Blunting Spanish attacking power the key for Green Army
Ultimate outsiders Ireland have put a smile on the face of the Women's World Cup with their unheralded progress to today's semi-final in London.
When captain Katie Mullan declares that "we just keep enjoying ourselves," no one doubts her for a moment. Mullan's beaming face has lit up the tunnel each time as she has led her side into combat at the Lee Valley Stadium - four times so far. Two wins, a narrow defeat to an English team laced with Olympic gold medallists and a shoot-out victory over India have landed the world's 16th-ranked side in the top four.
"We are cherishing every moment we have here," says Mullan still smiling as she and her comrades face into a weekend which is guaranteed to add two more milestone matches to their wonderland journey. It is all heady stuff for a side who readily admit that merely qualifying from their pool would have represented a real achievement.
Instead, they far exceeded their own modest expectations as they topped the pool, skipping the exertions of a play-off crossover match, and earned the good fortune which allowed them advance through the weaker half of the draw.
Perversely, their best chance now of a medal is silver, which is the minimum guaranteed if they manage victory today.
Taking on either Netherlands or Australia in a consolation Sunday scrap for bronze would be a daunting challenge. The clash with Spain - five places ahead of them in the official FIH rankings - presents a very familiar challenge.
"We know each other so well," observes coach Graham Shaw (right). "Since 2013 we spend a week to ten days in Spain each year and they have come to Ireland three years out of five."
And the former Glenanne midfielder revealed that the seeds of the current success were sown on the latest Iberian warm-weather training expedition. "We sat down in November in Spain and tried to create a culture that we could achieve something special. I think the players have most certainly done that," he said.
The game pits Spain's unstoppable force against Ireland's immovable object. The Spaniards knocked in seven goals against South Africa and seven of their players have found the target so far in the tournament.
They required just one, from Carmen Cano, to eliminate perennial contenders Germany on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, just three of Shaw's girls have made the scoresheet in Lee Valley - Deirdre Duke (two), Anna O'Flanagan and Shirley McCay - as they have relied on hard-working defence.
The coach admits that he would like to see slightly better returns from his forwards but realises that the greatest asset is the rearguard. Róisín Upton, Elena Tice and the rest have been splendid but it is the consistently high-level of performance by 'keeper Ayeisha McFerran which has garnered most attention. The 22-year-old from Larne was identified as a special talent at an early age by national goalie coach Nigel Henderson. A couple of years in the US at the University of Louisville have helped to develop the potential.
"Ayeisha is the best in the game," declared Ireland team-mate Chloe Watkins after the drama of Thursday's shoot-out, in which McFerran was beaten just once.
Meanwhile, the nation's most capped sportswoman has declined to respond to rumours that she may hang up her stick at the conclusion of this fairy-tale World Cup. "Too early to say," was the comment from Shirley McCay, who already has 270 appearances. If she does decide to call it a day, then she will certainly bow out at the top.
Ireland v Spain,
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