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'I'm glad I didn't throw the towel in and I was able to give my family something to cheer about'

There are sporting upsets and then there is the story of the Irish women’s hockey team at the World Cup. This is what it meant to those involved.

Ireland v Spain - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Megan Frazer and Chloe Watkins celebrate Ireland's World Cup silver medal. Source: Steven Paston

THE COACH IN question stresses he doesn’t swear often, if at all, but few could have blamed him in the circumstances. It happened a couple of years ago now, but the story had suddenly become all the more relevant on the back of the extraordinary events in London — and it neatly summarised the enormity of it all.

Shortly after an Ireland U18 girls team — which included a number of players now in the senior side — had been narrowly defeated in the final of an underage tournament by the all-conquering Netherlands, one of the Irish coaching staff, understandably enthused by the performance, remarked: “Maybe one day we can play you in a final at senior level.”

The Dutch coach, with contempt, was having none of it, completely dismissing any notion that Ireland had a chance of ever getting to their level.

“Oh, I don’t think that is possible,” was his snide response, to which the said member of the Irish management replied: “Why don’t you just fuck off?”

So when Ireland lined up alongside Netherlands for the World Cup final, you can see why this story had quickly grown legs, becoming another reference point for the remarkable progress of this team.

Whether you were into sport or not, whether you were a hockey fan or not, you couldn’t fail to be moved by the occasion, and appreciate the emotions involved. Never had Irish hockey experienced such a day, rarely had Irish sport witnessed an achievement on such a scale.

And with that, the heart burst with pride to watch the Irish hockey fraternity have their time in the spotlight, not because of the Dutch coach’s comments but because after years of marginalisation, of near-misses, of fighting tooth and nail for funding, for attention and for respect, they deserved it. And earned it.

This was their time, and not a moment too soon.

***

There are sporting upsets and then there is the story of the Irish women’s hockey team at the 2018 World Cup. Never before — in the European Championships, the World Cup or an Olympic Games — had a team ranked so low confounded so many expectations.

Beginning the tournament 16th in the world, Ireland tore the script to shreds, rewrote the history books and entered the hearts and minds of a nation not only with their performances, but the manner in which they carried themselves on the pitch, becoming ambassadors for the country and role models for younger generations.

Nobody had given them a chance. There was no reason to, but the players believed. They believed from the moment they picked themselves up off the canvas three years ago, they believed from the moment they beat a ragged USA side 3-1 on the opening night, and they believed when they had no right to believe.

And then, in that split second, when everything appeared to slow down and Chloe Watkins flicked her effort past the goalkeeper and towards the backboard, Irish hockey was catapulted into uncharted territory. Into dreamland, beyond every possible wildest expectation, to scale scarcely-believable and rarefied heights.

Ireland v India - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Quarter Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Chloe Watkins scores the winning penalty to send Ireland through to the World Cup semi-final. Source: Steven Paston

A crushed Indian side, defeated and disbelieving, collapsed in the middle of the pitch, forlorn figures in what had become an amphitheatre of screaming green and white.

The Irish team — standing shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand on the halfway line — dispersed in pandemonium, some charging one way, others throwing their sticks and stampeding towards Watkins the other. Nobody quite knew what to do, yet it mattered little. All logic, all reason, had gone out the window.

Graham Shaw, the head coach, unable to watch the penalty shootout, glanced skywards and, in releasing his emotions after the unbearable stress and tension of a World Cup quarter-final, let his guard down for the first time. The gratification etched all over his face.

“I don’t even remember what happened because a couple of my team-mates said they ran straight towards me and I actually ran away from them, I didn’t even seen them,” Watkins says, looking back on that match-winning moment.

“It was just an absolute blur, I don’t even know what happened. I think I threw my stick and everything went out the window. It was one of the best moments of my hockey career, of my life.”

Amid the utter disbelief, there were tears in the stands. Most in green had personal connections with the team, the family and friends who have lived through the crushing lows and exhilarating highs down through the years. Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins. You could feel the pride, and see the raw, unadulterated emotion.

“I have never been as proud to be Irish,” Gordon Watkins, Chloe’s father and a former international, smiles. “Never in my wildest dreams… never in my lifetime did I ever think anything like it was possible.”

But it was no fluke, rather years in the making. Years of hurt, of setbacks, of sacrifice, of agony, of persevering and campaigning when nobody was listening, or cared. That’s what it’s like to be invested in a minority sport in Ireland. It’s tough work, but the rewards make it all worth it.

