Tuesday 23 July 2019

Hockey comes in from the cold to add more sunshine to golden year of sport


'Now they go to work and even to this untutored eye it is obvious that they work extremely hard for each other.' Photo: Sportsfile
'Now they go to work and even to this untutored eye it is obvious that they work extremely hard for each other.' Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Scenes! More scenes than you could shake a stick at, more scenes than you could shake a hockey stick at, with players dancing and players crying and the crowd going wild and the music blaring and Ireland going to a World Cup final.

George Hamilton was on commentary for RTé. Did the nation hold its breath?

Oh, the fickle joy of sport. One day the nation doesn't know that it has a women's hockey team representing it at a World Cup, and the next day it finds out that the team is doing rather well. And then, the next day again, discovers that they have made the quarter-final and - and who are they playing anyway? India. Right, India. So how does this game work then? And who's yer wan in the goals dressed like a cyborg? McFerran, from Antrim or thereabouts.

And all of a sudden there she is on the evening news, making save after save in a penalty shootout and they've won and they're into the semi-final. So, they don't just take shots at the keeper like they do in soccer? No, they have to dribble the ball in and the keeper comes out and the two of them play a game of cat-and-mouse, a psychological duel, a dance of deception and nerve and skill, and you've got eight seconds to get the ball in the goals or you don't score.

So now it's Spain on Saturday afternoon in the Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre in London and the loyal band of hockey followers reckon Ireland have a chance because Spain are not one of the major, major powers. The girls in green have a chance of going where no Irish team has gone before, a chance to win a World Cup silver medal at least. Sure why stop there?

And three minutes into the semi-final they've worked a goal from a penalty corner. We learn that penalty corners are a prized set-piece play in hockey; they therefore demand a great deal of choreography and training ground repetition to turn these gilt-edged opportunities into goals. Anna O'Flanagan gets the vital touch and Ireland take the lead.

Now they go to work and even to this untutored eye it is obvious that they work extremely hard for each other. They are a well-drilled, industrious team, with each player knowing their role and discharging their responsibilities with a strong individual conscience. Together it makes for a formidable communal operation. Gaps do not appear very often in defence because usually there is someone arriving to fill them before they materialise.

Ireland have owned the first quarter. Spain incrementally come to control the second and third quarters. When they get their equaliser midway through the third it is fully deserved. The Spanish are producing flurries of class, sequences of one-touch passing and instant control that make them look slick and menacing.

The pundits have been saying since the start of the tournament that this Irish squad has been built on a stalwart foundation - an uncompromising defence. One of these defensive pillars is the veteran Shirley McCay. In the fourth quarter she cops a smack of the ball flush in the face; she carries on like she hasn't even noticed.

Full-time, 1-1, the shootout. Maria Ruiz is the Spanish goalkeeper. Like McFerran, she carries all that protective equipment with impressive nimbleness and dexterity. They know how to squeeze the space and time of the penalty-taker. They stay on their feet, narrow the angle, refusing to buy the feints and flicks, forcing the taker to turn, to make a decision, to hurry their shot before the clock expires. It is damn hard to score against them one-on-one.

After four attempts each, the sides have managed just one goal apiece. On Ireland's fifth, Chloe Watkins clears her holster a fraction of a second faster - she sneaks the ball beneath Ruiz's falling body. Now Spain must score. Up steps Lola Riera. She has eight seconds to get it in or go home. And she chips McFerran; she lobs it up and over and down and into the goals. It is a moment of exquisite audacity. Executed in these harrowing circumstances, it is so ludicrously fabulous that you burst out laughing. On the sideline the Ireland head coach Graham Shaw applauds. It is a sublime piece of theatre. As The Kinks famously sang, "Lola, L-O-L-A Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola." If Spain won, the whole country back home would have been singing it.

But they don't win because in sudden death McFerran psyches out the brilliant little Spanish schemer, Gigi Oliva, and then Gillian Pinder, another veteran who has seen the hard times in a green jersey, transports the squad into ecstasy. Scenes!

It is a stunning denouement. Irish hockey, a hardy perennial that has endured decades of indifference, came in from the cold yesterday. It is always heartening to see minority sports get their day in the sun. Yesterday it was positively life-affirming. For the players and their families, the last few weeks have surely been the trip of a lifetime, the culmination in some cases of a life in sport - a lifetime's work in the sport they love.

They will be rank outsiders in the final today. But lest we forget, or take it for granted, it is a World Cup final. They are there; they are on a magic carpet ride; and make no mistake, they are tough to the bone too.

The heatwave has made it a golden summer for the country. The hockey women in green have just added another layer of sunshine and, who knows, they may even yet add another layer of gold.

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