Wednesday 1 February 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# Super Keeper
'We were walking away with silver medals around our necks, we had nothing to be ashamed of or upset about'
Ireland’s Hockey World Cup hero Ayeisha McFerran reflects on that magical journey, and much, much more.

“YOU’RE LIKE, ‘JESUS, did that really happen?”

Ayeisha McFerran celebrates Morgan Treacy / INPHO Goalkeeper of the Tournament: Ayeisha McFerran. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland’s heroic Hockey World Cup goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran hasn’t watched all of that magical action from London this summer back just yet.

She intends to, but having gone straight back to America for college and, of course, more hockey, she hasn’t found the time just yet. She’s watched bits and pieces, clips here and there, but she wants to sit down and absorb every last bit of it once again. 

Reliving the exhilarating highs and the many special moments will be more than pleasing, but there’s one main reason for re-watching, she says: she didn’t play perfect.

Named Goalkeeper of the Tournament, 22-year-old McFerran was one of the stars of the show as Graham Shaw’s side produced a historic run in the English capital, returning home with silver medals draped around their necks.

Reflecting on it now, it doesn’t seem real. It often feels like it was all a dream.

It’s the Friday before Christmas and she’s squeezed in time for a catch-up in a Dublin hotel in between a flight from the States, a brief visit home to Larne, and various different award ceremonies and media duties, before winding down for the festive season.

Well, to an extent. She’ll train on Christmas Day, that has to be done. The burning desire within doesn’t rest and the next goal, the next target, the next challenge waits for no one.

Tokyo 2020 qualification is just around the corner after all.

Looking back on 2018 first though is a pretty nice thing to do on a miserable, rainy morning, and she’s more than happy to revisit that time, relive the journey through words, and recall it as best as she she can.

“Honestly it’s been kind of hard for me,” McFerran tells The42, as she relaxes further into the seat when she’s asked how she reflects on the campaign, “because I rushed off so quickly, I haven’t really had a chance.”

She can’t remember specific moments of play, incidents in games or finer details, but the one thing that she can vividly recall is the feeling of being there.

The Ireland team celebrate with Ayeisha McFerran Sandra Mailer / INPHO Celebrating reaching the final. Sandra Mailer / INPHO / INPHO

“Running out of the tunnel,” she smiles, “the phenomenal crowds and any time they cheered your name and really had that roar, the buzz that you get. It’s just like, ‘Woah, we’re actually here and there’s so many people here joining us.’

“It’s remembering those feelings: the excitement, the nervous pit in your stomach. It’s the buzz about it that made the whole thing.”

We’ll delve much, much deeper into the highs and lows, the ups and downs, the highlights and standout moments of London later on. Realistically the bulk of our conversation revolves around that, and rightly so, but it’s interesting to find out how exactly she’s got to where she finds herself now first.

Pick me, I want to do it, I don’t care what it is, I want to do it.

She was always that kid. The one who played everything and wanted to be stuck in the middle of it all. Her four main sports growing up were soccer, athletics, Irish dancing and, of course, hockey. 

The dancing was the first to go, but surely she can put some of her nifty footwork between the posts down to that. She preferred team sports so athletics soon followed suit, while she progressed further, and faster, with hockey as more opportunities arose and doors opened. 

From the age of seven or eight, she played it on and off but it wasn’t until secondary school that she fully bought into it — and in pretty funny circumstances. Her teacher came into class one day, asking for a volunteer or something along those lines.

Pick me, I want to do it!

McFerran’s arm shot up, and she was soon asked to get her gear and follow her teacher. “What do you mean? I’ve got my shinguards, stick and gumshield… I have my gear,” she said. But no, she meant goalkeeping gear. 

Grand so, she thought, put it on and the rest is history.

She started off her club career with Larne before being invited to line out in the Premier League with Randalstown. Three seasons there followed before a year with Pegasus where she helped them to an Irish Hockey League (IHL) title in 2014/15.

She represented Ulster and Ireland at U16 and U18 level and her career progressed rather quickly. In her second year U18, as she was called into the U21s and seniors. The day after she turned 18, she won her first senior cap against Spain. “It was a pretty cool birthday present,” she adds.

Elena Tice and Ayeisha McFerran at full-time Joe Toth / INPHO Sharing a laugh with Elena Tice. Joe Toth / INPHO / INPHO

From there, she followed her American Dream to the University of Louisville, pursuing something she always wanted to do. It took a while after an agreement elsewhere fell through but eventually it all worked out for the best, helped by the fact she’s ‘not a big home person,’ she concedes.

