Sunday 15 September 2019

New goal for girls of the summer

The Irish women's hockey team that thrilled the nation by reaching the World Cup final are preparing for another great adventure as they turn their thoughts to qualifying for 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

Silver lining: Ireland’s players celebrate after being
presented with their silver medals at the Women’s
World Cup. Photo: Kate McShane/Getty Images
Silver lining: Ireland’s players celebrate after being presented with their silver medals at the Women’s World Cup. Photo: Kate McShane/Getty Images

Cliona Foley

Tomorrow marks the start of the next big chapter for the Irish women's hockey team whose extraordinary odyssey to the World Cup final made the nation repeatedly hold its breath.

It's four months tomorrow since they played in the decider and they're now headed to their first major training camp since a five-day trip to Spain.

One notable absentee is Ayeisha McFerran (22), crowned 'Goalkeeper of the Tournament', who keeps the silver medal hanging on her bed-post at the University of Louisville. She swears she needs to see it daily to convince herself that it wasn't all some crazy dream. It's still a bit of a blur because, just five days after their return, McFerran had to fly back to America for the final year of a hockey scholarship.

"Sitting over here and watching the team do things like 'The Late, Late', that was definitely a struggle," she admits. "You want to keep living that high but you have to come down to earth at some point and it was hard trying to figure out how to do that."

McFerran's descent was more turbulent than she expected. Her US college side lost some key players this season so, for the first time in four years, the Cardinals didn't qualify for the NCAA National finals.

She also lost her first penalty shoot-out since Ireland's heartbreaking Rio qualifier in 2015. And, in her final game for Louisville (a regional quarter-final) she was replaced with an outfield player when they went desperately chasing a late winner.

"Personally I didn't have the season I would have liked," the Larne star admits. "I was expecting the same kind of performances from myself and it's a very different way of playing over here."

With her college season finished, it's all books for her now until May, but she's coming home for Christmas and won't return until January 20 to fit in a two-week international training camp in Chile.

Sensational

Her sensational World Cup performances undoubtedly put McFerran in the shop window. Her goalkeeping gear was already sponsored and she's since picked up a stick sponsor and signed up with a clothing company called 'This is Fierce'. Several clubs - a few German, one English - approached her during the tournament.

Her coach in Louisville is a former Australian team-mate of Alyson Annan - the woman who coached The Netherlands to gold - so the club hockey world will likely be McFerran's oyster when she graduates next year.

Elena Tice (20), the remarkably self-possessed baby of the team from Glenealy, Wicklow - who had already played in another World Cup (cricket) during her transition year - is just back from Down Under. Her trip to play in New Zealand, 10 days after the World Cup final, was planned well in advance.

While she was helping North Harbour to win the local inter-pro series, she was unexpectedly approached by ACT Strikers of Canberra to play in Australia's equivalent.

There were no fees involved - just flights, board and accommodation - but it was too good an offer to refuse so she extended her trip from five to 13 weeks. The Strikers won bronze and their temporary Irish centre-back won 'Player of the Tournament'.

Her trip was possible because she took first term off college. Splitting her economics studies is one of the perks of having an Ad Astra scholarship which UCD gives to particularly gifted students.

Since London two more of UCD's internationals - Deirdre Duke and Ireland captain Katie Mullan - have taken up club contracts, with Dusseldorf and German champions Club an der Alster, respectively.

Anna O'Flanagan, Nikki Evans and Megan Frazer were already playing in Holland and Germany and have stayed there but they are, essentially, semi-pros. European club hockey still necessitates supplementing your income by working part-time a few days a week.

Chloe Watkins, whose penalty at the end of her 198th senior cap famously secured Ireland's semi-final spot, is back with Monkstown after playing for HC Bloemendaal in Holland last year. She had offers to stay or play in Germany but, at 26, she had her mind set on finally starting her professional accountancy training.

All of her friends qualified last September so she's going to be three-and-a-half years behind them. She's delighted to have secured a place with Mazars in Dublin, but it will not be without its challenges.

Ireland do early morning gym sessions twice a week, and she's in the 6-7am group every Tuesday and Thursday.

After work she has pitch sessions three times a week, for club and regional squad, for 90 to 120 minutes. Since October, Ireland have trained in St Gerard's, Bray, every Sunday on top of the usual club matches.

"Trying to get breakfast in after training, getting my meals right when I'm in work, and then going to training that evening and not really having time to get dinner in. That's what's toughest," Watkins says.

To go on next week's training camp she had the option of taking unpaid leave or a week's holidays, and opted for the latter.

Despite the huge interest in Ireland's World Cup success, she hasn't noticed any big jump in domestic club attendances since her return.

"My club has always had decent crowds but it's still early days in the season. What could be interesting is June, when we have our Olympic qualifier here," she says.

That event should measure whether last summer's public acclamation was mere lip service or something more real.

Like her team-mates, Watkins has benefited from more gear from her sponsors and a few paid (corporate) appearances, but is more than happy to visit schools and clubs for free.

Gillian Pinder, scorer of two penalties in that nail-biting semi-final, including the remarkably cool sudden-death goal that clinched Ireland's historic final spot, is now working part-time in the hockey nursery that produced herself and Watkins.

She qualified in law and business from UCD last December, spent the next nine months concentrating on her game and is now running the schools' hockey programme in St Andrews in Booterstown, and coaching a couple of its teams.

"It allows me balance work and training because schools hockey finishes around March which is when we'll start getting very busy again," Pinder explains of a job she had accepted pre-London.

"Hockey doesn't pay the bills so it's very important to couple it with work or your career and make them fit simultaneously.

"Between business and law that's something I'm still figuring out," she admits.

If all goes well next summer, Ireland could be contesting a final Olympic qualifier for Tokyo 2020 next November, which makes long-term career plans tricky.

The players remain buoyed by their remarkable World Cup achievement and world number eight ranking, while sometimes they are still overwhelmed by public reaction.

"With the new 20x20 initiative, I've seen a lot of school noticeboards with projects about women in sport," Pinder explains.

"To see yourself up there, beside women like Katie Taylor and Sonia O'Sullivan, it nearly takes your breath away and shows the magnitude of what we've achieved."

SoftCo, a regular club hockey supporter which came on-board as national team sponsor only six weeks before London, is expected to renew and improve its deal.

The announcement of a second major team sponsor is reportedly imminent.

Promised

Ask the players where they'd like the Government's promised €500,000 extra funding spent and they are unanimous - on a permanent home for Irish hockey, for both themselves and the men's team who made the last Olympics and begin their own World Cup in India next Friday.

Have the Girls of Summer 2018 been blessed with great fame and riches since London? No. Their lives, largely, are as challenging as ever but they're motivated now by the confidence and invaluable memories they created in that glorious, unforgettable fortnight. "Talking ourselves down and limiting ourselves, that's quite an Irish thing to do, isn't it?" Watkins muses.

"Realising that we were good enough to be there, and meant to be there - that's something we've all definitely taken away from it."

Irish Independent

The Throw-In: Selection dilemma for Dublin and All-Ireland ladies football final preview

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport