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'There is no room for error and we know that. We're excited by the pressure'

A golden summer will count for nothing if Ireland fail to take the first steps towards Tokyo 2020 on home soil this month.

SPORT IS FILLED with stories of champion sides being rerouted from their chosen path, and certainly, it does not take much for a team to remain last year’s men or women and never truly hit the same heights again.

For the Ireland women’s hockey team, who became the sporting story of 2018, the challenge now is to build on their World Cup silver medal and not allow it become a one-off success.

After a low-key winter of change, this summer is of even greater significance.

Anna O'Flanagan Ireland's Anna O'Flanagan ahead of this weekend's FIH Final Series tournament. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The road to Tokyo 2020 and the holy grail of a first-ever Olympic qualification begins in Banbridge this weekend, where Ireland will get their FIH Final Series campaign underway knowing there is little margin for error.

The landscape, on the back of London, has shifted irrevocably for this team. No longer able to go about their business under the radar, no longer the plucky underdogs, the expectations — both internally and externally — have inflated and anything less than a tournament win on home soil this month would be considered a failure.

With Graham Shaw departed for pastures new and Aussie Sean Dancer arriving weeks ahead of a seismic tournament for this squad, preparations, if truth be told, have not been ideal, particularly after Ireland were left with no meaningful warm-up games when Canada pulled out of a mini-series at the last minute.

But the message has been clear from within the dressing room: there may have been a change in coach, but it’s still very much business as usual for the World Cup runners-up, who will be under the guidance of Gareth Grundie for this tournament, with Dancer ‘observing’.

“Nothing has changed for us since the World Cup and us as a group and individuals have trained as normal from last August until now,” Anna O’Flanagan tells The42.

“There has been some outside noise but we’ve kept a low profile, we’ve tried to focus on what we’ve to focus on and we can’t get distracted by those things.”

Shaw’s unexpected departure for New Zealand caused a stir, but the players, O’Flanagan insists, remained unperturbed despite the loss of a world-class coach who had hauled the team from the depths of despair to eighth in the world.   

“It was great for Graham as he got an absolutely incredible offer to go and coach on the other side of the world,” she continued. “He did an incredible job with us and we wish him all the best, but we have a very, very good staff and playing group and we have a new coach now in Sean Dancer, who is world class. We’re just focusing on moving forward. 

We can’t dwell on it, it’s not in our control. We can’t focus on the past and can’t be upset about it, we have to just say ‘Well what can we do to get to the Olympics’ as that’s our goal. We need to work with what we have and what we have is absolutely brilliant. You’ve just got to keep going.

The squad have had no shortage of contact time in recent weeks, with Grundie — one of Shaw’s assistants — leading preparations through a series of intensive camps in Banbridge, while Ireland hosted Korea in a friendly fixture earlier ahead of Saturday’s campaign opener against Malaysia [3pm, BBC Northern Ireland].

With competition for places intensifying in recent weeks, Grundie has made three changes to the World Cup squad, with Nikki Evans’ omission the major surprise after her integral role last summer.

Despite playing another season of club hockey in Germany, Evans was only named as one of two reserves with Sarah Hawkshaw, Bethany Barr and Emma Buckley all included and set for their world-ranking tournament debuts after making the 18-player panel. 

Yvonne O’Byrne also misses out while reserve goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan has taken time away from the game, meaning Buckley steps up as Ayeisha McFerran’s deputy between the sticks. 

Ayeisha McFerran Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran at the recent Park Developments sponsorship announcement. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

McFerran, named goalkeeper of the tournament in London, has recently concluded her studies in America and while she has yet to decide on her next career move, is excited to play in front of a home crowd in Banbridge.

“There’s always that added pressure coming with the recognition but for me and the team, it’s business as usual,” she says. “I go out and try and do the best I can to help the rest of the team. 

“I will always put pressure on myself so I just have to stay consistent with my performances and keep doing what I know I can do.”

For O’Flanagan, who enjoyed another season in Holland with Pinoké, the added pressure on the team to perform and take the first significant step towards Tokyo is something to relish after so many years in the wilderness.

“We are aware now we’re more in the public eye and people will be following us more closely, but that’s always what we’ve aspired to get to,” the 29-year-old explains.

We’re going to take it in our stride and try not to focus too much on the external pressure. We just need to make sure we play the way we want to play and we bring the tempo we want to bring. We know if we do those things, we are a good side and we can do well.

Although the World Cup was a magical experience none of the squad will ever forget, they have not been afraid to declare their ambitions of qualifying for the 2020 Games, with O’Flanagan adding:

“This is the six months we were always aiming for. We set the World Cup as a midway point and a good chance to see where we sat in world hockey and we sat pretty well, which was good, but it was just a gauge of what we could do.

“We’ve always been preparing for these six months, it’s what we’ve been preparing for for the last four years. There is no room for error and we know that. We’re excited by that.”

McFerran knows a golden summer will count for nothing if Ireland, the top-ranked side in the competition, fail to live up to expectations over the next few weeks, starting with their first two pool games this weekend.

“We want to be in that position where there is a target on our backs and we want teams chasing after us,” the goalkeeper admits. “For so many years we’ve been the underdog but now we go in and people know what we can do and achieve. That’s exciting.

Sean Dancer New Ireland head coach Sean Dancer. Source: Photosport/John Cowpland/INPHO

“The fans added to our experience in London and contributed massively to our memories in London but we want to make more here and create a new set of stories to tell people. We know we have to perform in this tournament and aren’t shy of saying that.”

Ireland will look to advance directly to the tournament semi-finals from the pool stages after games against Malaysia, Czech Republic and Singapore in the knowledge a place in the final will see them go directly through to October’s Olympic qualifiers. 

“The goal has always been to qualify for an Olympics for this team but now we want to get there and compete at an Olympics,” O’Flanagan, who has won 180 caps, adds.

“We don’t want to go just to make up numbers, we want to go to the Olympics and do a bloody good job. There’s more to it than just qualifying.”

McFerran, and all of the squad, are reading off the same page.

“We know we can play a lot better. It’s important for us to make the next step and prove we’re not a one-hit wonder team. 

“One of my dreams was to make it to the World Cup and now I want to achieve another by qualifying for the Olympics.” 

Ireland fixtures [all at Banbridge Hockey Club]:

  • 8 June: v Malaysia, 3pm
  • 9 June: v Czech Republic, 3pm
  • 11 June: Singapore, 2pm

Ireland squad: Ayeisha McFerran (GK, University of Louisville), Emma Buckley (Racing Club de Bruxelles), Roisin Upton (Catholic Institute), Katie Mullan (Club an der Alster)(captain), Shirley McCay (Pegasus), Megan Frazer (Mannheimer HC), Lena Tice (UCD), Gillian Pinder (Pembroke), Bethany Barr (UCD), Chloe Watkins (Monkstown), Lizzie Colvin (Belfast Harlequins), Nikki Daly (Loreto), Hannah Matthews (Loreto), Sarah Hawkshaw (Railway Union), Anna O’Flanagan (Pinoke), Zoe Wilson (Belfast Harlequins), Deirdre Duke (Dusseldorfer HC), Ali Meeke (Loreto).

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Ryan Bailey

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