With an infectious and bubbly personality, she’s the type of person who gives it her all, 100%, and enjoys every moment all with a smile on her face. That’s what her late mother, Sandra, would want, and McFerran, who was 15 at the time of her death, lives by that.

No better way to honour her than how she did at the World Cup, playing in her memory across the water.

The noise that this team made this summer, the hype they created and special moments they gave the Irish population as they captured the hearts and minds of the nation was something else. 

Realistically, many of their new fans didn’t know this team existed before their magnificent exploits in London. And others had never watched a hockey match before, or in quite a long time.

“The fact that so many people outside of our sport jumped on our bandwagon and got involved, we were kind of like, ‘What is happening?’

“The madness at home is one thing we’ll never quite understand fully because we were in our own bubble and just hearing stories of it here and there. It’s amazing for us to hear that.

“That’s what you want, to inspire that next generation, the next crowd of people, old or young – you never know, they might pick up a stick again! That’s the best part about it.”

The highlights are plentiful as she casts her mind back. 21 July, and that 3-1 win against the USA in their opening fixture. A huge upset as the Green Army powered to the top of Group B, and sent a major statement of intent around the world.

For McFerran, this was made all the sweeter, considering her links Stateside.

Ayeisha McFerran concedes a goal from Giselle Ansley Joe Toth / INPHO Action from the England game. Joe Toth / INPHO / INPHO

“Honestly, that’s one of the best things because I knew a lot of the girls and I was like, ‘Yes, we beat the USA!’ It was very nice to be like, ‘Screw you’ sort of thing. To start the tournament in the way we did, a lot of people were very shocked by that.

“We obviously knew we could do it, we knew we could beat them,” she adds, considering the sides had locked horns many times before. “We proved we’re not just here to take part like.”

A sensational 1-0 win over India then saw them safely into the quarter-finals, breaking serious ground in doing so. There were nerves beforehand, naturally, but more so given the fact that they had a point to prove after their dream opener.

“We very much had to back it up, we couldn’t just be a one-game wonder,” McFerran insists. “We knew we weren’t gonna but it was other people. We were like, ‘Nah, screw this, we’re gonna go and do it again.’”

And that they did. Anna O’Flanagan’s goal was enough and on they went to face the hosts in their final group game. They were just edged, but that didn’t matter. The underdogs marched on to the quarter-finals as momentum built and built.

Although England did win 1-0, it wasn’t enough for them as Ireland and India progressed, which led to interesting exchanges.

“You definitely could sense a lot of the English switching over,” she explains, when asked of Ireland’s growing support.

“They somehow had to find tickets for the crossovers and all the Irish had the tickets so there was selling back and forth, which was very nice to see. All the English fans were coming begging like, ‘Anyone got tickets?’ That was very nice to see,” she laughs.

“Even now it’s hilarious because they automatically assumed they were going to be in the quarters and bought tickets — it’s your loss love,” McFerran smiles, telling of how some Irish parents with 14 tickets for the crossovers were trying to get rid of them.

“We definitely could sense the shift. India in the quarter-final, there were so many English fans at that game and the amount of them that got behind us. It was like, ‘This is weird, England cheering for Ireland here, what’s going on?’ It was great to have so many other nations and the neutrals get behind us as well.”

India again, in the last eight. She admits that they never pictured themselves there. Every step was a huge bonus at this stage, and to go further, it would take the finest of margins.

Ayeisha McFerran blocks the shot from Monika Joe Toth / INPHO Blocking an Indian penalty. Joe Toth / INPHO / INPHO

She has one real standout memory of that day: the heat.

“36 degrees,” she giggles. “I was a little sweltered in me gear. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Guys I need air, I need air! Give me some water as well, I’m nearly shrivelled!’ It was honestly awful. Awful. There’s no point saying you get used to it because no, you don’t.

“Everyone threw everything at it. If you end up crawling off the pitch, you crawl off the pitch but you don’t come off until you empty the tank. I think we did that, and the result shows.”

It took a dramatic, and thrilling, penalty shootout to seal the deal and ensure that incredible Ireland’s fairytale lived on, as McFerran well and truly showed why she is regarded as one of the best in the world as she forced three straight Indian misses.

Hockey penalties very swiftly became the country’s favourite new thing.

“It used to be the strokes which were very boring — just flick a ball at the net and hopefully the goalie goes the right way. Now, the shootouts, they are so intense,” she beams.

