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Dublin: 7°C Tuesday 9 March 2021

A year since London, Ireland continue to move forward on long road to Tokyo

Ireland defender Hannah Matthews looks ahead to next month’s European Hockey Championships.

A MOMENT IN time forever etched in the annals of Irish sport, a truly magical summer for the history books. 

It’s hard, in one way, to believe it is a year since Katie Mullan led Ireland out in the Hockey World Cup final at London’s Lee Valley Stadium.

Ireland v India - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Quarter Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Hannah Matthews celebrates with Zoe Wilson at last summer's World Cup. Source: Steven Paston

And then, on the other hand, so much water has passed under the bridge since that memorable afternoon, when the nation was utterly gripped by a true underdog story, it feels like an awful lot longer ago.

“I actually can’t believe it happened, or I still can’t believe the enormity of it,” defender Hannah Matthews tells The42. “I think it’s going to be 10/20 years before we look back and go, my God, that’s what we did.

“It was all just such a blur as well, coming home to Dublin, the reception. It really was so surreal. I still don’t think I’ve registered what’s happened, even now a year on.”

While reliving it all will never not make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, or not leave you open-mouthed and in awe, the Ireland players always maintained that their historic silver medal was only the start, not the highlight. 

Whatever this group of players go on to achieve, it will be nigh-on impossible to top what they did in London during that magical World Cup odyssey, yet through the homecomings and celebrations, they never lost sight of the bigger picture.

“When you throw yourself back into work and training, it kind of almost feels like it didn’t really happen and it does feel like years ago,” Matthews continues.

“It really seems far off and our focus is so driven towards Tokyo that it makes it feel that bit longer ago.”

A lot has changed since last summer, of course. Graham Shaw, the mastermind behind the unprecedented success, unexpectedly moved on to pastures new, leaving his former assistant Gareth Grundie in charge for June’s first step on the road to Tokyo.

In their first home appearance since London, Ireland managed the weight of expectation as if they’ve always shouldered it, surging through to the FIH Series final to book their place in an Olympic qualifying tie later this year. 

While Ireland were expected to finish in the top two of that tournament, they did so showing further signs of progression under Grundie, with new head coach Sean Dancer also in attendance during that important week in Banbridge.

In addition to encouraging competition for places within the squad, Ireland scored freely throughout the campaign and continued to display a ruthless attacking edge in two recent victories over Italy in Belfast.

It’s hard to accurately assess if the team are now in a better place than they were 12 months ago, and it would be a big statement to make, but with another pivotal campaign at the European Championships around the corner, Ireland continue to make strides forward.

With Dancer now in charge, Ireland are gearing up for their make-or-break two-legged Tokyo 2020 qualifier in late October/early November, and will hope to add as many world ranking points to their total at the European Championships.

Hannah Matthews celebrates after the game Matthews is an ever-present in the Irish defence. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

A strong campaign, when they face Belarus, England and Germany in the pool stages, would greatly enhance the Green Army’s chances of earning home advantage for that tie, with Ireland currently eighth in the world.

“We’re all feeling really confident and we like the look of our group,” Matthews says.

“We’re playing against England, Germany and Belarus so we’re really confident we can put it up to those teams and get points and hopefully progress to the top four and maybe even medal contention. 

“The main thing is the ranking points out of this tournament as it really impacts the Olympic qualifier.”

Ireland face England first up in Antwerp on 17 August, but in their first major tournament since London, Matthews knows they will have a target on their backs.

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She continues: “We’re not under the radar anymore and teams will be paying more attention to us, but we just have to step up to the mark and we’ve always believed we could be a top 10 team so we have to go out and prove that now. 

That said, wherever we place for the qualifier, it’s still very much eyes on the prizes and nothing will deter us.

Matthews is one of the longest-serving members of the squad, having made her debut back in 2014, and the primary school teacher has over 100 international caps to her name. 

The daughter of former Ireland and Lions back row Phillip, 28-year-old Matthews comes from a family steeped in sporting tradition and the dream now is to go on and compete at the Olympics having come so agonisingly close four years ago. 

“My Dad, he’s such a great resource for me,” she explains. “He does a lot of leadership and performance coaching, so his expertise in that have been massive for me.

“Equally my Mum, who never gets a look in. She has been such a huge influence on me throughout my career. Always keeping me on the straight and narrow. I get my work ethic from her and my behaviours on the pitch. She is a massive influence. They’re both so important.

“The lows make you appreciate the highs that bit more and they’re on that journey too.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle and is the ultimate goal for all of us. We have a really good balance in the squad now, between those who were in Valencia last time and those who weren’t.

“The team is in a really good place.”

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Ryan Bailey

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