Under budget and playing part-time, the Irish team stole the show at the world cup
The Irish national women’s field hockey team did something quite extraordinary at this year’s Women’s Hockey World Cup. In a tournament dominated by talk of the English team winning in their own backyard, it was the host nation’s Gaelic neighbors who stole the limelight – making it to the finals and surprising the hockey world.
The last time Ireland even qualified for a World Cup was in 2002, when they hit rock bottom in their pool with 0 points. But what made this years run even more shocking was the way the Irish team was put together – a group of part-time and self-funded players who played for just country and pride.
Sport Ireland (the national governing body for field hockey) only contributed €260,000 to hockey in 2017, none of which was going to the athletes, but instead being spent on administration fees, coach development, and in a number of other areas that were deemed more important. Not surprisingly the news broke earlier this tournament week that each Irish player themselves had to pay €550 to help cover the costs for playing in this World Cup.
In stark contrast the England hockey players will receive over £17 million in funding, complemented by major sponsor Investec, between 2017 and 2020, leading up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Great Britain’s success in Rio in 2016 was a product of this well funded and centralized program that allows a whole squad of players to be full time, professional hockey players, with every day at Bisham Abbey planned with almost military precision.
Alex Danson, England captain, described the program in a recent interview,
“No two days are the same and our physical activity is often interspersed with meetings on everything from psychology and tactics, to objectives and video analysis”.
The centralized program is undoubtedly a great thing for England and Great Britain’s hockey in terms of contact hours with coaches, performance analysis and following the correct preparation and recovery procedures. But with such professionalism also comes a heightened sense of responsibility and therefore a pressure that the amateur teams don’t experience.
This World Cup was supposed to be just a stepping stone to the Olympics, but the English team seemed to play with the weight of expectations, in front of their home fans, and hopeful sponsors. Far removed from the freedom and underdog mentality that led to their Olympic victory two years ago.
Now if Ireland had their pre-tournament sights set on finishing in the top three, you could could have called them greedy, especially with the caliber of opposition facing them in pool B. There was England, USA and India, sitting 2nd, 7th and 10th respectively in the FIH world rankings, while the Irish were languishing at 16th – the second lowest ranked side in the World Cup.
But this was the Irish’s tournament.
A flying start with two goals in the opening twelve minutes against the Americans, set them on their way to a shocking 3-1 win. India, who recently finished fourth at the Commonwealth Games, were up next, but Ireland came flying out of the blocks once again to take an early lead courtesy of an Anna O’Flanagan goal, and defended valiantly to take the points.
With group favorites, England only managing to draw against both of those sides in their pool matches, Ireland had quarter-final qualification secured and could afford to lose against England in the final group game, which they narrowly did, and still stayed a-top the group.
Having already exceeded all expectations in reaching the final 8, Ireland went one better in beating India (again) in their quarter-final, on penalty shuffles after holding them to a goalless draw in normal time.
And think about this. The Irish team was staying in the Canary Wharf hotel and the team actually hadn’t even booked rooms past the quarterfinals date. When the team tried to reserve additional rooms, the hotel was completely booked. Thankfully they were staying in the same hotel as the Belgium team, who had been knocked out just the round before and who offered up their rooms and hit the road a day early.
On the other side of the draw, and straight after the Irish victory, England were paying the price for qualifying in second place, and had to try beat a powerful Dutch side who was playing a level of hockey above everyone else in the tourney. Even the buoyant English home crowd couldn’t help them overcome a supreme hockey nation whose women have reached ten out of eleven World Cup finals since 1978 with the only exception coming, oddly enough, in Ireland in 1994.
In the semi-finals, Ireland had another exciting shuffle match to defeat Spain. This sent them into the finals to face the Dutch, who had already scored 30 goals in their 5 games. They played well against the extremely skilled Dutch side, but it wasn’t enough, and they fell 6-0. But they’d already secured an accomplishment above all expectations.
The Uru Team discussed the final game with the Dutch team, who commented about the level of noise of the crowd in green who dominated the noise of the their own fans…. The Irish fans were proud of the team for playing such great team hockey and making history being in the Hockey World Cup Finals against massive odds.
Consider the following though in the Irish team makeup.
The two key players in Ireland’s recent penalty shuffle victory over India were goalkeeper, Ayeisha McFerran, and scorer of the winning goal, Chloe Watkins. McFerran had just finished her university degree across the pond at the University of Louisville, while Watkins plays in the Netherlands for HC Bloemendaal.
Both players train for the national side whenever they can manage it – McFerran came back to Ireland from the States during Spring Break to train earlier this year.
But within a centralized system like England’s, these kinds of trade-off would not be allowed, as athletes are required to be able to train at Bisham Abbey at all times. This proves detrimental to the club system in England, as well as denying the players the chance of playing at a level of hockey abroad, that is greater than what is available in the UK.
Still women’s hockey in England is riding on the crest of the wave from their brilliant performance in the Rio Olympics, the state of the game is in excellent shape with the amount of funding they are receiving.
But Ireland’s performance in this tournament, may just prove that by forcing a national team to work together every day, at the expense of individual player development, as well as with the added pressure of playing every game effectively with your job on the line, might not be the ONLY way forward. And in the Netherlands, players earn their living through their club sides, but this is due to a strong infrastructure within the game that is not mirrored anywhere else in world hockey.
The bronze medal match was another battle between a fully centralized program, the Australian Hockeyroo’s, and a part-time/partially funded program, Spain. And again the underdog prevailed. Spain played like a team with nothing to loose, defeating the Aussies in battle.
Ireland should be mighty proud of their heroic achievement. From the passion, excitement and noise from the green in Lee Valley, to the welcoming the team received when they touched ground in Dublin, we know they feel beloved by the country.
The last time Ireland even qualified for a World Cup was in 2002. If there is funding available from the National Governing Body as a result of this year’s performance, then it should be readily accepted by Hockey Ireland, with the players hopefully never having to cover their own expenses again. However, they might want to think twice about turning professional if the opportunity does ever arise.