“The good thing about shootouts is they give the goalies an actual chance to show what we can do and what we’ve been training for. It’s a real skill instead of just diving to one side and hoping for the best.

“That’s what I really enjoy about it, the challenge. You’re trying to understand different techniques of the forwards that you might face.”

She’s not sure exactly what runs through her head before one’s taken and all hell breaks loose. “Just we’ll see what happens here, I guess,” she reckons, before explaining that she had plenty of homework done through video analysis with Mark Kavanagh and her goalkeeping coach Nigel ‘Nidge’ Henderson.

“In those high-pressure situations you’re going to fall back to your natural instinct and what not,” she admits. “It’s just about trying to stay with them as long as possible.

“I knew they were tired so I was like, ‘If I stay up as long as I can I’ll be grand’ and I somehow managed to stay up and didn’t flop. At times I thought, ‘Oh no, she’s gone past me’ but then somehow I got back into it again.

“People ask how I managed with 10,00 people watching, but you just kind of walk in and off you go, hope for the best. I just try to block everyone else out around me. If I listen to every man, dog and child who are like, ‘You should have done this, dive this way, get down quicker…’ I could be screwed. You have no hope.

Ayeisha McFerran blocks the shot from Rani Joe Toth / INPHO Saving a penalty. Joe Toth / INPHO / INPHO

“After I saved one and the whole stadium erupted, I was like, ‘Don’t react… don’t react… stay calm, stay composed.’ In my head I’m having a party but I still have five more to go!”

The penalties from the Spain match are also quite vivid in her mind but the match itself is more of a blur. She didn’t think it was a great game of hockey herself, quite error-ridden with no shortage of turnovers, and puts that down to the fact that both teams were in new territory.

“It probably wasn’t anything too exciting to watch but the shootout made up for it,” she continues, knowing that the neutrals – and realistically most Irish fans – were granted their wish with penalties, but it was a different story for the team and those close to them.

“In my mind, I was like, ‘Oh God, not again,’” she continues. “The Irish parents were like, ‘We can’t do a shootout, it’s not good for the nerves.’

“The girls were pretty good building me up and giving me all the confidence in the world. I had 100% faith in them and they were the same with me. We both knew we could do the job, it was just hoping that somehow Spain didn’t pull something out of the works.

She pauses momentarily.

“One of them did, fair play to her like,” she accepts. “I think we all know that one. It was very good, you just had to stand up and clap.

“I think she knew she couldn’t beat me on her skill or her speed so she had to do something different. Fair play to her for doing it and actually pulling it off.”

She won’t get her again though, that’s for sure.

Back to what matters, and Gillian Pinder’s winning penalty in sudden death to reach the World Cup final.

“I still don’t think it happened! Like, what?” McFerran grins, that smile saying a thousand words as she recalls the exact moment. She couldn’t watch, she was staring at the ground waiting for the reaction.

A cheer or sigh, one or the other.

“Thankfully it was the cheer. I looked up and they were all running at me and I’m like, ‘Oh my Gosh, should I run, should I stay, we’re really doing this, it’s happening!’

“It still doesn’t seem real, it’s wild, it’s just gas. Honestly, you laugh about it.”

Ayeisha McFerran celebrates winning the shoot out Sandra Mailer / INPHO Emotional after the semi-final shoot-out. Sandra Mailer / INPHO / INPHO

And that’s exactly what happened when they got back to the team hotel after their dream had been realised. They had done it. Somehow, some way, and very much against the odds; Ireland were into a World Cup final.

Shaw — or Sharpie, as he’s known — called them in for a meeting straight from the bus and as they sat around, everyone just burst out laughing.

“We’re like, ‘Ok, so we’re in a World Cup final’ just in hysterics. Sharpie’s trying to be serious, asking us to focus for the next day but we’re still in hysterics laughing.

“We treated the Spanish game as our final, guarantee ourselves a medal and then go in and enjoy the final. We’re in a World Cup final in front of 10,500 people against the Dutch of all people, who have refused to play us for the past five years. It’s like, ‘You know what, you’re getting a game against us.’

“They’re honestly a step ahead of everyone, no one is close to them. They were probably very confident heading in. You never know but, us Irish can do something special!”

They had done plenty of special things after sensationally ripping up the tournament script and re-writing it, but Ireland’s fairytale run came to an end as the Netherlands flexed their muscle to restore order on the World stage and win 6-0.

