the green army

Ireland's golden generation make the impossible dream a reality

The magical run to the World Cup final has been no fluke, rather the result of years of hard work and sacrifice.

Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London 

AS THE IRELAND players waited in the media mixed zone once the initial on-pitch celebrations had died down, many of them sat in stunned silence, unable to fully articulate what had just unfolded outside.

Ireland v Spain - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Ireland pulled off another famous win on Saturday. Steven Paston Steven Paston

It was only when they were in the relative calm of the dressing room area that the enormity of the achievement began to hit home, with many stuck for words when asked if they could sum up how it felt.

This campaign has been one magical, never-ending fairytale and while there is the small matter of a first-ever World Cup final on Sunday afternoon, Graham Shaw’s side are now guaranteed at least silver 16 years after their last appearance on this stage ended in a 15th-place finish.

“A dream come true,” Gillian Pinder, who scored the decisive penalty in the sudden-death shootout to send Ireland through to a gold medal match meeting with Netherlands on Sunday, said.

It is a remarkable achievement for a group which has showed no fear in challenging and upsetting the status quo over the last fortnight, dumping higher-ranked nations India, USA and Spain out of contention, while re-writing hockey history and forever etching their name into a glorious new chapter.

Indelible days like Saturday won’t be forgotten easily, particularly by those passionately backing green inside the Lee Valley Stadium, yet the absurd nature of it all means there remains a lot to process before the magnitude of what has unfolded will truly sink in.

And this is no fluke, rather an achievement years in the making. Years of hurt, of setbacks, of sacrifice, of hard work. Years of near misses, of agony, of despair, of wondering if it would ever happen. Everything that has gone before has shaped this team.

The width of a post separated Ireland from Olympic qualification in 2016 but so often the low point can be the turning of the tide and the demons of that agonising shootout defeat to China have been well and truly banished this week.

Shaw has been instrumental in the team’s development and the way in which they’ve truly fulfilled their potential on the global stage, with Ireland’s ethos founded on fundamental principles — work-ethic, a no-excuses mantra and a never-say-die attitude to name but a few.

With goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran proving herself to be one of the world’s best, Ireland are tactically well-organised, technically sound and have a number of players with an exciting arsenal of skills which, as we’ve seen, can cause serious damage to any defence.

Ireland v Spain - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Chloe Watkins could hardly believe it. Steven Paston Steven Paston

The execution of set-pieces has also been key throughout this magical campaign, with Anna O’Flanahan’s third-minute opener on Saturday coming courtesy of a well-worked penalty corner routine.

And when you add all that together, coupled with the unequivocal support of family and friends and, more recently, an entire nation, it means Ireland are a dangerous proposition for any side as they’ve proved over the last fortnight.

The impossible suddenly becomes possible, the rankings are ripped apart, all logic is disregarded, and therein lies the beauty of sport. A part-time amateur system, a shoe-string budget. It matters little when the attitude is right.

Ireland should never have stood a chance at this World Cup, but here they are on the most glorious of summer Saturdays in the shadows of London’s Olympic Stadium, dispatching another higher-ranked nation on the grandest stage of all, defying all odds and expectations.

You just couldn’t make it up.

“I’m speechless…I can’t believe it,” Nikki Evans said, the emotion pouring out in Ireland’s post-match celebrations as they savoured every moment in front of family and friends.

There was more than an element of disbelief in the air at the Lee Valley, with the players and supporters alike unsure as to whether this was all a dream or whether it was actually happening. It was all a bit surreal.

“I just want someone to pinch me,” defender Zoe Wilson mustered. “It feels amazing, absolutely amazing. I can’t believe we are in the finals of the World Cup.”

Evans picked it back up: “It’s Ireland first World Cup in 16 years. We are ranked 16th in the world. We promised ourselves we would go out for every game and enjoy it.

“We promised ourselves that we would have no regrets in this competition and leave everything on the pitch and at the end of the day we could look at the score line and accept it.”

And this was another result Ireland were full value for, as Shaw’s side were made to dig deep by a Spanish outfit they know inside out and have had some ding-dong battles with in recent years.

O’Flanagan again was in the right place at the right time to deflect home from Shirley McCay’s strike from the top of the circle, and just like that Ireland were on their way towards a World Cup final.

Anna O’Flanagan celebrates winning the shoot out Anna O'Flanagan leads the celebratory charge. Sandra Mailer / INPHO Sandra Mailer / INPHO / INPHO

They were oozing confidence, the midfield trio of Katie Mullan, Chloe Watkins and Pinder bringing huge energy to the contest early on and handing Ireland the ascendancy on the balance of play and, crucially, on the scoreboard.

But Spain were quick to identify a weak spot down Ireland’s right flank and after dominating for large periods of the second and third quarters, were eventually rewarded with an equaliser after a green shirt had cheaply surrendered possession.

The momentum had shifted, and Ireland were on the back foot having not taken full advantage of their chances in the first half, particularly off a couple of penalty corners.

Not to worry. Back they came, rediscovering the composure which had eluded them during the second and third quarters and in manufacturing a couple of half-chances late in the piece, were able to take some momentum into the shootout.

You’d barely guess it was their first major tournament, first time playing in front of a crowd of over 10,000 and a television audience of millions worldwide.

“Every time we play out here it feels like a home crowd,” player of the match O’Flanagan said, pointing to the fact the majority of the crowd were of green persuasion again after a mad scramble for tickets.

“There’s so many people in green, so many people cheering us on so many Irish people who traveled over. We are so grateful for that support and we wouldn’t be where we are without them. It’s like having an extra player on the pitch.”

The crowd knew their role in lifting the team when it was required, particularly during those periods when Ireland had dropped deep and their goal was living a charmed life, and raised the decibel levels inside the Olympic Park again for the shootout.

After McFerran saved three Spanish efforts, and O’Flanagan, Roisin Upton and Ali Meeke all missed for Ireland, it went right down to the wire, with Pinder — who didn’t take a penalty in the win over India in the quarter-finals — given the chance to make history.

“I don’t have anything that I traditionally go and do,” the former St Andrew’s College student said, looking back at the match-winning moment as she slid the ball under the body of the Spanish goalkeeper to spark wild and jubilant celebrations.

Ireland v Spain - Vitality Women's Hockey World Cup - Semi Final - Lee Valley Hockey and Tennis Centre Just some of the Irish support at the Lee Valley Stadium. Steven Paston Steven Paston

“I just go up and see if I can move the ‘keeper and whenever the gaps open up see if I can slot the ball into the goal. We practiced them during the week but I think I only took two and I missed the two.

“I didn’t make the cut for the Indian game and then I made the cut. Today something changed and I joined in. I just felt I could do it.”

And in that split second, when everything appeared to slow down and Pinder’s effort trickled towards the backboard, Irish hockey scaled rarefied heights and was catapulted further into a nation’s conscience.

“This group of players are realising the dreams of so many players that didn’t quite make the team, so many other players that went before, so many support staff and coaches that went before, several players who retired in the recent past,” O’Flanagan added.

“This is for hockey in Ireland. We wanted to create a legacy and I believe we’ve done that.”

Irrespective of what happens on Sunday, Ireland will return home on Monday morning with a medal in their possession and that alone goes beyond any pre-tournament expectation.

Seven-time winners Netherlands provide a formidable obstacle in the final having beaten Australia on penalties in the second semi-final, but there is no reason why Ireland can’t upset the odds one final time at this World Cup.

The impossible dream is on.

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