Wednesday 19 December 2018

Hard work bears fruit for brilliant girls in green

Ireland captain Katie Mullan jumps for joy after her team’s victory over India on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images
Ireland captain Katie Mullan jumps for joy after her team’s victory over India on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images

Cliona Foley

'Nothing is given. Everything is earned.'

Basketball behemoth LeBron James has tried to trademark his phrase which resonates so deeply with any athlete who has fought long and relentlessly for their moment in the sun. The Irish women's hockey team is basking in theirs right now but only they know just how hard it's been earned.

To see them drive on in 33-degree heat in London on Thursday while World Cup opponents India wilted was extraordinary and hinted at just how much they have invested. A bird's eye view last January, when they visited the Curragh camp in Kildare, would have demonstrated it more visibly, when a whole morning was spent on the army's assault course followed by a session in the pool.

They were so knackered by lunchtime that they reckoned their physical trainer Darren Kenna was going to take it easy on them when he took them off to Portlaoise rugby club that afternoon.

"We'd rarely do a fitness session with the entire squad because that's usually done in our provinces, but the entire squad was lined up on this old, gravel hockey pitch beside the rugby pitches for the most gruelling fitness session," says captain Katie Mullan, who hasn't forgotten that day.

"It was a full-on running session. Absolutely brutal, I'll never forget it. There's an unbelievable photo of us afterwards. It was horrendous but the greatest feeling ever too, to get through it."

Seven months later and the fruits of that day can be seen in the image of her leaping high above the huddle of her celebrating team-mates after Ireland, ranked 15th in the world and second-lowest in the World Cup, beat 10th-ranked India 1-0 to become the first team into the quarter-finals, and with a game in hand, today's clash with Olympic champions England.

Yet belief has been central to Ireland tearing up the form-book and they're not the only ones. "Germany beating Argentina was a huge result, our group has gone completely against rankings and Italy beat China very well. It's been unpredictable, not just us," Mullan points out.

"At this level everyone is in great condition and has worked hard, so things like belief and team cohesion can get you that extra per cent or two of difference. At these big events it can be the team who believes and puts in the extra yards on the pitch that can come through. In the past you'd look at some of our big wins and say, 'Person A and Person B were incredible today', whereas, against India, you could have named 10 or 11 who were amazing. It's been a real team effort. Our opposition can't just man-mark a few star players, they're stretched in every direction."

But from where does such belief and cohesion emanate given Ireland hadn't even qualified for the World Cup for 16 years and had their hearts broken in qualification tournaments for the last two Olympics?

Firstly from an unassailable belief in their game-plan. "Our coaching staff do such a brilliant job in preparing us for every opposition. Against America and India we didn't want another day to prepare. We were ready to go!" Mullan reveals.

"The (substantial) gap between games here also means you have all your preparation done. There's no worry of, 'Maybe I don't know this well enough.' You're just ready to flippin' play!" she enthuses.

Dubliner Graham Shaw also gets huge kudos, a coach who won 151 caps for Ireland and then worked hard, at club and underage level, to hone his innovative, player-centred approach.

"Graham sees the game exactly how you want a head coach to see it," Mullan says. "He sees things happening before they do, has a great ability to read the game quickly. Tactically, he is extremely good. He also delivers a game-plan extremely well. Sometimes coaches can overdo it with the volume of information they give. He knows the stuff we'll see ourselves and knows what he needs to reinforce with us. He gets the volume of information just right."

He has a mix of youth and vast experience. Anna O'Flanagan's 64th goal in her 168th cap left her just one short of Lynsey McVicker's national scoring record. Thursday was Shirley McCay's mind-boggling 276th cap yet she's reportedly one of the fittest on the squad.

Many of them were also talented multi-sporters before settling exclusively on hockey. Mullan (24) has over 150 caps but previously played underage camogie for Derry and won an All-Ireland intermediate club title with Eoghan Rua in 2010.

They are still amateurs versus mostly professional teams. Up until two years ago they paid an annual personal levy (over €500) to help finance their programme before opting for group-funding initiatives like golf classics and coaching camps. They didn't actually have a sponsor - and struggled badly to find one - until SoftCo came on board two months ago. Yet what they've come through has created a bond and an infectious joy at this opportunity that has been apparent from the get-go.

"Over the last few weeks I spoke to so many former Irish players who never got to play in a major tournament like this and they all just told me to enjoy it," Mullan says.

With a last-eight spot secured they bellowed out their team song - 'High' by The Lighthouse Family - got ice-baths and met family and friends outside before returning to the team hotel in Canary Wharf, where they "watched the highlights of the game and just hung out together". Mullan adds: "We wanted to be together really. We spend as much time as possible in each other's company and that's out of choice. At this stage we want it for one another more than any other thing.

"Like Anna O'Flanagan. She's given up her job to go and play in Holland and made so many sacrifices. To see one of your best mates go out and excel like she did and be so happy! Honestly, there is no better feeling."

England v Ireland,

BT Sport, 7.0pm

Sunday Indo Sport

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