Tokyo Olympics: Ireland’s women’s hockey team’s journey to their first Games

Karen
Katie Mullan
Katie Mullan celebrates Ireland’s win over Canada that sealed the team’s spot in Tokyo

BBC Sport NI’s Nigel Ringland has followed the Ireland Women’s hockey team for the last decade. As they participate in their first ever Olympic Games, Nigel details the characters and their journey to get to this stage.

There are plenty of inspirational quotes about life, journey and destination, and many would apply to the Ireland women’s hockey squad.

The destination has always been a first appearance at an Olympic Games and on Saturday, 16 women will take to the pitch at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo and will achieve that goal or, more romantically, fulfil a dream personally and collectively.

For each player, the journey is different.

Shirley McCay’s started in 2007 and for Ireland’s most capped sportswoman the opening game of the Olympics will be her 312th appearance. Three previous campaigns had ended in failure, serious gut-wrenching disappointment, but not the fourth.

No-one deserves to step onto the grandest stage in sport more than the woman from Drumquin. Well maybe except for Lizzie Holden, Chloe Watkins and Nicci Daly, who all shared the misery of narrowly missing out at the final hurdle in 2012 and 2016.

Short presentational grey line

Ireland’s fixtures in Tokyo (all times BST)

South Africa – 24 July (13:15)

The Netherlands – 26 July (02:00)

Germany – 28 July (04:15)

India – 30 July (03:45)

Great Britain – 31 July (12:45)

Quarter-finals – 2 August

Semi-finals – 3 August

Bronze/Gold matches – 6 August

Short presentational grey line

Then there is Sarah McAuley who was just five years old when McCay made her international debut. Now 19, and with just one full cap to her name against Italy at the European Championships last month, the teenager will line up alongside her friend, mentor, Muckross teammate and Ireland’s all-time leading goalscorer Anna O’Flanagan, another who has been chasing this dream for a decade or more.

‘Rio heartbreak to Japanese dreaming’

Even with reflection the past six years have, at some points, defied belief. Eight of this squad – including captain Katie Mullan, goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran and Hannah Matthews – were devastated by a shootout loss to China in Valencia in 2015 that cost them a place at the Rio Olympics.

It took a long time to get over.

Two years later they qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 16 years. By that stage Roisin Upton, Deirdre Duke and Lena Tice were established members of the squad.

No one could have foreseen or even dreamed what would happen next.

They finished top of a group that included the Olympic champions England (who won gold in Rio as GB), then beat India and Spain in shootouts to make the World Cup final as the 15th ranked team out of 16 at the tournament.

The eleven players already mentioned above (except McAuley who was still at school) have World Cup silver medals to their names from three years ago, an achievement that only grows and grows in stature as time passes.

But the Olympics was always the destination.

Olympic dreams start in Banbridge

The road to Tokyo began over two years ago on 8 June 2019 with a 2-1 win over Malaysia at Banbridge in the FIH Series. A place in the Olympic qualifiers was secured a week later with a 4-0 victory over the Czech Republic.

Over 6,000 supporters packed the ground in Dublin for a winner-takes-all play-off against Canada, only to witness two awful scoreless games. Another shootout loomed with a spot at the Olympics awaiting the winner.

Ayeisha McFerran
Ayeisha McFerran was the hero with two penalty shootout saves against Canada

The World Cup had exorcised the demons of Valencia but at 3-1 down it looked like another journey would be halted in its tracks. By this stage McFerran was now regarded as one of the world’s best goalkeepers and when her country needed her she produced two saves that didn’t do justice to the word ‘huge’.

Bethany Barr and Watkins still had to score and somehow both summoned the temperament and skill to do just that. Upton then stepped up and slotted home from such an acute angle as to defy physics. Canada missed. The journey continued.

Amid the glorious celebrations that night who would have thought that four months later a global pandemic would sweep the world causing the Olympics to be postponed for the first time in peacetime.

For individuals, the delay of a year meant their journey has gone off in a different direction. The same ACL injury deprived twins Bethany and Serena Barr of their Olympic dreams as it did for the ever-present smiling face of World Cup silver medallist Zoe Wilson while two other members of that squad, Megan Frazer and Nikki Evans, were the last two players to miss out on selection.

Twelve months ago, that would probably not have been the case, but they will be in everyone’s thoughts this weekend.

Katie Mullan, Zara Malseed, Shirley McCay, Ayeisha McFarren & Lizzie Holden
The bond between the squad is clear to see in their pre-Games photo shoot

Hannah McLoughlin, Michelle Carey, Sarah Torrans and Zara Malseed are new faces along with McAuley while Naomi Carroll, Sarah Hawkshaw and Lizzie Murphy complete the squad who will make history this weekend.

Not only is it the debut of Ireland women’s hockey in an Olympics but they are the first ever female team to represent the country at a Games in any sport. You see not only are they history makers, but they want to be trailblazers as well and help inspire the next generation.

It might be foolish to think that they can repeat what they did at the World Cup over the next two weeks, then again it might be more foolish to think they can’t.

The Olympics will be the final destination for some of these players, life’s journey will take them on a new path. For others it’s just the beginning, a chance to write a first chapter, actually the next chapter in the story of the Ireland Women’s hockey team.

So far, it’s been a page turner you haven’t been able to put down.

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