Ireland’s hockey World Cup finalists still pinching themselves

During a hot summer in London, the women’s team proved anything is possible

Selfie-confidence: Ireland’s players celebrate with their silver medals at the 2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup Final at Lee Valley Stadium in London last August. Photograph: Morgan Treacy

Selfie-confidence: Ireland’s players celebrate with their silver medals at the 2018 Vitality Hockey Women’s World Cup Final at Lee Valley Stadium in London last August. Photograph: Morgan Treacy

 

There was many a great story to be told after Ireland’s magical World Cup adventure in London during the summer, but few matched the one Emily Beatty had to share.

The Pembroke Wanderers player had been desperately unlucky to miss the cut when Graham Shaw named his squad for the tournament, but there was no sulking. Instead, she headed to London purely as a fan to support the team in the final. Megan Frazer, though, had been injured in the semi-final victory over Spain, so on the off-chance that her services might be required, Beatty packed her kit and stick into her luggage.

The call from Shaw came at 11.30 on the Sunday morning, just five hours before the final. Beatty had to get herself from one side of London to the other to link up with the squad. As she told Johnny Watterson of this parish, “I ran down from my hotel, jumped into a taxi and I said to the driver, ‘This is an emergency. I’m playing in the World Cup final!’” Until that day, the driver possibly thought he’d seen and heard it all.

It was, then, an adventure like few others, not least for Beatty who, a few hours later, found herself walking out onto the pitch at the Lee Valley Centre to play in a World Cup final. It wasn’t just pinch-yourself territory for the Dubliner; for devotees of the game back home, it was the stuff of fantasy.

Unlikely

We know now how unlikely an achievement it was. Out of the 16 competing nations, only Italy were ranked lower than Ireland. The finalists would come from the top-ranked aristocrats of the game, the Dutch, England, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia and Germany. Everyone else would be also-rans. Cannon fodder, even.

Glorious as it was, that opening-day 3-1 triumph over the United States, ranked nine places higher than Ireland, would surely be the highlight of the tournament for Shaw’s players.

The sun was beating down outside, but a sizeable chunk of the nation was sitting in front of their tellies watching the Irish women’s hockey team

But five days later they beat India, ranked six places above, and it was all getting a little surreal.

And even though they lost to England in their final pool game, it was by just a single goal, the hosts and one of the pre-tournament favourites taking 53 minutes to break them down. There was a tenacity and quality to the performances that would have surprised even the team’s most faithful and hopeful of supporters.

After that, the crazy hit sky-high levels.

The sun was beating down outside, but a sizeable chunk of the nation was sitting in front of their tellies watching the Irish women’s hockey team. If anyone claims they saw it coming, they need to take a lie-detector test.

A draw with India in the quarter-final, followed by a penalty shoot-out. Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran a colossus, Róisín Upton, Ali Meeke and Chloe Watkins with ice in their veins. Ireland were in the semi-finals.

A draw with Spain, followed by a penalty shoot-out. Drama beyond description. McFerran, who must have seemed like Darth Vader to the Spanish stroke-takers, off-the-chart brilliant. Gillian Pinder scores, Watkins scores, sudden death, another McFerran save, at which point Pinder put Ireland in the World Cup final. Seriously.

Bridge too far

The Dutch might have proved a bridge too far, outclassing Ireland in a 6-0 defeat, but the pain of that experience soon eased when those silver medals were placed around the players’ necks.

Remarkably, the match had a peak audience of 439,100 on RTÉ, its highest viewing figures for a sporting event outside GAA, rugby or soccer since Katie Taylor’s 2012 Olympic triumph.

There followed a homecoming in front of thousands in Dublin’s Dame Street, a trip to Áras an Uachtaráin, even an appearance on The Late Late Show. And later in the year not even the Grand Slam-winning, New Zealand-beating Irish rugby XV could beat their hockey counterparts to the RTÉ Team of the Year award. And Shaw even beat Joe Schmidt to the Manager of the Year gong.

The mother of all pinch-yourself years for a sport that finally had its moment in the sun. And there’s a steely determination from both coach and players that they won’t return to the shade any time soon, their target in the coming year qualification for Tokyo 2020.

As they all proved in 2018, nothing is impossible.

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