NOBODY WAS EXPECTING anything.
The atmosphere was calm and relaxed, even jovial. When some of the younger girls in the squad said they felt like it was Christmas Eve because of the excitement and anticipation surrounding the opening game, it led to a chorus of Mariah Carey’s famous festive hit. And, as the unlikely World Cup adventure progressed, it became a recurring bonding exercise. The inexplicable squad doing inexplicable things, even off the pitch.
“The more it went on the more exciting it got because we were getting further and further in the tournament,” Nicci Daly says.
“It was something that stuck with the team and when we were doing our mobility exercises in the centre of London, all the commuters on their way to work would stop and listen to us singing All I Want For Christmas Is You. Some would be wondering what was going on but others would embrace it and recognise who we were and wish us well.”
THAT IS A-MAZING!!!!!!!🎅🏽🎅🏽🦋🦋🦋🦋 🇮🇪🇮🇪 https://t.co/GZX01W6sfm— Mariah Carey (@MariahCarey) August 7, 2018
“And when Mariah Carey tweets you and she’s got 20 million followers, you know you’ve hit the big time.”
It wasn’t a gimmick. It was about identity. It was about owning their sense of self. It was about enjoying the experience. The competition would be on their terms.
“We were at a World Cup and that was our goal: to reach a major tournament,” Daly continues.
“We had already achieved more than we’d set out to achieve by the time we’d got to the first penalty shootout against India.”
It was only three years since the bitter disappointment in Valencia when the width of a post denied them a World League quarter-final victory over China. The sudden-death shootout defeat effectively ensured they missed out on the Olympics.
“2015 was the lowest point in all of our careers,” Daly says.
“The way we lost it too…Shootouts are probably thrilling for the fans but they’re definitely nerve-wracking for the players. It’s just so unpredictable. But in London, there was nothing really on the line compared to 2015, where it was to qualify for an Olympics and what we’d worked so hard for. We didn’t put a huge amount of pressure on ourselves. We were confident that we had the best goalkeeper in the world and, ultimately, I think the girls who stood up and took the penalties and scored them did it because they played with freedom.”
“Everything came out better than ever in the World Cup. Maybe that’s because people could just relax a bit and the team felt calm. We were ready. In the build-up, we’d beaten Japan and Germany. We genuinely didn’t fear any of the nations we were playing. We were the second-lowest ranked team going in so we embraced the entire tournament and enjoyed every moment. If you asked every player, I’m sure they remember all of the small details throughout those few weeks. When you’re a little bit more relaxed, you’re mind is free and you enjoy it a bit more.”
The momentum certainly helped too. It was an immersive, feel-good fairytale. The atmosphere was harmonious. And after the pool stage, the draw was kind. There was an opportunity to do something special and the players increasingly became aware of it.
“We had Hannah Matthews always crunching the numbers and trying to figure out who we were going to get and what our path was looking like,” Daly says.
“We knew India were beatable because we’d already got the better of them in the pool game. It was step-by-step but we also knew Spain pretty well too and we started to think, ‘Hey, we can actually get to the final here’.
We knew exactly how big of a deal it was to finish runners-up and how big an achievement it was. But I think a good part of us weren’t overly surprised because we have been knocking on the door for a long time now and itching for that bit of success that I think we’ve deserved. We earned that silver medal ourselves. It was down to the commitment and the hard work we put in. When you start to beat teams like we have done over the last few years, your self- belief and the belief within the squad naturally grows. That’s what led us to playing with so much freedom at the World Cup and ultimately coming away with the reward that I think we deserved after the lows and disappointments we’ve had over the last number of years.”
During and immediately after the tournament, a simmering subplot was the hockey team’s lack of financial support and how the astounding World Cup success was achieved on a barely-there shoestring budget.
Inevitably, Hockey Ireland was the main beneficiary of subsequent government investment in 17 different sports and will receive €500,000 in funding. Still, as a minority sport, it won’t take much for the hockey aid to be greatly reduced or disappear completely depending on circumstance. With the state’s involvement comes increased expectation, with the Irish side essentially having to prove they’re worth such an investment.
“In one way, how tough it is for us compared to other nations builds an inner-determination to want to prove that even though we don’t have the same funding that we can still do it,” Daly says.
“But we want to be able to do it consistently and to do that we need to be together more, training together more, available for each other more. And that only comes with a full-time programme. So, while it was great what we achieved with such little funding and pretty much on our own bat at the World Cup, if we want to retain our top-ten position in the world we need to be doing this full-time. We need to have our own pitch.”
It’s exciting to hear more funding is coming our way because that’s never been something that’s ever happened for us before. Usually it’s been, ‘Oh God, do we even have enough to put some sort of programme together?’ I think the important thing is that as players we want to establish more than just a funding figure. We want to establish a full-time programme and compete with the other top-ten nations. Without sounding too ungrateful, 500,000 is a little bit of a drop in the ocean compared to the other top nations. So the important conversations that need to happen between Hockey Ireland and Sport Ireland is how we bridge the gap between us and the top nations and how do we set a platform for a full-time team?”
