Ryan Bailey reports from the Lee Valley Stadium, London
AN ELEMENT OF disappointment was only natural as the curtain came down on Ireland’s groundbreaking campaign with a heavy defeat, but the result of Sunday’s World Cup final can take nothing away from what a group of 18 amateur athletes have achieved in the last fortnight.
Netherlands simply proved too strong for Ireland in the searing London heat as they added an eighth World Cup to their collection, and showed just why they are the game’s dominant force with an exhibition of power, skill and accuracy.
It left Graham Shaw’s side with mixed emotions at full-time. Conceding six in a World Cup final without every really landing a blow of your own is an underwhelming end to the most magical of tournaments, but then again simply being here was far more than anyone could have ever imagined.
The outcome provided delight for both teams.
There was no shame in losing to the Dutch — who remain the standard-bearers, and look almost unbeatable in such rampant and ravenous form — and deflation quickly turned to elation, as Ireland were able to celebrate the achievement of winning World Cup silver with the vociferous support who had made this virtually a home game.
An against all odds tale of hard-work, of grit, of determination, of a no-excuses, no-pressure attitude, Ireland scaled rarefied heights in London, beating higher-ranked opponents and bringing the country on a wonderfully unexpected sporting journey.
As the Irish players were roared onto the presentation podium by the thousands of supporters inside Lee Valley, the scenes in London were enjoyed and savoured by a proud nation back home, many of whom would have watched hockey for the first time this weekend.
And the focus for Graham Shaw and the players is now ensuring that this wasn’t a one-off, and they can build on the success heading towards Tokyo 2020 and qualify for a first Olympic Games. That’s the task ahead now.
Rather than it being the end of a journey, the feeling is this is very much the start of something much bigger, and the fact just two of the squad are over the age of 27, there is huge grounds for optimism going forward.
“Absolutely, this is only the start for us,” Gillian Pinder, draped in the tricolour with a silver medal around her neck, said.
“We’ve now put ourselves on the map of where we want to be. We want to qualify for Tokyo. We definitely want to be there. It’s the start of a new journey.”
The hope, too, is that the headlines generated at both home and abroad and the added attention and platform the team and sport has received will have a transformative effect on Irish hockey, just like the cricket team experienced after their World Cup success in 2007.
“We spoke at the start that it was important that we raise the profile of hockey,” long-serving defender Shirley McCay said.
“We’re not in a fortunate position where we can just say, ‘we don’t need to showcase our ability.’ It’s important to promote the sport in terms of sponsorship and funding. We’re aware of that.
“I think this is the start of something special. It’s really important that we build from here and make sure that every step is a positive one.
“We’re used to the emotions of the lows, as opposed to the highs. I think when we get home, we will reflect on it and realise what we have done for this sport and for the people of Ireland as well.”
It might take a while for the magnitude of the achievement to fully sink in, but the team — having existed within their own bubble during the tournament — will get a first taste of the swell in public support during a homecoming in Dublin on Monday afternoon.
The players celebrated with family and friends in London last night and will arrive home to a hero’s welcome later with a civic reception hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin expected to draw a big crowd.
As he reflected on a whirlwind adventure, Shaw admitted that the Dutch were the only team he had not prepared video analysis for on the basis that Ireland would only meet them in the latter stages of this competition.
The objective was to get out of the pool and see what happened from there so the idea that Ireland would reach the final and return home with a silver medal would have been outlandish to say the least.
You get the sense that Shaw and his players don’t fully realise what they have done, the impact they have made and the joy they have brought to the nation through their performances and laid-back attitude.
They may just get a better grasp of it today when they touch down on home soil as World Cup silver medallists.
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