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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 17 July, 2019

'The support was incredible. It was like we were playing in Dublin, Belfast or Cork'

Thousands of Irish fans took over London’s Lee Valley Stadium yesterday to witness a memorable sporting occasion.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London

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 decamp en masse to London’s Olympic Park yesterday afternoon.

United Kingdom: Ireland v Spain - FIH Womens Hockey World Cup Semi Final Ireland celebrate their World Cup silver with fans.

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 Hockey World Cup final against Netherlands, with a large portion of the support travelling over without tickets, simply desperate to be part of the occasion in whatever way they could.

Some had success in their hunt for tickets outside the ground, others not so much, but all played their part in making it a memorable day for everyone fortunate enough to be present as Graham Shaw’s Ireland broke new ground and claimed an historic silver medal.

Of the 10,000 inside the Lee Valley in the shadow of the 2012 Olympic Stadium, most were of green persuasion and even the neutrals in the crowd were firmly behind the underdog as Ireland looked to complete the most extraordinary fairytale story.

Most had personal connections with the team, the family and friends who had occupied the same seats through every minute of this tournament, and have lived through the crushing lows and exhilarating highs down through the years. They deserved this day in the sun as much as the players.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins; the support networks. You could feel the pride, the emotion. Never has Ireland’s Call carried as much passion as it did yesterday afternoon. It was truly special. A hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment.

The players, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, enjoying and savouring every second of the experience with smiles on their faces, belted out the words, pumped their firsts and waved at loved ones in the crowd. This was their time, their moment.

The Irish hockey fraternity is a close, tight-knit one and this meant as much to the volunteers, the club players, the team-mates, the umpires, the officials and the past players as it did to those 18 players out there in green. And it showed, both in the green and in clubs across the island.

Roisin Upton celebrates with Lorraine McGowan Roisin Upton celebrates with family and friends. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Every Irish tackle, pass and touch was cheered as if it was a goal, the atmosphere electric from the first until last minute, even when the Dutch class told and they ruthlessly displayed why they are the dominant force in the women’s game.

But Ireland could hold their heads high after a gloriously fulfilling fortnight during which they exceeded all expectations, upset the odds, wrote their own piece of history and put Irish hockey firmly on the map, both at home and abroad.

Through their performances and attitude, this team — led by the impressive Graham Shaw — entered the nation’s hearts and minds and brought us along the most remarkable, and unexpected, sporting journey. For that, we should be incredibly thankful.

“I’m very proud, though obviously a little disappointed [at the result], but I don’t want to take away from what these girls have achieved,” Shaw, with a silver medal around his neck, said afterwards.

“It’s remarkable, truly astonishing. To come in here ranked where they are and to get to a final of a World Cup…to have a silver medal around my neck is what dreams are made of.”

After memorable wins over USA, India and Spain to reach the gold medal match, a meeting with defending champions Netherlands was always going to be Ireland’s toughest challenge. And so it proved.

The Dutch had powered their way through to the final and were in no mood to let anyone spoil their party, as they continued their ruthless and rampant form by scoring four first-half goals to settle the game as a contest, before adding another two after the interval.

A devastating spell either side of the half-time break saw the number one ranked side breach the Irish defence four times in as many minutes, as their imposing skill, power and accuracy came to the fore.

“They are an outstanding side,” Shaw continued. “They have three World Players of the Year in their side, a few Olympic gold and silver medallists and European golds. They are an outstanding, fully professional side.

“They deserved their win. They are miles ahead of everybody in the world right now. That’s the level we need to aim for. We have to try and get to that level.”

The Ireland players celebrate The history makers. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

It says a lot about the ambitions of the group that they were left disappointed at full-time, but deflation quickly turned to elation when the post-match presentations began and Ireland were handed their silver medals.

At times, it felt like Shaw’s side had just been crowned the world champions, and not the Netherlands, given the cacophony of noise which greeted the players as they embarked on their lap of honour.

“It’s funny when you’re disappointed to get a silver World Cup medal but the Dutch were another class today — they’re by far the best in the world for a reason and they deserved the victory,” Chloe Watkins, who made her 200th international appearance in the final, said.

“We’re extremely proud of how far we’ve come, we’re extremely proud of what we’ve done and how we’ve represented our country.”

And Shaw reserved a special word of praise for the Green Army, who were with his side every step of the way and made such a difference throughout the tournament.

“The support has been overwhelming,” the coach added.

“I mean today felt like a home game. It felt like we were in Dublin, Belfast or Cork playing. Just an incredible atmosphere and we’re so grateful to the people who travelled over to support the team and we’re so grateful for the support you guys give us.”

“It has been an incredible journey and a real dream come true. I’m just looking forward to getting home and sharing our stories. What a remarkable achievement this has been.”

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Ryan Bailey

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