Each and every one of the six goals were well-worked, impressive in their own right, and McFerran accepts that as her disappointment gets the better of her for a second.

“Personally, I was disappointed with conceding six,” she frowns. “You never want to see that scoreline walking off the pitch no matter who you are.

But it was about much more than the action on the day, it was about a landmark achievement for Irish hockey. For Irish sport. 

“That very quickly disappeared though and you’re like, ‘You know what, we’re walking away with silver medals around our necks, we have nothing to be ashamed of or upset about.’

“No one expected us to get there, I don’t think we did either. We made history and to do it in the way we did, and very much enjoy that last game, pulling on the jersey again one more time and being like, ‘We’re here to play.’ That was the best part about it.”

The scenes afterwards said it all when words failed. The result was put to one side with the Dutch simply too good on the day, but this incredible achievement, this unforgettable odyssey had to be celebrated.

Groups of familiar faces were in the crowd — family including McFerran’s sister and her fiancé who had travelled over every weekend, friends, former team-mates and her head coach from America.

Conversations had to be had as players were reunited with loved ones before the final pre-presentation hurrah.

“We all came back together to make the last run across to the fans who have been there the whole time. That was relieving to be like, ‘We did this together.’ The fans were very much a part of our journey.

Ireland players celebrate with their silver medals Morgan Treacy / INPHO What a team. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“Honestly, a lot of it might not have happened without them, especially the family and the friends that have supported us in the times that you don’t see.”

After clearing the field and taking their positions in the tunnel ahead of the presentation, there was a slight bit of confusion. McFerran was told to stand at the front, away from the rest of the Green Army, while teams were arranged in numerical order behind her. 

Unsure really what was going on, she was telling those around her over and over again that she was in the wrong place, and looked to be moved back. But her assistant coach Arlene Boyles soon set the record straight. 

“No, you won goalkeeper of the tournament,” she told her. “I was just shocked. Then we started balling crying on each other’s shoulder. I think it was a mixture of exhaustion, the heat, I needed water, then this!”

From there, a few standout moments followed as she waited with the two Dutch goalkeepers and the Argentinian number one.

“The Dutch girls were like, ‘This is one of the best crowds we’ve played in front of,’” she smiles, echoing just how humble they were and excited for the Irish.

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“To hear that coming from the Dutch — they’ve played everywhere in the world — I think that just put the cherry on top, how much they respected the fans for travelling over and the atmosphere we created. Sure you go anywhere and the Irish create a party.

“Ourselves and Spain were both cheering for each other too. We were happy they got a medal, they were happy we did too. We both didn’t expect to be there, that was definitely another highlight.”

The surrealness and sheer sense of disbelief carried through to the homecoming, and everything surrounding it. From the private jet made possible by SoftCo, to the police escort into town and the amazing reception, it was yet another a day to remember.

“North Dublin, an area where hockey isn’t very popular, and you see people out cheering in the streets. We were like, ‘This is hilarious, this can’t be real’ and in hysterics,’” she says of the journey in, before they settled on Dame Street.

“It was just wild. We were not expecting that. I think the best part was when the MC was like, ‘Who here plays hockey?’ and only about half the crowd raised their hands.

“The fact that the rest gave up their Bank Holiday Monday, we were like, ‘Oh my Gosh, this is what’s been going on back home.’ It was just phenomenal.”

Ayeisha McFerran with her award for best goalkeeper at the World Cup 6/8/2018 Tommy Dickson / INPHO At the reception in Dublin. Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Understandably, there was also some new-found fame. These part-time amateur athletes’ outstanding exploits earned them serious recognition, leading to players left experiencing more unusual things on a day-to-day basis on home soil.

“I’ve had a few people be like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re one of the hockey ones,’” she continues, adding that it’s made weirder by the fact she obviously wears a helmet with her gear.

In US customs when she was heading back to Louisville, she was questioned about her reason for travel and she explained that she played hockey out there.

“You’re one of the hockey girls! Have you got your medal on you?” was the joyous response as the custom workers passed it around and around, garnering more and more unwanted attention for the goalkeeper in the airport, and on the flight.

Another day, she was walking to the gym in Jordanstown with her headphones in before she realised that a man was leaning out the window of his car shouting at her, congratulating a local hero.

“It’s so nice the fact that people have spent time to get to know all the girls faces and take time to say congrats. It’s obviously a great feeling, but it still doesn’t seem real,” she notes, sharing the stories she’s heard about increased participation and clubs popping up in middle of nowhere.

