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Saturday 20 July 2019

Ireland celebrates first-ever world cup final

Nation gets behind hockey heroes to bring victory home

Anna O'Flanagan, centre, celebrates victory with team-mates after a sudden death penalty shootout against Spain
Anna O'Flanagan, centre, celebrates victory with team-mates after a sudden death penalty shootout against Spain
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Ireland's hockey heroes stand on the cusp of sporting immortality after an epic penalty shoot-out win against Spain saw them scorch into the World Cup final.

There was less than three minutes on the clock when Anna O'Flanagan pelted in Ireland's first goal and the country got a feeling that the women's hockey World Cup trophy could be coming to Ireland for the first time.

When it all ended in a nail-biting penalty shoot-out win, the nation erupted. There were heroes all over the pitch but superstar goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran once again stole headlines with a string of stunning saves.

Gillian Pinder, who scored the winning penalty, threw her hockey stick up in the air in pure elation at the achievement, as the nation looked forward to Ireland's first-ever senior World Cup final.

Speaking minutes later, Pinder told the Sunday Independent: "I didn't know what to do with myself. That moment of realisation when it hit the back of the net and I realised we were in the final. The buzz was incredible."

Asked what words she had for the country cheering back home, she said: "I want to thank them all. We looked up into the stands and all we could see was green. All of us have been inundated with messages, too, and we just appreciate it so much."

Ireland has always been known for its army of bandwagon fans. But, given this incredible journey for a team of amateur players - who were, incredibly, the lowest- ranked side going into the tournament - the nation could be forgiven for a tidal wave of pride.

And, yesterday, Pinder insisted there was no hard feelings among the team towards those who were late to the party: "That's just the magic of sport," she enthused. "There are pubs down the west of Ireland who probably never watched a hockey game and they are all tuned into this now."

The crucial matter of funding could also be parked for another day. "We are just thriving in the moment and grateful that there's so much support back home. That's a conversation for another day," she added.

Speaking about the spirit of the team, which has carried them this far, she said there was no fear of a sleepless night ahead of the final at 4.30pm today against the Netherlands. "Because we are such underdogs, we have done so well, we've done everyone proud, we have kind of gone into this with no pressure on us. As soon as we got out of the group, we just kept wanting more.

"We felt we could take on all the teams that came our way and that's what we have done and the final is no different. We are just relishing and enjoying it so much and we are so determined to put Ireland on the map."

President Michael D Higgins was among the first to congratulate the squad, saying: "I wish to congratulate the Irish women's hockey team and to thank them, on behalf of the people of Ireland, for their incredible achievements in the World Cup.

"The players, coach and support staff have overcome great difficulties, on and off the pitch, and have demonstrated what team spirit, skill and dedication can accomplish.

"We are all looking forward to a historic match [today]."

Nial Ring, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, followed suit. Taking to social media, he wrote: "I know very little (nothing!) about hockey but watched Ireland V Spain. Amazing performance and win. Ireland in a world cup final! 'C'mon the girls in green' Comhgairdeas. I feel a civic reception coming on!"

Win or lose today, he promised that there will be a public reception at the Mansion House to welcome the team home.

Meanwhile, John Trainor, founder and CEO of Onside sponsorship agency, which works with sponsors and rights holders to help to influence the €50m of sponsorship money spent annually, explained how the Irish heroes could earn five-figure sums in the months ahead.

"Some of these girls, if they have access to a couple of sponsors across the board, could certainly earn in the tens of thousands. Up to about €50,000 if they approach it right.

"They should look at business, or technology companies, which mightn't necessarily want to market to a wider audience but are keen to attract potential employees or talent to their company - and these players have certainly demonstrated that they can be part of a team which works well together. They are really powerful role models."

The team is self-funded and players are asked to pay to play for their country.

A levy of €550 a year comes out of each player's pocket to supplement their limited funding.

Ireland take on the Netherlands in the final at 4.30pm today. Live coverage on RTE 2 and the RTE Player.

Sunday Independent

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