“You’ve got to endure the lows to appreciate the highs, don’t you?” Gordon continues.

“I said to Chloe after Valencia [when Ireland lost a shootout to miss out on Olympic qualification] to be brave enough to step up and do it. Don’t stand back and watch something happen that you can’t change or do anything about. To have the confidence to do it.

“I just thought to myself, ‘Go on, Chloe. You can do it. I know you can.’”

***

Sometimes, when achievement is contextualised, and pain has preceded triumph, it just means more.

Because behind every success story is an emotionally-charged journey, often a white-knuckle ride of highs and lows, joy and despair and moments in time when the flame flickered. When the term ‘near miss’ becomes plural. When that thread of optimism threatened to snap, but never did because there was always that one ambition driving it forward.

Ireland World Cup Hockey Team Homecoming 'Years of tough times have never felt more worth it.' Source: Niall Carson

Sport does that, no matter the level. It takes and takes, but will always recompense. Tears are par for the course, but the rewards will always outweigh the sacrifices. Even if it’s for one fleeting moment of glory. Of success. Of vindication. It’s always worth it.

“There were times you do think of walking away,” Chloe admits. “You do think that because as amateur athletes you dedicate your life to the cause and because the tough times weigh heavy, there’s only so much you can take.

“You begin to question your life — can I keep doing this?”

But just as Ireland’s men used the anguish of a succession of near misses to turn the tide and change the culture within the dressing room to qualify for the Rio Olympics, the women’s national team travelled a strangely similar pilgrimage — the ledger would contain wildly oscillating peaks and troughs — to reach the heady promised land of a first World Cup in 16 years.

For that reason, this summer was always going to feel like a seminal moment for Irish hockey, but particularly for this team under Shaw, who was the man tasked with picking up the pieces and rebuilding after the Rio qualification campaign ended in utter heartbreak.

It wasn’t the first time this group of players had fallen so agonisingly at the final hurdle — the 2012 Olympic dream came crashing down in similarly cruel circumstances — but hitting rock bottom can so often be the turning of the tide.

That excruciatingly painful defeat to China in June 2015 — when the width of a post separated delirium and despair — ended the Rio dream, and at the same time, the hopes of many who had longed to represent Ireland on the big stage.

“I saw them coming out after playing China and literally, they had to be helped physically to the bus,” Gordon recalls.

“Some of them were physically distraught, they could hardly walk such was the devastation. I’ve no doubt if they went out to play an U12 team the next day, they would have lost. They were absolutely gone mentally and physically. Just crushed.”

Was there any coming back from that?

“I think we all reassessed,” Chloe says. “You look at another two- or four-year cycle and it’s a long time. Getting up at 5.30am to go to the gym before work and getting in late after training that night.

“I think it actually hit my family more. They nearly feel worse, because they know what you go through and they see you committing everything to it. I know my Mum, it took her months to get over Rio.

“Personally, I questioned it but we all knew we had the talent to do it and achieve something special. We knew we could do it and we were so close. It was just about resetting, rediscovering the motivation and committing together as a group.

“I’m glad I didn’t throw in the towel and I was able to give my family something to cheer about and a more positive experience this time around. We had come off second best enough [times], so to do what we did made it even more special.”

***

Ireland should never have stood a chance at this World Cup, but here they were on the most glorious of summer Saturdays in the shadows of London’s Olympic Stadium bringing the nation on an unexpected sporting journey, disrespecting theirs and everybody else’s world ranking and placing themselves among the protagonists of the game.

Ireland v Spain - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Graham Shaw's history-makers. Source: Steven Paston

A tight-knit group of students, lawyers, doctors and teachers embarking on a magical odyssey over the most enchanting and fulfilling two weeks of their lives and in the history of Irish hockey. Perhaps even Irish sport. No expectations, no fear, no pressure.

Shaw has been instrumental in the team’s development and it’s no coincidence that the qualities he had as a player quickly became fundamental principles within the four walls of a dressing room with an enviable bond and togetherness. An unrelenting work-ethic, a never-say-die attitude, a no-excuses mantra.

In dispatching higher-ranked USA, India and Spain en route to the final and a historic silver medal, this team showed that if the right attitude and sacrifice is there, there are no limitations to what can be achieved. And therein lies the beauty of sport, the allure of the unexpected. When the impossible becomes possible.

“The first game of the tournament, against USA, just settled everyone,” Chloe says.

