live like legends

'It was the best moment of any of our lives, and none of us will ever forget it'

A documentary on Ireland’s magical Women’s Hockey World Cup campaign airs on BBC tomorrow night.

NO MATTER HOW many times you watch the footage, the hairs on the back of your neck never cease to stand up. Even now, five months on, you watch the story of Ireland’s magical and memorable World Cup odyssey open-mouthed, the sense of awe remaining as strong as ever.

A lot has been said and written since Graham Shaw’s Ireland made history in London by claiming World Cup silver, yet talking about the summer of 2018 will never get old for those fortunate enough to be there or indeed those who enjoyed the journey from afar.

Ireland players celebrate with their silver medals A magical summer for the history books. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

It was one of the sporting achievements of the year, as a group of 18 amateur athletes defied all expectations and rewrote the script to achieve their dreams in the most speculator, and unexpected, fashion.

There are underdog stories, and then there is the tale of how the Ireland women’s hockey team upset the odds to claim a historic silver, all of which is documented in a new BBC documentary set to air on Thursday 27 December.

The 30-minute programme looks back on Ireland’s tournament, and how the Green Army beat USA and India en route to the quarter-finals, before progressing to the World Cup final thanks to dramatic shoot-out wins over India and Spain.

“Before the USA game, looking up at the big picture of the World Cup beside me, I was beginning to tear up and get quite emotional,” Nicci Daly says. “It was like ‘oh my God, we’re here, this is it.’”

After years of heartbreak, agony and near-misses, Ireland’s first appearance at a major tournament in 28 years started with a group game against USA at London’s Lee Valley Stadium.

Deirdre Duke’s double helped Ireland to a dream start.

“I had visualised for quite a long time about scoring goals in London,” she says. “I thought I was going to score on my reverse, that’s what I had on my mind. It was nice to score two in the first game.”

From there, Ireland’s campaign gathered huge momentum as thousands of supporters made the trip across to get behind the team. A 1-0 victory over India in the second pool fixture assured Shaw’s side of a place in the knockout stages with a game to spare.

“It was a really gruelling day to be on the pitch, India played a high tempo game,” defender Yvonne O’Byrne recalls. “We were happy we scored early.”

Shaw adds: “It was pure joy to realise we were now entering the top eight in the world.”

Ireland lost their final group game to hosts England, but they had done enough to top Group B with six points and book a quarter-final date with India.

“We said before the tournament we could do something special, but we’ve said that before and not done it,” Anna O’Flanagan said. “To do so with a game to play was such a special occasion for Irish hockey.”

The quarter and semi-final wins over India and Spain will forever be remembered for the sheer drama of Ireland’s shootout success, as Chloe Watkins and then Gillian Pinder scored the decisive penalties to ensure Ireland’s odyssey wasn’t going to end anytime soon.

Anna O'Flanagan before going out to pick up her silver medal Ireland's Anna O'Flanagan. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

Off the pitch, the squad were capturing the hearts and minds of the nation for their no-excuses, laid-back attitude. 

“We’d never been here before, and we couldn’t not smile,” captain Katie Mullan says.

Two songs — Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ and ‘High’ by the Lighthouse Family — became synonymous with the team’s achievement.  

“When I look back at the World Cup, music is something that played a big part in our experience,” Elena Tice explains. “They mean a whole lot to us.”

As the documentary shows the dressing room camaraderie and spirit, O’Byrne adds: The special thing about this group is just how absolutely mad this group is.”

Then it was on to a World Cup final against the mighty Netherlands, as a sea of green descended on London’s Olympic Park for that momentous Sunday afternoon in early August. 

Ireland’s campaign ran out of steam as they suffered a 6-0 defeat to the world’s number one ranked team, but Shaw ensured the celebrations weren’t soured by the disappointment of the result.

“I remember being disappointed and Graham got us all into a huddle and he said ‘in eight minutes you’re going to be handed a World Cup silver medal, if you don’t enjoy that moment for what it is, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life,” Mullan said.

“We’re the real winners here, we’ve made history.”

“It’s the most valuable thing I own,” Nikki Evans says of the medal. “Not only a silver medal for me and the girls but for our family and friends who have supported us the whole way.”

An emotional O’Flanagan adds: “It was the best moment of any of our lives, and none of us will ever forget it.”

But the focus has quickly turned to Tokyo 2020 and banishing those Olympic demons by bidding to qualify for a first Games. 

“We don’t want it to be a one-hit wonder,” Roisin Upton insists.

“I want to go to the Olympics and I want to go with these girls,” says O’Flanagan. 

‘Ireland’s Hockey World Cup: Live Like Legends’ airs on Thursday 27 December at 7pm on BBC Two Northern Ireland. 

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