Daly calmly drops it into conversation and moves on but it’s worth returning to. The Irish hockey team has no home. The governing body has rented out club pitches in various parts of the country for the last number of years because UCD’s National Stadium fell below the required international standard. Two nationally-approved venues are Monkstown and St. Gerard’s – both secondary schools. For a team that’s just won a silver medal at a World Cup, it’s a jaw-dropping reality. How can they attract elite opposition when the resources and facilities are simply not there?
“Some of us have had experience of playing in Europe so we know players on the other teams and they admire us quite a lot for what we do with so little,” Daly says.
“They definitely look at you and go, ‘How do you guys do it?’ It’s totally outside their train of thought. But after London, I think a lot more will start to respect us. I’m sure Holland will probably have a lot more respect for us. They may have been a little bit ignorant towards us in the past but I think they’d now respect us a little bit more and appreciate how well we can do with so little. That’s been mentioned over the course of the tournament by different people so it’s nice to hear and it’s certainly positive.”
Daly admits that the World Cup success still hasn’t really sunk in for her yet. But, admittedly, she’s had a few things on her plate.
This weekend, she’s going back in time to a previous life.
She was 14 when her father, Vivion, died of cancer. An immensely-talented, champion driver, he was a prolific figure on the Irish motorsport circuit and incredibly competitive in Formula Ford and Formula Open, tasting a litany of success in both classifications.
“My Dad was a mechanic by day and had a garage at the house,” Daly says.
The @FormulaFemales crew have published pictures of their car ahead of this weekend’s #HistoricRacingFestival at @Mondello_Park With backing from @Abrakebabra and others, they are raising money for the @IrishCancerSoc pic.twitter.com/MfPf7i2Ffj— Motorsport.ie (@motorsport_ie) August 17, 2018
“There were cars lined up along the driveway and around the back and if he wasn’t working on a road car, it was his race car. Every weekend we spent down at Mondello watching him race and helping him with the car. And that’s where the passion started for me.”
Earlier this year, she sat down with a lifelong friend, Emma Dempsey (daughter of another Irish motor-racing legend, Cliff) and the pair pieced together some plans: the formation of Formula Female and a race at Mondello with the proceeds going to charity.
“I’m so excited because it’s been a long time since I’ve been back in Mondello,” she says.
“Everyone that’s come on board are all friends of my Dad’s. Abrakebabra – his old sponsors – are back with the car and all of the people I would’ve known from Irish motorsport when I was around it have helped me so much.”
I always wanted to do something for my Dad – in his memory – but I’ve never quite known how exactly to do it. For myself and Emma, it’s always been a dream to do a race together. And I felt what better way to do something for my Dad than combine the two things. I wanted to do it for the Irish Cancer Society in memory of him. It’s been amazing – the support, the donations. It’s just been incredible. I feel like I’m doing something for him that I never got the chance to do when he was around.”
It will be emotional but cathartic. Back in Mondello, sitting into the car, placing a specially-designed helmet on her head. Deep breaths. But she’s ready for it.
“It’s basically a replica of my Dad’s helmet,” she says.
Delighted with my newly painted helmet thanks to Sean Egan Paintwork. Replica design of my Dads helmet and it looks 👌👌. T-4 days until race day! #FormulaFemaleRaceAgainstCancer #irishcancersociety #historicracingfestival #mondello50thanniversary #dalydeaign #vivo pic.twitter.com/N211puD5Sv— Nicci Daly (@NicciDaly22) August 15, 2018
“My uncle Derek had a solid yellow arrow on his whereas my Dad just had the outline on his. They were both Pisces so they had the fish on the side. I’m not Pisces so I’ve put a winner’s wreath around it instead because my Dad was always a winner. Every time he got in a car he usually won. So that’s the significance of it. Black and yellow were his colours and Derek’s colours so it’s like a family tradition.”
Even in her day job, Daly just can’t get away from it. After finishing a degree in mechanical engineering from London’s Cranfield University, she picked up a masters in motor sport engineering and went to work for Juncos Racing in Indianapolis.
“I definitely want to spend some time working in the motorsport industry and maybe work my way up to being a race engineer,” she says.
“I’ve started this brand with Emma – Formula Female – and it’d be great to keep that going and try to encourage more women to get into motorsport. If it means taking it up as hobby, racing on the side and working as an engineer by day, I kinda like the sound of that.”
It’s intriguing how Daly compartmentalises.
Just two weeks ago she won a World Cup silver medal. Before the pool game against the USA, she was emotional as she thought about her father. But the hockey success wasn’t about him. This weekend is.
“My Dad wouldn’t have been around when I played hockey so I don’t really associate him with it,” she says.
“He was gone by the time I started playing and representing Ireland. The World Cup was a huge achievement and I’m sure he would’ve been extremely proud but this is more symbolic of him and the people that would’ve been around him.”
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