Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London
GRAHAM SHAW, LIKE the rest of us, could barely watch. He looked, and then turned his back. He stood alongside his players, and then stood alone behind them. He knelt down, and then looked up. He tried everything, but it was agony.
He clenched his fists when Ayeisha McFerran produced stoic resistance between the posts, saving four Spanish penalties, and gasped in despair when Anna O’Flangan, Roisin Upton and Ali Meeke all missed.
There was another look to the heavens. Chloe Watkins scored, Ireland’s head coach paced. There was another glance skywards, and then the torture was prolonged.
Lola Riera’s audacious lobbed finish over McFerran was so good it drew applause from Shaw. Sudden death, again. Christ, what did we do to deserve this, he must have thought.
And then the moment. McFerran stood firm again, allowing Gillian Pinder — who didn’t take a penalty in the quarter-final win over India — to step up for the second time, and just as she did first time around, convert past the Spanish goalkeeper.
Ireland win. Ireland are through to the World Cup final, and the Lee Valley Stadium erupts. There are tears of joy, there are people falling over each other hugging. The players do a lap of honour, savouring the moment, and Shaw goes in the other direction.
Nobody quite knew what to do, because nobody quite knew what had just happened.
Shaw let all his emotions out afterwards, as he understandably struggled to process what his team had just achieved by advancing through to a first-ever World Cup final, where they will meet Netherlands tomorrow afternoon.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever gone out and played in front of a crowd of that size and they’re doing it with a smile on their face,” he said.
“They’re doing it relaxed and calm, and I know it doesn’t always show in our play but it’s incredible. 16th in the world and to go out and get the job done and continuously get it done and dig deep and dig deep and just…incredibly proud.
“They are best friends and just a group of people who love spending time with each other and I think that shows in our play. They not only try to win each moment for themselves but for each other and that makes us quite difficult to play against. You’re just hoping for the quality at the other end and today it happened.”
Asked whether coaching this group to a World Cup final exceeds all his own achievements as a player, Shaw said: “Without a doubt. Without a doubt. This is 100% the greatest moment of my life apart from my kids and my wife. This is 100% the greatest day of my life.”
He needs to take a moment, holding back the tears.
It was another white-knuckle ride of an afternoon, as the semi-final tie ebbed and flowed and saw the momentum fluctuate from end-to-end, with Spain striking in the second half to cancel out O’Flanagan’s early goal for Ireland.
Showing no signs of nerves despite the magnitude of the occasion, Ireland set the tone in the opening exchanges and held the advantage at the half-time interval, before Spain rebounded and forced the game into a shootout.
“If I am perfectly honest, I woke up this morning feeling confident,” Shaw continued.
“It’s one thing being confident and another going in dealing with the pressure of a World Cup semi-final and executing.
“The first half was brilliant. The girls came out on the front foot and really imposed their game and caused a lot of problems. We were a little bit disappointed to only go in 1-0 up because we felt we didn’t execute the corners the way we would have liked.
“Spain put us on the back foot in the second half and we retracted a bit, gave away a lot of possession and played the game in the back third which is not ideal.
“They scored but testament to the team, the last five minutes they went for it again and really upped the intensity. It wasn’t good for my heart.”
Ranked second-lowest at the start of this tournament, Ireland have ripped up the world rankings and defied their status as an amateur side to advance through to the gold medal match, with Shaw’s side already guaranteed a historic silver medal at the very least.
“I didn’t think this would happen in our lifetime — I’m just so proud of them,” he added.
“I’ve never been involved in a team so together in my life. They’re best friends. They fight for every single moment. And even when the hard times came with the penalty shootout, they still believed.
“Hopefully this will be a changing moment in our sport. This will be put us in the top teams in the world, at a guess the top eight in the world. Hopefully it’s a changing moment in these girls’ lives because they deserve it.
“We see people in our sport who are iconic in their country for what they have done. These girls now are absolute legends in my book. What an achievement. To come in second lowest ranked and to make a World Cup final is just an absolute dream come true.”
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