“Even Graham said it to us, it just set us up and gave us such confidence. He could see when Deirdre [Duke] scored we were at it and then we just built up so much momentum and suddenly after two wins we were in the quarter-final.

“We were aware of what was going on at home and the buzz that was building, but were just so focused on seizing the opportunity and turning to the next game. We just wanted it so much so all of the outside stuff spurred us on, rather than got us carried away.

“The morning after the quarter-final, we were going down to mobility [training] and Graham turned to us and kind of just said, ‘We had a great day yesterday but we have a World Cup semi-final to prepare for’, and from that point on, everyone just settled down and didn’t let anything distract us.

“It wasn’t like we have got this far, so whatever happens happens. It was like we have got this far, we have worked so hard for this, and we’re not going to let it slip by. We were in a World Cup semi-final, representing our country and playing with our best friends. We had waited so long for this chance.”

***

It became clear very quickly that demand far exceeded supply, but even with tickets being like gold dust, that didn’t stop large swathes of Irish supporters decamping en masse to the Olympic Park.

The World Cup fan village turned into a sea of green from early in the day as the Irish diaspora in London were joined by thousands who had embarked on last-minute, early-morning trips from home to witness a piece of sporting history.

It was a case of trains, planes and automobiles for many as they scrambled to get over to London in time for the semi-final against Spain, with a large portion of the support travelling over without tickets, simply desperate to be part of the occasion in whatever way they could.

USA v Ireland - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Pool B - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre The Green Army filled the Lee Valley for Ireland's games. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Gareth Watkins, Chloe’s older brother and a former men’s international, had flown over and back for the pool game against India, but had to quickly readjust his plans when Ireland advanced into the quarter-finals.

“Everyone was chatting about what we were going to do as the quarter-final was on the Thursday, which wasn’t ideal with work,” he explains. “But then my boss was just like, ‘It’s a World Cup quarter-final, take two days off and get back over to London.’

“And then we win the quarter and you’re thinking, ‘Christ, we can’t go home now.’ I had planned to go on holidays with my girlfriend for the August bank holiday weekend but rang home pretty quickly and asked her what about coming to London for the weekend instead of Cork. It was all a bit mad.”

With both the semi-final and final sold-out as fans of other nations had pre-booked seats in anticipation of their team being involved at that business end of the tournament, Gordon spearheaded the search for tickets.

“I was inundated with people asking me,” he laughs. “Thankfully I had met an Aussie who had block-booked tickets for the Australian brigade but obviously they didn’t make it through. He said he had 30, possibly 50, tickets for the semi and the same for the final so I said to him, ‘Don’t go to anyone else, we’ll take all of them and I’ll tell you that now.’

“I arranged to meet him after the quarter-final, behind the goal at the bar, and Joan from Hockey Ireland liaised with him and started allocating the tickets to all the families and friends and Irish support.

“To see the stadium decked out in green for the semi and final was just amazing and I know it lifted the girls so much.”

***

Sunday 5 August, 2018.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget that day,” Chloe, with a silver medal around her neck, laughs, the preposterous nature of it all yet to fully sink in.

After their post-match semi-final media requirements were fulfilled, and the players had eventually found their way onto the team bus, there was little time to reflect on the absurdity of what had just happened.

“Obviously I’ll always remember the quarter-final, but the semi-final topped it again,” she says. “It was just bonkers, we were living within our bubble, but fulfilling our dream in front of the world. I had to turn my phone on to airplane mode because it was just exploding.

USA v Ireland - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Pool B - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Watkins made her 200th international appearance in the World Cup final. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“I had to turn it off because we had to sleep, we had to recover, as we had a World Cup final — how mad is that? — the next day. We all had to delete social media apps off our phones just to make them calm down a bit. I don’t think I touched my phone before the final, because I literally couldn’t start responding to people.

“It was amazing to hear from people you haven’t spoken to in years because they’re sending you lovely messages saying how proud they are of you. Those were the moments when you kind of realised the impact it was having.”

A World Cup final? Surreal the players kept saying, simply unable to fully process what had happened.

“I was rooming with Ayeisha [McFerran] and we went to bed on the Saturday night and I think about 10 minutes after we turned the lights off, she burst out laughing — ‘Are we actually playing in a World Cup final tomorrow?’ –  and the two of us were just laughing for about 10 minutes and then had to calm down again and go to bed.

“And it was a bit like that on the Sunday morning, everyone was kind of looking around. Nobody was nervous because I think we were all in a state of shock.

