Irish women’s hockey team ready to make new memories at Euros

Ireland will again face the Dutch in first match of the European Championships

The Ireland team celebrate after qualifying for the Olympics. File photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The Ireland team celebrate after qualifying for the Olympics. File photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Almost three years ago now, the sound and vision from a simmering London World Cup final and a silver medal has not dimmed. Aside from a tense double header against Canada in 2019 on a pop-up pitch in Donnybrook, where Ireland earned a place in this summer’s Olympic Games, the Covid blanket over sport has ensured that people hold on to their dearest memories.

In a climate that has made it impossible to mint new ones the 2018 World final against the Netherlands will do. As fate would have it, Ireland have arrived at where they have come from and have been gifted the Dutch in their first match of the European Championships.

A reprise of the historic final against the current number one side in the world has some circularity about it and the Netherlands remain a challenge. The intervening years has not diminished their reputation.

The postponed Olympics from last year has queered the pitch for the 2021 calendar. Never in a normal cycle would the Euros take place just weeks before the Olympic Games. As well as being a tournament in itself the eight-team competition is also acting as a qualifier for next year’s World Cup.

All of those pose a triple demand on the Irish women as they seek a World Cup ticket, which is a top five finish, a European medal, which is a top three finish and to come out of Wagener Stadium in suburban Amsterdam set up and ready to peak again at the end of July.

Because there are only weeks between the two majors, the consequences of injury will also be magnified as Serena and Beth Barr and Zoe Wilson, a central figure in the silver medal winning side, know to their extreme cost. Three players, three ACL injuries, Beth and Serena identical twins and identical injuries, which will keep them all out for the summer.

“It’s a tough injury. It is common in hockey and very common in female high performance hockey,” said Irish coach Sean Dancer.

“The unfortunate thing for us is that we have had three ACLs in 12 months and I think the big, big issue is a set of identical twins have had the same injury. From a personal point of view the group has struggled and we do feel very disappointed for the girls.”

Surgery as well as some players stepping away and form allows 12 of the World Cup side to travel to Amstelveen, which means that if the Dutch have not changed from being stubbornly the best, Ireland has. The sport has been retooled and the Irish set up is now more distant from the amateur era than it has ever been.

Players receive expenses for travel and are not constantly being bounced around grounds over which they have no control to find a suitable surface to train on. Abbottstown has become their base.

That and confidence grown from Olympic qualification and the silver medal has expanded ambition. Scotland and Spain are the other two teams in the pool and Ireland have beaten both this year in training camp matches.

Big things

“If you look back on us as a team, we were fully amateur meeting up for weekends only a couple of years ago,” said the 193 capped Irish captain Katie Mullan.

“We qualified for the Olympics in November 2019 and that would have given us just a six-month run into an Olympics, where we want to achieve big things and back up our World Cup silver medal.

“Getting over the disappointment (of the postponed Olympics) took some time. But then seeing the opportunity of 12 extra months to clean up on our basics and to be in that semi-professional environment, where we are together every single week for a minimum of two days in Abbottstown.

“I think there’s huge opportunity for a group that was previously amateur to get our practical elements up to the same level as the top 10 nations in the world. We’ve had the opportunity to do that.

“We haven’t been able to travel away and play as many international games as we would have liked but we’ve been together on a pitch more than ever before. The extra 12 months to do that will stand to us this summer.

“When you step back and look at where we were 18 months ago. I definitely see a huge strength to where we are now purely because of the time on the pitch together, which was restricted in previous cycles.”

While nothing will replace the World Cup final, the hope is that Amsterdam can provide some of what London offered and add to the squad’s upward journey

Another aspect to the squad is that the players have become better athletes with access to the high performance unit in Abbottstown and several of them are benefitting from playing other sports, half a dozen or so arriving with GAA backgrounds.

Michelle Carey, from Colaiste Iosagain, played with the Dublin Under-16 football team. Naomi Carroll from Cratloe was part of Clare’s senior camogie and football sides and has a Munster senior Camogie Championship medal

Nicci Daly of Ballyboden Wanderers was a Dublin senior football panelist and Sarah Hawkshaw played Dublin Under-16 football. Katie Mullan won the 2010 All-Ireland club intermediate camogie championship with Eoghan Rua, while Roisin Upton lined out with the Limerick Under-16 football team. Deirdre Duke, from Kilmacud Crokes, is a Dublin Under-14 Ladies football All-Ireland winner.

