Sunday 21 October 2018

Ireland in dreamland

Pinder keeps nerve to fire hockey heroes into World Cup final

Ireland’s Gillian Pinder celebrates scoring the winning goal in sudden death of the shootout
Ireland’s Gillian Pinder celebrates scoring the winning goal in sudden death of the shootout

Eamonn Sweeney

Today Ireland play in the World Cup final. How great is that? We've made a couple of underage rugby deciders but the women's hockey team are the first Irish side to reach a senior World Cup final. They've managed to do it in a genuine world sport, one where populous nations with long winning traditions devote considerable resources to the game.

This is one of the greatest achievements in Irish sporting history.

There's been something almost dreamlike about the progress of Graham Shaw's team to the decider. They travelled to London with no expectations that anything like this might be possible. For the second lowest ranked team at the tournament playing in a group where their opposition would consist of three of the world's top ten, early elimination looked the most likely outcome.

Instead wins over the USA and India made Ireland the first team to qualify for the quarter-finals as they placed themselves on the national sporting radar. Having gained our attention, they've amply rewarded it with penalty shootout victories over India and Spain which for drama, tension and an ability to put you through the emotional wringer are up there with anything we've witnessed in Irish sport.

Some new heroines have been added to the national pantheon. There's the incredible Ayeisha McFerran, whose imperturbable presence between the sticks has made her invaluable in the shootouts. There's record cap holder Shirley McCay, who has been a colossus in a defence which has conceded just three goals in five games. And all-action striker Anna O'Flanagan, who equalled the Irish scoring record when pouncing against Spain for a goal which was a masterpiece of the poacher's art.

We've also got to know the defensive craft of Zoe Wilson, the non-stop running of captain Katie Mullan, the elusiveness of Chloe Watkins and the creativity of Nicci Daly. We've seen Ali Meeke's almost casual flick to the net in the penalty shootout against India and Watkins getting the winning goal with half a second to spare. And we then watched Gillian Pinder score the winner against Spain with a coolness which belied the fact that this might have been the most important goal in Irish hockey history.

The team possess enormous mental strength. In yesterday's semi against Spain they had to cope with being pegged back when a place in the final looked at hand, losing a 1-0 half-time lead in the game itself and then seeing Spain twice draw level in the penalty shootout, the second time through an incredible lob by Lola Riera which seemed like the kind of intervention which turns games. Instead the combination of McFerran's save and Pinder's finish got Ireland over the line. Among the players, jubilation seemed rivalled by disbelief. The manager said he'd never expected Ireland to make a World Cup final in his lifetime. The tournament has been one wonderful tale of the unexpected.

This group of players deserve their time in the sun. Three years ago they were denied a place at the Olympics by a penalty shootout loss to China which may have been the unluckiest loss I've seen any team suffer in a sporting fixture. Now they've put Irish hockey on the map, not just internationally but at home too.

A couple of days ago I spoke to someone who'd watched the quarter-final in a pub. The clientele, male, middle-aged and rural, had probably never seen a hockey match before yet they were engrossed by the team's performance to such an extent that they fell nervously silent during the shootout before raising the roof with cheers as Ireland prevailed. This team has won a lot of hearts and minds over the last week and added its own glorious strands to the national sporting tapestry.

The enthusiasm of the players, their never say die spirit and the sheer unalloyed joy they display at victory makes them immensely appealing role models for girls in a world where male sporting achievement generally hogs the headlines and the column inches. One such girl turned to me as Ireland danced in joy after winning the semi and with great feeling said, "I'm just so happy right now." The Irish hockey women are having that effect on an awful lot of people. In a great year for Irish sport, with the victories of the national rugby team and of Leinster, the thrills of the hurling championship and the world and European triumphs of our underage athletes, this unfancied side, an amateur team defeating professional opposition, may have produced the feel-good story to beat them all.

Today Ireland play in the World Cup final. Who'd ever have thought it?

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