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Dublin: 8 °C Saturday 19 October, 2019

Ireland in dreamland as Graham Shaw’s history-makers advance to first-ever World Cup final

Gillian Pinder held her nerve to score the decisive penalty in another dramatic shootout victory in London.

Ireland 1

Spain 1

(Ireland win 3-2 on penalties)

Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London

BEYOND EVERY EXPECTATION, beyond all odds, beyond all reasonable logic, Ireland — the second-lowest ranked team in the tournament — have achieved what nobody ever considered was even possible and, in dispatching Spain in a dramatic shootout victory, are now just one game away from becoming world champions.

Anna O'Flanagan celebrates scoring their first goal off a penalty corner Ireland celebrate Anna O'Flanagan's early goal. Source: Sandra Mailer/INPHO

The script has been torn to utter shreds, thrown out the window and rewritten by Graham Shaw’s history-makers, who have defied every reality that makes it almost impossible — or so we thought, anyway — for a team so criminally under-resourced to challenge the sport’s heavyweights on the world stage.

But this was another performance brimming with passion, with heart, with grit, with hard work, with sheer bloody determination and, backed by a boisterous legion of travelling supporters, those virtues once again came to the fore to help Ireland into a first-ever World Cup final.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Ireland — ranked 16th in the world — will face Netherlands in Sunday’s Women’s Hockey World Cup final [4.30pm].

Never has Irish hockey reach such rarefied heights, rarely has Irish sport ever witnessed an achievement on this scale and they were full value for another famous victory here this afternoon, with Gillian Pinder holding her nerve in the shootout to send Shaw’s side into dreamland in London.

After an absorbing 1-1 draw, Ireland, just like they did in the quarter-final win over India on Thursday, showed immense character and composure in the most exacting circumstances after Spain had cancelled out Anna O’Flanagan’s early strike in normal time.

But this is Ireland’s time, and they weren’t to be denied in another tension-laden finale at the Lee Valley, with goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran once again showing all her pedigree between the posts, before Pinder sent the swathes of green into complete raptures.

The scenes which greeted the winning penalty were of pure, unadulterated emotion, ecstasy and pride. It’s hard to quantify what has just unfolded in front of us.

Nothing is beyond the realm of possibility now.

Just as they have done all tournament, Ireland showed no signs of early nerves despite the magnitude of the occasion, and got off to the dream start courtesy of O’Flanagan’s clinical deflection past Maria Ruiz.

The Ireland team celebrate with Ayeisha McFerran There were joyous scenes for Ireland in London. Source: Sandra Mailer/INPHO

A rousing rendition of Ireland’s Call set the tone and the decibel levels inside London’s Olympic Park were cranked up, as Chloe Watkins marauded down the left, before feeding the ever-willing Katie Mullan to force the penalty corner off a Spanish foot.

Ireland have been ruthless from the set-piece en route to the last four and once again executed the perfect penalty corner, with Shirley McCay’s slap from the top of the circle finding its way in off O’Flanagan’s outstretched stick.

By setting such a ferocious early tempo, Ireland bossed the first quarter and set the tone for an open, high-quality and absorbing contest.

Shaw’s side, led by the energy and dynamism of Mullan, Watkins and Pinder in the engine room, weren’t shy of displaying their full range of skills, including some expansive passes and neat touches which caused the Spanish defence problems.

But after Ali Meeke was unable to add to Ireland’s advantage from another penalty corner, Spain turned the screw and enjoyed a period of sustained dominance from the final throes of the first quarter onwards.

As Spain applied the high press, Ireland’s defence dropped deeper and deeper and they were unable to find a route out, with McFerran’s goal living a charmed live at times, most notably when Carola Salvatella’s effort between her legs went just wide of the far post.

With McCay and Yvone O’Byrne as solid as ever and marshalling the rearguard effort, Ireland were able to weather the storm and get through to the half-time interval with their lead in tact.

Watkins, Roisin Upton and Hannah Matthews all made important interventions, but all the momentum was with Spain, and their unrelenting pressure on Ireland eventually told with the world number 11 side forcing the turnover and striking for the equaliser in the 39th minute.

Georgina Oliva and Nicola Daly Ireland's Nicola Daly in action. Source: Sandra Mailer/INPHO

The Ireland bench urged the defence to ‘step out’ but to no avail, as the Green Army were left exposed down their left and when the ball was pulled across for Alicia Magaz, she had acres of space to control and fire past McFerran to level proceedings under the searing London sun.

It was a soft way for Ireland to be pegged back after they had worked tirelessly and stoically to shut Spain out, and it handed all the initiative back to Alberto Ruiz’s side heading into the final quarter.

Spain were quick to identify Ireland’s right flank as an avenue they could target and after the equaliser came from that side, a searching 70 metre pass from left to right found Magaz all alone, before she shot over the bar, prompting a collective sigh of relief from everyone in green.

Relief turned to elation shortly after, with McFerran making four crucial saves in the shootout, to allow Pinder to bring Ireland within 60 minutes of world glory.

IRELAND: Ayeisha McFerran (GK), Nikki Evans, Katie Mullan (captain), Shirley McCay, Gillian Pinder, Roisin Upton, Chloe Watkins, Lizzie Colvin, Hannah Matthews, Anna O’Flanagan, Zoe Wilson.

Subs: Yvone O’Byrne, Megan Frazer, Lena Tice, Nikki Daly, Deirde Duke, Ali Meeke, Grace O’Flanagan.

SPAIN: Maria Ruiz (GK), Rocio Gutierrez, Carlota Petchame, Maria Lopez, Cristina Guinea, Carmen Cano, Lola Riera, Begona Garcia, Xantal Gine, Beatriz Perez, Georgina Oliva (captain).

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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