UCD’s Carey is one of those players Dancer picked because of the skill set camogie and football has shaped, which allows her to be an awkward midfield player, adept at the 3D skills, or, playing the ball off the surface.

Uncapped she has burst into the panel and was so far down the pecking order that last August, she was lining out for her GAA club Ballinteer St Johns in the Junior A Championship.

“Michelle Carey is one of the exciting younger players that has come into the group recently,” said Dancer. “She does offer some different skills from her Gaelic background. She is a handful and she does things a little bit differently and I’m hoping that will create a few headaches for our opponents.”

Record

Ireland opens against the Dutch on June 5th. The last win over them was long before the European Championships came into being in 1963 and since then Ireland has lost 27 consecutive times, while the Netherlands have scored four or more goals in each of the last 10 meetings this millennium.

Of the 14 women’s European championships staged since the inaugural event in France in 1984, the Dutch have won the gold medal 10 times, Germany twice and England twice. Since the 2016 Olympic final the hosts have lost just once in over 100 international matches.

Ireland then meet Scotland, ranked 22nd in the world, two days later on June 7th. The final pool match on June 9th is against Spain, who are one place above eighth placed Ireland in the world rankings, before the classification matches begin on June 11th.

“There are some very good opportunities there,” says Dancer. “Holland are the world number one and by far the best team in the world. We are under no illusion how hard that game will be. But every time we walk out on to the field we are expecting to win.

“We think we have an ability to win so we are certainly approaching that game as an opportunity. Whether or not you have a result against Holland you still have to win at least one of the last two games. Certainly, against Scotland and Spain, the girls know those teams very well. They are certainly two games we will be targeting.”

What Ireland were good at in London and then again against Canada in their Olympic qualifiers was seizing the opportunity, squeezing the margins in their favour and the Dutch aside, being difficult to score against with one of the best players in the world, Ayeisha McFerran, in goal.

“We’re in a good place physically,” says Mullan. “The players are super fit and we’ve had more games that most. I think the biggest thing for this squad is the excitement of playing tournament hockey again. It’s been a very long time since we played in an international tournament. It’s pure excitement now.”

While nothing will replace the World Cup final, the hope is that Amsterdam can provide some of what London offered and add to the squad’s upward journey. With a broader spectrum of experience from uncapped Carey to Shirley McKay with 306 caps, the next 60 days will be the most intense in the sport’s history.

“A top five finish to secure a place in next year’s World Cup. That’s a huge point of legacy for this team,” says Mullan. “Also playing in a semi-final in a Europeans is not something we have done before, so that would be a massive goal.

“We know better than anyone that once you secure a spot in a quarter-final or semi-final it’s about who wants it more on that day. Yeah, a place in a semi-final would be something special for this group and it’s something I think we are capable of.”

Ireland women’s squad for EuroHockey Championships - June 5-13th, Wagener Stadium, Amstelveen, Netherlands (club/caps):

Ayeisha McFerran (SV Kampong, 100) - goalkeeper

Lizzie Murphy (Loreto, 13) - goalkeeper

Michelle Carey (UCD, 0)

Naomi Carroll (Catholic Institute, 111)

Lizzie Colvin (Belfast Harlequins, 196)

Nicci Daly (Loreto, 189)

Nikki Evans (Old Alex, 198)

Megan Frazer (Belfast Harlequins, 136)

Sarah Hawkshaw (Railway Union, 33)

Hannah Matthews (Loreto, 147)

Shirley McCay (Pegasus, 306)

Hannah McLoughlin (UCD, 14)

Katie Mullan (Ballymoney, 193) - captain

Anna O’Flanagan (Muckross, 207) - vice captain

Lena Tice (Old Alex, 109)

Sarah Torrans (Loreto, 26)

Roisin Upton (Catholic Institute, 76)

Chloe Watkins (Monkstown, 226)

Travelling reserves: Deirdre Duke (Old Alex, 141), Sarah McAuley (Muckross, 0)

Tournament details - EuroHockey Championships 2021 (all times Irish)

Group A (world rank): Netherlands (1st), Spain (7th), Ireland (8th), Scotland (22nd)

Group B: Germany (4th), England (5th), Belgium (12th), Italy (17th)

Irish fixture schedule

June 5th, 2021: Ireland v Netherlands, 2.30pm

June 7th, 2021: Ireland v Scotland, 11.30am

June 9th, 2021: Ireland v Spain, 11.30am

June 11th 2021: Semi-finals/relegation pool

June 12th/13th: Medal matches/relegation pool

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