Un­der­dogs Ire­land take a mag­i­cal jour­ney to the fi­nal

Ire­land’s women fought well above their weight to go where no Ire­land team has gone be­fore

The Irish Times - - The Best Of Times Women's Hockey World Cup 2018 - Johnny Watterson

Sev­eral hours after the Sun­day evening hooter had sounded in the Lee Val­ley Sta­dium in Olympic Park, east Lon­don, Car­lien Dirkse van den Heu­vel walked into The Bull pub be­side the ho­tel in which her side, the Dutch women’s hockey team, were stay­ing.

It was more than four hours after the match but van den Heu­vel had not changed and was still in her or­ange and white na­tional colours, her head­band on, still wear­ing the match shirt with her num­ber on her back. The Nether­lands had just beaten Ire­land in the World Cup fi­nal and she had the tro­phy gripped in one hand.

It was the Nether­lands’ record eighth time win­ning the World Cup in 14 edi­tions of the tour­na­ment go­ing back to 1974, when the Dutch also won. About half of her team-mates, all still in their play­ing gear, crowded around the bar.

But it was just after 10.30pm. The team cap­tain, with the World Cup now un­der her arm asked for drinks for her play­ers. “Sorry we’ve al­ready served last drinks, we’re closed,” came the re­play. Sto­ically the Dutch play­ers ac­cepted the English Sun­day clos­ing time and trailed out into the vast West­field Shop­ping Cen­tre, bathos drip­ping from the short ex­change. An­other early night.

The Ir­ish team were nowhere to be seen. They had ripped it up into cen­tral Lon­don for a planned cel­e­bra­tion with fam­ily, spon­sors and friends. The team that had lost the fi­nal would get a char­ter flight to Dublin the next day and end with a cel­e­bra­tion in Dame Street in front of thou­sands, the at­ten­tion, the ac­claim an un­fore­seen and sur­real ex­pe­ri­ence for the group of play­ers.

Charmed per­for­mances

What the Ir­ish women achieved over two weeks in Lon­don was barely ex­pli­ca­ble, at least in terms of where the team had come from in pre­vi­ous World Cup events and their place in hockey’s world or­der.

But they un­der­stood they had achieved some­thing of mag­ni­tude and un­like the Dutch, who were cool, al­most per­func­tory about again be­com­ing the world cham­pi­ons, Ire­land reach­ing the fi­nal in oven heat and blind­ing Lon­don sun had lit a fuse. Hockey had never done any­thing like it be­fore.

For the squad of 19 play­ers, it was the mag­i­cal jour­ney to the World Cup fi­nal and their charmed per­for­mances in two penalty shootouts that in­vited na­tional cu­rios­ity and for just a nanosec­ond of time en­tered pub­lic con­scious­ness and stilled the na­tion.

Ire­land had be­gun the tour­na­ment as un­der­dogs and were ranked 15th out of the 16 teams tak­ing part. But since 2002, when Ire­land last qual­i­fied for a World Cup, there had been ma­jor changes in the way hockey had been run and the ap­point­ment of Gra­ham Shaw was also a sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence. A tough coach, it was the for­mer in­ter­na­tional player from Gle­nanne who said that one of the first peo­ple with whom the team psy­chol­o­gist had to have a con­ver­sa­tion with was him.

Shaw was known for his of­ten abra­sive straight talk and what he de­manded from the play­ers. Some­times he ad­mit­ted he went too far and had to tone down his en­ergy lev­els and how he be­haved with his play­ers. Part of that was be­cause he was as a coach as he was as a re­spected in­ter­na­tional player, hun­gry to win and com­pet­i­tive up to and of­ten over the line. He also adapted the Ir­ish team to play to their strengths, which was more of a de­fen­sively or­gan­ised side that could hurt teams in counter at­tack.

With Ayeisha Mc­Fer­ran, among the best goal­keep­ers in world hockey, Ire­land also had a calm­ing in­flu­ence when it came to one-on-ones, the tour­na­ment’s way of de­cid­ing matches that ended in draws in the knock­out phase.

The com­pe­ti­tion was run as four pools of four teams. The first phase was to win the pool and go straight into a quar­ter-fi­nal. Ire­land did just that when they opened by beat­ing the United States 3-1.

Ire­land then faced In­dia in the sec­ond match and with a goal from Anna O’Flana­gan after 13 min­utes it was enough for the win. Be­cause pool favourites Eng­land had drawn with the USA and In­dia, the two Ir­ish wins con­firmed Ire­land as pool win­ners and quar­ter-fi­nal­ists for the first time.

It was also in the pool phase that the qual­ity of the Dutch side’s scorched earth pol­icy shone through and earned them an “avoid at all costs” tags. They faced Italy, South Korea and China and over the three games scored 26 goals. That’s how far the Dutch were ahead.

No fear fac­tor

But as the tour­na­ment un­folded, Ire­land were drawn to meet In­dia again in the quar­ter-fi­nal. De­spite be­ing ranked 10th in the world, Shaw and his team were com­forted by the ear­lier 1-0 in the pool game. There was no fear fac­tor.

