‘It’s not just a dream anymore for Irish women’s hockey. It’s real’

Former Irish internationals share the joy as Ireland squad qualify for Olympics

Ireland’s Chloe Watkins, Hannah Matthews and Anna O’Flanagan celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics following their win over Canada in Energia Park, Donnybrook, on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland’s Chloe Watkins, Hannah Matthews and Anna O’Flanagan celebrate qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics following their win over Canada in Energia Park, Donnybrook, on Sunday. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Among the 6,137 spectators in Donnybrook on Sunday evening there were more than a few familiar faces, a generous sprinkling of former Irish internationals who had given their all through the years in the pursuit of the Olympic-qualifying dream. But, for every one of them, it wasn’t to be.

One of those in the crowd was former Irish captain Mary Logue, the Cork woman’s name featuring heavily in any debate about who was the most gifted hockey player to ever don the green shirt. She was the first Irish woman to win 100 caps, amassing 153 in total between 1989 and 2001.

But, like all the 2019 squad’s predecessors, Olympic qualification eluded her.

“It just felt like our hopes would always be dashed, no matter how hard we tried it wasn’t ever good enough,” she says. “We were always in the middle, we were never up there with the elite, so in some ways it felt unachievable. But we kept on trying.”  

Come the end of the drama on Sunday, then, the emotions spilled over.

“There was so much hugging going on,” she says, “it’s hard to put it into words. It’s been a dream for so long for Irish women’s hockey, and now it’s not just a dream any more. It’s real. They’ve done it.”

Emotional attachment

For Logue, there was an added emotional attachment to it all. Having been in charge of the Irish under-18s between 2007 and 2009, she coached several of the current crop of senior internationals in their tender years, among them Chloe Watkins, Deirdre Duke, Hannah Matthews and Gillian Pinder.

This Monday morning I woke up and my first thought was: ‘We’re going to the Olympics!’

Watkins was just 10 when she came under her tutelage at Hermes. Logue, then, knew how talented she was, but even so, come Monday morning she was still marvelling at her conversion in Sunday’s one-on-ones that sent the contest into sudden death, from an angle so tight it seemed nigh-on impossible.

“And then she winked,” laughs Logue. “How cool could you be?”

In her day, she says, there were no one-on-ones in shoot-outs that decided drawn games, just penalty strokes. And 25 years on from the World Cup that was hosted in Dublin, she still remembers the one she had saved in the shoot-out against England at Belfield.

“For weeks after, when I woke up, every single morning, it was the first thought in my head. My stroke that was saved. But this Monday morning I woke up and my first thought was: ‘We’re going to the Olympics!’”

Elevating

If Watkins’s joy needed any more elevating, hearing about her former coach’s elation lifted it a notch or two.  

“This has been years in the making,” she says. “The commitment from all the girls who have played for Ireland in the years gone by, none more so than Mary, is all part of where we are now. They’re the people who raised the standards, who have driven hockey to where it is today. We just got it over the line in the end. It’s been years and years coming, so I’m absolutely thrilled for everybody in the hockey community. This is for all of them.”

It was such a special occasion, it was incredible to see the number of people who came out to support us

The 27-year-old Dubliner, who now has 221 caps to her name, admitted not much sleep was had on Sunday night, but that was more to do with the sheer thrill of booking their place in Tokyo rather than any (alleged) hard partying.

“We got a few hours’ sleep, but the adrenalin was so high it was hard to come down off it. Feeling a bit tired today,” she says. “Waking up was kind of surreal, I really can’t quite believe it yet. We’re all still in complete shock.

“It was such a special occasion, it was incredible to see the number of people who came out to support us. To think we had the opportunity to play in a rugby stadium in front of a sell-out crowd both nights . . . unimaginable, the craziest thing.”

Shoot-out

But, at 3-1 down in the shoot-out, what was going on in your head?

“I was trying not to keep track of the score . . . and then it flashed up on the screen. But I just didn’t let myself think about it, I was staying away from any thoughts about us having to save this or score that to stay alive. And having Ayeisha [McFerran] in goal always takes the pressure off us a little bit because we know she’s going to make saves, we know she’ll always gives us a platform. And she did – again.

“I watched a replay of mine and I hadn’t realised I had taken it quite that wide, but all you’re focusing on is the gap, you don’t pay any notice to how wide you are. But the angles we all scored from, Nicci [Daly], Bethany [Barr], Róisín [Upton], it just showed we were never going to give up. And the girls just never, ever gave up.”

The players had a team meeting with coach Sean Dancer on Monday morning, and, while he saluted them, told them how proud he was of them and instructed them to “enjoy the moment”, he then laid out his plans for the months ahead.

“And he already had his plan worked out, he’s incredibly professional,” says Watkins. “And that was always his vision, this was just a step in the process, making it to the Olympics and medalling there is where he wants us to go. He wants us to enjoy this, and we will, but soon enough it’ll be on to the next step. And we’re ready. We don’t want this journey to end.”

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