Roll of Honour
It has been a remarkable year for Irish sport — easily the most successful ever in terms of medals won on the international stage. The list of who won what is impressive.
IT is August 4, 2018 and on a sweltering London afternoon and Gillian Pinder is doing something which has never been done before in Irish sport. She is trying to put Ireland into a World Cup final.
Pinder is 26 years old and has more than 100 caps for her country, but a couple of weeks ago she was unknown outside the ranks of Irish hockey fans. Right now she bears the hopes of not just those fans but of everyone who’s become entranced by the extraordinary odyssey which began when Ireland scored a shock 3-1 win over the USA two weeks prior to today.
Ireland were ranked 15th out of the 16 teams at the finals. But that win over the Americans was followed by one over India which ensured Ireland made it to the quarter-finals. India barred the way to the last four but Ireland prevailed in a penalty shoot-out.
That was tense but the tension as Pinder starts her run on goal is of a different order altogether. No Irish team has ever made a senior World Cup final and now this elusive dream seems within touching distance.
Twice already today the final seemed in reach in an absorbing encounter against Spain. First when Anna O’Flanagan gave Ireland an early lead which they held for over half an hour before Alicia Magaz equalised. And then just a minute ago when after Chloe Watkins had put Ireland 2-1 ahead in the shootout you’d have bet on inspirational goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran producing a match-winning stop.
Instead, Lola Riera produced an audacious lob, one of the best finishes in the year in any sport, to tie things up. That sent the shoot-out into sudden death mode with Spain to go first. This time there is no beating McFerran who robs Georgina Oliva and boots the ball away.
It’s Gillian Pinder time. She has eight seconds in which to make history.
You feel that if Ireland let the opportunity slip a third time it might not come again. This is hard to watch. It’s utterly nerve-racking, even for people who could never have imagined they would one day be biting their nails over the fortunes of the Irish women’s hockey team.
The woman herself is not nervous. She seems supernaturally cool, like someone knocking about in the warmup. The Pembroke Wanderers player advances on goal, moving the ball from side to side and as she comes face to face with goalkeeper Maria Ruiz, she makes her move. A quick shift to the right gives her an opening and an emphatic sweep of the stick steers the ball home.
Gillian Pinder has made history with a second to spare. There is something dream-like about the moment as there has been something dream-like about the entire run of a team we’ve come to know over the past fortnight. We’ve learned to admire the imperturbability of McFerran, the opportunism of O’Flanagan, the energy of Katie Mullan, the skill of Nicci Daly and the intelligence of Shirley McCay. But it’s the Pinder goal which will be the abiding memory of a glorious fortnight in London.
A tired Ireland are no match for Holland in the final and afterwards there is debate about whether their campaign is the harbinger of a golden age for the game on this island or just a brilliant one-off.
That debate seems kind of irrelevant. Because whatever happens next the Irish women’s hockey team of 2018 created one of the great moments in our sporting history. It was wonderful in its own right.
This was this, and this was enough.