Sunday 8 December 2019

A unique group of women who reminded us why we get into sport in the first place – to enjoy it

Ayeisha McFerran was deservedly named goalkeeper of the tournament. Photo by Craig Mercer/Sportsfile
Ayeisha McFerran was deservedly named goalkeeper of the tournament. Photo by Craig Mercer/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

'They are refusing to be intimidated by the opposition," RTÉ commentator George Hamilton stated in the final quarter of yesterday's World Cup final in London.

Ireland were 6-0 down to the Netherlands, but in losing Ireland were still winning. They were winning even more admiration for refusing to give up the chase in a whirlwind World Cup, the likes of which no-one could have foreseen.

Sometimes the greatest kind of influence is the one we never saw coming. Over the past week our national women's hockey team took us to places we never even imagined. Never before did we wake up on a Sunday morning to the reality of an Irish senior team playing in a World Cup final later that day. When something like this happens it leaves you wondering what else is possible.

What else are we not imagining for ourselves because here we have a group of women who defied status, ranking and even logic to win silver at a World Cup.

There is so much about this Irish team which sucked us right in. To the feats of Packie Bonner at a World Cup, we can add Ayeisha McFerran. Her World Cup became our World Cup because she kept us in this World Cup.

She was deservedly named goalkeeper of the tournament, with her laser-sharp footwork showing off the years she spent Irish dancing as a kid. There was the captain Katie Mullan. Just like the way Roy Keane set the tone all those years ago against the Netherlands at Lansdowne Road, Mullan set the tone with this team throughout the tournament and against the Dutch yesterday.

Attitude

Because as well as the technique and unreal skill of this team, it was their attitude which stood out. In your life, have you ever seen a player as calm as Mullan was in her pre-match interview yesterday? "Anything can happen on the day," Mullan said with a cool demeanour. Where were the nerves? Where was the sense of being over-whelmed by the occasion? No, not this Ireland.

When Mullan stood in the tunnel ready to lead out her team, she was smiling. Smiling! Who knew the pressure of playing on the biggest stage could be met with an attitude of enjoyment, of living in the moment, of refusing to be intimidated.

And when the team sang Ireland's Call and the players pulled each other closer for the lines "shoulder to shoulder" it was a reminder of why any of us got into sport in the first place - to enjoy it, to make friends, to have a good time. Too often that simplicity is forgotten.

This Irish team are the kind of influencers we need. While the Ireland coach Graham Shaw said they want to inspire the next generation and hopefully more girls and boys will be encouraged to play hockey, this Irish team reminded us women and girls, in particular, the meaning of being part of a team.

We have been blessed with individual female sports stars in this country. But it was seeing and feeling the support that the women in this team had for each other that created such a special dynamic.

They made you want to be part of their team. Along with our national women's rugby, football and inter-county teams, our hockey team is showing girls the value of being part of something bigger than the individual.

So what next? "We've arrived at the top table, what would it be like if we could stay there now?" former player Lisa Jacob asked in the RTE studio yesterday. This team needs to receive the level of funding to match their ambition and potential.

The Tokyo Olympics is taking on new promise after this World Cup. The team also need their own base to call home rather than hiring pitches.

Because this is us now. This Irish team showed us where hard work and dedication, when few were watching, can take you when everybody is watching. The end of this World Cup spells the beginning of something special.

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