. They couldn’t believe the size of the crowd – because they couldn’t see where it ended.
At their penultimate World Cup warm-up match against Chile in UCD the previous month, before the squad decamped London – I head-counted around 60 people in attendance.
Every sporting triumph has a much deeper narrative beneath the surface of what you see in the big moments. You can’t have the highs without the lows. Those who invest the time and effort to support their sport for the entire journey as opposed to just the destination are privy to witnessing the many twists and turns of such epic adventures first-hand. For me, there is no better experience as a sports fan.
Yet too often, Irish sportswomen have to achieve something monumental in order to get any sort of serious attention – historically, they have reached above and beyond the realm of possibility, and only then does the bandwagon row in behind them. We as a nation need to alter our attitudes towards supporting women’s sport consistently, and not just on the big days. Context is key.
It took the Irish hockey squad three weeks to win a World Cup medal in London last summer; but it took them three long years to get there. Every single event unfolding on and off the pitch during those 36 months played its part. Every individual player from within that World Cup team has their own story to tell. Many others who didn’t make the final squad have theirs to tell, too. The destination of a World Cup podium would be nothing without the journey along the winding road that led to it. The second photo wouldn’t exist without the first.
I can tell you exactly where I was watching when Ireland lost that match to deny them a ticket to the Rio Olympics. I can tell you who they beat on their way to that point. I can tell you the date; and I can tell you panel of players involved. I can tell you who bravely stepped up for the shootout. I can tell you that I cried at the outcome of it. I can also tell you Chloe Watkins scoring that decisive goal for Ireland in the 2018 Hockey World Cup quarter-final shootout now holds the title of my favourite sporting moment, ever. I cried at that, too. Not because of where it took the team – but because I knew what it had taken for them to get there.
Immediately post-World Cup, the Irish squad’s focus shifted to the ultimate dream of qualifying for and competing in the Olympic Games. That process has long begun in the gym, on the training pitch, and in test matches… but the first major challenge on the road to Tokyo 2020 lies in the FIH Series Finals, which Ireland are hosting from Saturday 8th June to Sunday 16th June in Banbridge, Co. Down.
There’s a new manager in charge, and there’ll be new players to rise to the occasion. Ireland require a Top 2 finish to advance to a direct Olympic qualifier later this year. They need your support in doing so.
The best way to support women’s sport is to physically support them in action. This June, at the FIH Series Finals in Banbridge – there is a golden opportunity to do so. Make the commitment to go, and give back to the team who gave us so much last summer.
Make the journey, to BE PART OF THE JOURNEY… because Destination Tokyo will be SO much sweeter to savour if you do.