Sunday 19 May 2019

'We're here to win it - we've got the talent and the spirit' - Irish stars ready to create sporting history

Anna O’Flanagan celebrates victory over Spain in yesterday’s World Cup semi-final and, above, the players sing ‘Ireland’s Call’ before the game. Photo: Getty Images
Anna O’Flanagan celebrates victory over Spain in yesterday’s World Cup semi-final and, above, the players sing ‘Ireland’s Call’ before the game. Photo: Getty Images

Sam Wheeler

Anna O'Flanagan was "speechless" after inspiring Ireland to the World Cup final - but she will not be satisfied with a runners-up medal this afternoon.

"We're in this for the long haul," said the 28-year-old forward, who got the early goal that put Ireland ahead against Spain yesterday - it was her 65th strike in Irish colours, drawing her level with Lynsey McVicker as the top scorer in the team's history.

"Once we got to the quarter-finals, we said, 'we are here to win it'. We've got the talent, we've got the togetherness, and we are hard to beat - our defence is really strong, and we've got a great goalkeeper. We knew we could get some good results in this tournament, but to get to the final. . . I'm lost for words."

Coach Graham Shaw broke down in tears as he tried to sum up his team's achievement. "This is a dream come true," he said.

"We are trying not to think about what we are doing here because when you look at social media or read about it, the emotions come in. My daughter told me the other day that she wanted to be a hockey player and up till now, she didn't want to pick up a stick, so that nearly had me in tears.

"Hopefully it is a sign of what we have done here. If we have inspired the next generation of hockey players in Ireland, we can be incredibly proud of that."

"I have been talking to Holland looking to arrange a game for three years and they wouldn't play us. Now they have no choice!"

O'Flanagan, who was named the player of the match, is undaunted about going back into action again this afternoon - Ireland take on pre-tournament favourites the Netherlands - with the final starting barely 24 hours after Gillian Pender nervelessly settled the semi-final penalty shoot-out in Ireland's favour.

"It's a demanding schedule, but it's normal in hockey," she said. "We're confident in our fitness levels - you have to be so fit, quick and strong to play hockey."

O'Flanagan and her team-mates have made a conscious effort to block out the hype from back home, so she is only dimly aware of how hockey has gripped the nation. "We're trying to keep our feet on the ground, not get caught up in the hype and stay focused on the job," she said. "But people have told me, 'you've no idea what;s going on back home' - I'm happy not to not to know about it!

"But I can't wait to get back home on Monday, hopefully with a winner's medal around my neck."

She hopes that her team's feats can transform hockey's profile and drag it into the mainstream.

"It has been growing more and more every year, but we really need to put it on the map," she said. "We are low on resources - we have been operating on a shoe-string, and I hope this can put us up there among the top teams in the country.

"There aren't many Irish teams that have got to a World Cup final - and we all have jobs or are students."

O'Flanagan, who plays for Dutch team Pinoké, is a lawyer with McCann Fitzgerald, but has taken time out to "focus on really giving the hockey a big push ahead of the World Cup". "It's certainly paid off," she said.

Shaw added: "We woke up this morning and we were confident, but there is one thing feeling like you can win a game and then going out an executing.

"This is the 16th ranked team in the world and to be honest, I doubted whether we would even qualify for this World Cup, so to be in the final is just amazing.

"We were fantastic in the first half and we were probably disappointed to only be 1-0 ahead, but they came on strong in the second half and we had to hold firm.

"I can't quite believe this is happening, but we have a final to play now and we have to go and win it."

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