“At random times people just burst out laughing because it was like hang on here, what have we done and especially because we were in a hotel with other teams that let’s just say weren’t too happy with the outcome of their tournament. It kind of made it a bit nicer walking around the hotel in your Irish top.”

And then, somehow, they had to refocus for the game that they dreamed of playing in for their entire lives. Ireland versus Netherlands — the seven-time champions, the standard-bearers — in a World Cup final in front of 10,000 fans and a TV audience of millions.

“Sharpie started that meeting, the pre-World Cup final meeting, and we all kind of sat down and there was a moment’s pause,” Chloe remembers. “We were looking around at each other smiling and laughing and then we were like right, everyone was writing in their notebook ‘World Cup final versus Netherlands’ and then taking notes. It was a bit surreal.”

Afterwards, an element of disappointment was only natural as the curtain came down on the groundbreaking campaign with a heavy defeat to the Dutch, but it could take nothing away from what a group of 18 amateur athletes had achieved.

The result left Shaw’s side with mixed emotions at full-time, but the outcome provided delight for both teams, as Ireland’s deflation quickly turned to elation as they collected their silver medals in front of the Green Army.

“We were the last team to leave the pitch after the ceremony. We just wanted to soak it all up, savour every minute. The support was incredible, they were moments you’ll just never forget. And then you go out afterwards and meet your family and friends, and to bring the medal out to them… to see what it meant was incredible.”

For Gordon, that’s when it really hit home.

“They were coming out one-by-one,” he recalls. “That was the emotional part. Just an experience that you’d love to live all over again, but so grateful that we got to experience it in the first place.”

screenshot.1534546207.76498 The Watkins family. Source: www.instagram.com

***

There are too many highlights to pick out as a favourite, too many memories to condense into one answer. The moments of theatre from the 23-line which earned shootout wins over India and Spain are obvious choices, as is the final and the homecoming on Dame Street, but what stands out most for Chloe Watkins are the smaller, behind-closed-doors, moments which the players will always hold onto, and cherish.

Ireland hit some historic landmarks along the way, the exploits of the group eclipsing what had gone before, and most significantly overachieving when the baggage of underachievement had previously weighed them down.

There had been tantalising glimpses of what could be achieved down through the years, one-off victories over higher-ranked nations, but never had they truly fulfilled their full potential on the big stage. All of those demons were banished, history rewritten.

“There were a couple of little things that just spurred us on,” she explains. “After the quarter-final, we all came back to the hotel and you needed to use your room key to work the lift. One of the girls said hers wasn’t working, so someone else took theirs out and it didn’t work either.

“We quickly realised the keys no longer worked as we were only checked into the hotel until that day, so we all had to go down and get our keys renewed. It was just funny and gave us a little bit more motivation.”

Enough memories to last a lifetime.

“And it was funny when we were leaving for the tournament, you’d get stopped in Dublin airport and people would ask, ‘Oh, what team are you?’ because they’d see the top. And we’d explain we’re the hockey team and we’re going to the World Cup. They had no idea but would wish us luck or whatever. Two of the girls were getting onto the plane and messing, turned around on the steps and waved to the crowd that wasn’t there, kind of saying, ‘We’re off now.’

“Two weeks later, we arrived back in Dublin and it was the complete opposite… we had the fire brigade with tricolours escorting us off the runway, we went through the side exit of the airport and were greeted by thousands of people and then you have people taking pictures of our bus through town.

Ireland v India - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Quarter Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Memories to last a lifetime. Source: Steven Paston

“Everybody was literally thinking, ‘What is going on?’ We were in an area in town we knew wasn’t a hockey area yet here are all these people. You could just never have imagined anything like it in your wildest dreams. Ever.”

It may take some time for the enormity of the achievement and the ripple effect it will have on the sport in this country to be fully processed by those involved, but for now the players and their families continue to savour every minute of the most extraordinary achievement.

“People are constantly asking me, ‘Are you proud of your sister, are you proud of your sister?’ Gareth adds. “Of course I’m always going to be proud of her because she’s my sister but it’s so fantastic to see someone who I know has put in every hour realise her dream on the big stage.

“To see my sister go to a World Cup and not suffer the heartbreak that had been associated with this team for so long, but to go out and enjoy it and achieve what they achieved. That’s what made it, to see the sheer joy it gave people and our family.

“We’ll never forget that.”

One magical summer in London. None of us will forget it.

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Ryan Bailey

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