Her favourite part of it all though, is extremely close to her heart. It’s the positivity around goalkeeping.

“No one wants to play goals, no one wants to be the stinky kid. But so many people have told me they’ve had so many wanting to play goals since. It’s huge,” she says.

Like everything in life though, the rollercoaster soon slowed down and the exhilarating highs weren’t just as plentiful as they had been in the English capital.

The comedown was real.

“I really struggled with it. A lot of the girls were still close together, seeing each other from playing and what not. Obviously you struggle with missing out, you know that they’re all doing stuff together and you’re on the other side of the pond.

“There is that post-tournament deflate when you’re like, ‘Ah, what do I do now? I want to be back with the girls.’ We all went through it at some point, maybe at different times. There’s definitely the unfortunate comedown, you can’t stay at the high for too long.”

The return to college hit her hard, as did the hockey comeback Stateside. Of course, there was an added pressure of sorts to replicate her World Cup performances, and hit those peaks again, but that was easier said than done.

Nikki Evans, Anna O'Flanagan, Anna Ayeisha McFerran and Katie Mullen Bryan Keane / INPHO At the RTÉ Sport awards with team-mates Nikki Evans, Anna O'Flanagan and Katie Mullen. Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

“I really struggled with it,” she reiterates.

“Obviously you want to maintain peak performance the whole year but it’s not going to happen. I knew my performance was going to go down, but how much was it going to go down?

“Trying to manage that and figure that out was tough. Because it was a new experience for me, I didn’t really know what to do so it was definitely very difficult. I am glad to say it’s happened so I can learn from it for the next time and hopefully not go as crazy, as far down the hill next time!”

That in mind though, she really wasn’t that far down the hill. McFerran capped an unforgettable 2018 with another prestigious individual honour as she was named on the All-American Team of the Year for the fourth year in-a-row.

By doing so, she became the first player in Louisville’s history to earn four All-America accolades: “It was definitely nice to top it off but it definitely wouldn’t have happened without the rest of the girls and the coaches.

“This year though, I definitely didn’t have the year I would have wanted personally, performance-wise.”

Due to graduate with a degree in Exercise Science next May, McFerran — who grins as she calls herself an athlete student in place of a student athlete — has one more semester of class and an internship, and heads back after Christmas.  

With the end nearing, overall it’s been amazing, she smiles.

“It was definitely a growing experience for sure, growing both on and off the pitch. I recommend it to anyone who asks me. Obviously there’s going to be tough times, nothing’s going to be plain sailing.

“I’ve had the best experience over there and was very fortunate to fall into a very good college. I’ve absolutely loved it.”

After that then, the world is her oyster. She plans to play in Europe and there’ll surely be no shortage of clubs interested in her services. Where yet, she’s unsure. She’ll take it as it comes, as per, but her main focus is on being the best she can be for Ireland.

What’s next on that front?

Chile after Christmas anyway for an intense warm-weather training camp — “30-degree heat, bit of sun, sure look!” — before the big stuff down the line.

“Olympic qualifiers in June,” she beams. “We’re very fortunate that they’re going to be in Ireland now, it gives everyone an opportunity that didn’t travel to London to come and see us play here.

“We’re very thankful for that and excited for another opportunity to get going again. Top two go on in that tournament, and then there’s one more stage in the qualifiers and hopefully off we go.

“Just add a Europeans in the middle of that and sure it’ll be a nice summer again!”

Reflection, re-visiting and reminiscing is important, but surely, by now, there’s been enough of that done. McFerran is fully aware that her side needs to leave things as they are, move on and fully focus on new goals.

Ayeisha McFerran Morgan Treacy / INPHO All eyes are on Tokyo. Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

She missed a recent camp in Spain whilst still in America but she explains that in a meeting there, everything was discussed as players shared their experiences with newer members of the squad, and all was well.

“We parked it there. It was fun while it lasted but Tokyo is our aim. If we keep going on this rollercoaster with it, we may as well just kiss goodbye to it now. Everyone’s very motivated. Yes, we had the success but we want to replicate that.

“The girls that have come in are very much on board and want to be a part of it too. It’s very exciting that everyone has that drive and motivation to already look ahead.

“It’s going to be around the corner before we know it. It’s exciting that we’re like, ‘Yep, it’s happening. Tokyo’s our aim, we’ll be there.’”

So exciting times it is.

“For sure, big things for Irish hockey!”

Bigger and bigger and bigger.

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