The USA, who Ire­land had also beaten, had a world rank­ing of seven, ren­der­ing the rank­ings as es­sen­tially mean­ing­less, at least from an Ir­ish point of view as ev­ery team from the quar­ter-fi­nals on were ranked higher.

Be­liev­ing was as much part of the plan as tac­tics and Ire­land knew that the In­dian play­ers would run at them and run at them and run at them. They did. But the match ended 0-0 and spun into the one-on-one shootout. With Mc­Fer­ran in goal that was im­me­di­ately ad­van­tage Ire­land.

Her tem­per­a­ment and tac­ti­cal sim­plic­ity were supreme. Mc­Fer­ran con­fronted the In­dian strik­ers, forc­ing the pres­sure on to them ev­ery time. She chal­lenged them to beat her and didn’t err. There were no wild rushes for­ward or dra­matic dives. Her foot speed and abil­ity to shadow the at­tack­ing player and close an­gles with­out lung­ing forced all the ten­sion back on her op­po­nents.

That, com­bined with the Ir­ish chill fac­tor, drove the team on. Róisín Up­ton, Ali Meeke and Chloe Watkins scored for Ire­land with Mc­Fer­ran im­mac­u­late. She saved three out of four In­dian penal­ties.

Un­bri­dled joy

But it was Watkins’ break across the pitch after net­ting the de­ci­sive score that cat­a­pulted Ire­land into a greater pub­lic con­scious­ness. Un­bri­dled joy. Noth­ing planned or chore­ographed. A kid again and a team that didn’t know how to re­act, didn’t know how to be­have. So they threw their sticks away and threw them­selves into each other’s arms.

Few could have an­tic­i­pated a sim­i­larly emo­tion­ally charged fin­ish to their World Cup semi-fi­nal against Spain. But in a blur of a few days O’Flana­gan was scor­ing her sec­ond goal of the tour­na­ment with Spain equal­is­ing to fin­ish 1-1 to set up an­other Mex­i­can stand­off be­tween at­tacker and goal­keeper.

So again it was a shootout, again this un­fa­mil­iar de­cid­ing rou­tine that peo­ple around Ire­land had be­gun to un­der­stand. Just one side of the stick, just eight sec­onds to do it. Again they lined up. Again Ire­land looked to Mc­Fer­ran to give them op­por­tu­nity, hold off a few of the Span­ish for­wards and be­lieve in the char­ac­ters that had got­ten them this far. So she did. The 22-year-old from Larne saved three times as the shootout spilled into a sec­ond ro­ta­tion of five play­ers, leav­ing it this time to Gil­lian Pin­der.

‘‘ There was an in­no­cence to it all and a sense of a team of women tak­ing steps into a place that no one had ever been be­fore

Pin­der hadn’t been se­lected to take the penal­ties against In­dia but she was far from over­whelmed.

“I don’t have a plan when I step up – one of the few who doesn’t – just go in, move her a bit and the chance opened up,” she said af­ter­wards as she stretched Spain’s goal­keeper for a sec­ond time to pro­pel women’s hockey and Ir­ish team sport into a di­men­sion they had never be­fore been in.

Again the re­ac­tion was a body bump­ing rush of green with more stream­ing tears, sticks hurled in the air, sticks hurled over heads as the Span­ish team, to a player, col­lapsed to the ground in dis­be­lief that Ire­land had struck a sec­ond time.

Achieve­ment

Ire­land against the Dutch in a World Cup fi­nal. Shaw, who would leave within a year to take up a coach­ing po­si­tion with New Zealand, stood with his head in his hands barely able to take in the achieve­ment.

The pitch then turned into a makeshift Mardi Gras en­clo­sure as the mu­sic was pumped up and fam­i­lies with their frayed nerves and sun burn poured down from the ter­raced seat­ing and onto the side rail­ings.

There was an in­no­cence to it all and a sense of a team of women tak­ing steps into a place that no one had ever been be­fore. There was also a strength­en­ing con­nec­tion with peo­ple who had never seen hockey be­fore, that they were on a learn­ing curve too and en­joy­ing its ex­otic strange­ness and the in­cred­i­ble stim­u­la­tion of go­ing deep into a World Cup. There was the take away for other sports too to never, ever un­der-value self-be­lief.

Fi­nally the Nether­lands were too much, too mag­nif­i­cent and would win their eighth World Cup with six goals. They would go with the tro­phy and gold medals to The Bull and not get a drink as Ire­land par­tied with their sil­ver in the city. They were in a dif­fer­ent lane. For 15 days in Lon­don they al­ways had been.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: CHRISTO­PHER LEE/GETTY IM­AGES

Cap­tain Kathryn Mul­lan leads the Ire­land cel­e­bra­tions fol­low­ing their vic­tory over In­dia at the Lee Val­ley Hockey and Ten­nis Cen­tre in Lon­don.

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