By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)
When the Irish Women’s Hockey team took to the pitch for their opening game in the 2018 World Cup Finals in London, a 3-1 victory over the United States, they were under no real pressure. The were ranked 16 out of 16, but as everyone knows by now, they overcame that to reach the World Cup final, eventually losing to the Netherlands.
In next weeks FIH Series Finals in Banbridge, from the 8th-16th of June, Ireland will be under pressure from the home crowd along with the expectation of the team reaching the next stage of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Ireland will enter the tournament as top seeds, with Korea and Scotland next best.
For goalkeeper extraordinaire Ayeisha McFerran, the Series Finals in Banbridge is a chance to showcase their talents to the locals, something she’s looking forward to doing,
“It’s super exciting to be able to host the Series Finals in Banbridge. Branbridge always put on a great show, so it will be exciting for the North to be able to experience another great tournament, with us women able to show what we are able to do. The irish support we had in London was huge and it definitely was a part of our journey there, but to be able to have more people come to support and see us play in person will make the tournament even more special.”
McFerran knows that after their heroics in London its important for the Irish team to have a good tournament in Banbridge, “It’s very important for us to continue the journey we’re on from the success at the world cup. We’ve had a short preparation time together, but we believe in ourselves and what we can do when we are together.”
Goalkeepers in general tend to be a little on the mad side, particularly Ice Hockey keepers (standing in front of a solid plastic ball that can be hit with great power at you on a consistent basis), but McFerran laughs at the suggestion, “Every goalie has to be slightly mad to stand there and wait for a ball to hit you. I probably fit into the mad tendencies of a goalkeeper, however I have been told I’m fairly normal compared to others.”
Ireland have been drawn in Pool A in Banbridge alongside Malaysia, Singapore and Czech Republic. It’s vital that the home crowd get behind the side from the start, and McFerran acknowledges that, “All 3 teams will have their own unique way of playing that will challenge us. We have been focusing on ourselves as we know no matter who we face, when we have our plan in place we can do damage on any team. The crowd is going to be massive, not just in these three games, but going further on into the tournament. Each individual showing up to support us is going to spur us on even more, as we know they’re a part of the journey too.”
Heading into this tournament the team will have a new management team, following the highly publicised departure of Graham Shaw early this year. While Sean Dancer has been appointed to replace Shaw, he will not officially take charge of the team for FIH tournament, that task will fall to Interim Head Coach Gareth Grundie. McFerran said, “It is a great opportunity for Graham going to New Zealand. Obviously not ideal timing, with how close the qualifiers are, however we still have complete faith in the staff that are still in place, and know they will always put 100% in for us, just like we will for them.”
With Dancer coming in it gives all the squad that extra incentive to catch his eye and cement a place in the starting 11, something the goalkeeper is fully aware of, “Every player in the program always sets out to be the best they can be every time they show up to national training. Yes, I think there will be that added pressure to impress a brand new coach at his first training session, as it will be his first experience of us all, but it’s business as usual when everyone gets on that pitch to train and get better.”
Women’s sport is on the crest of a wave at the moment, following Katie Taylor’s fantastic win over Delfine Persoon to become the undisputed lightweight champion, and rower Sanita Puspure’s gold medal winning performance at the European Championships over the weekend. The hockey team would like to continue that winning trend next week.
Obviously this upcoming FIH Series is all about qualification for the Olympics, but I asked McFerran how special would it be if they achieved it, and if it would trump finishing runner-up in the World Cup. She replied,
“It would just solidify that all the hard word that everyone in the program has done was worth it. Every athlete has the dream to represent their country at the Olympic Games, we know we have the talent and drive to do it, so now it’s about us giving our all to make it onto the plane to Tokyo. I’m not sure if anything would trump that at the minute, I think once were there it will be an experience all of its own. Ask me after 2020 and I’ll let you know if it trumps a silver medal at the World Cup!”
The 23 year-old from Larne was named Goalkeeper of the Tournament in London, a truly special achievement, but she was quick to give praise her fellow goalkeeper Grace O’Flanagan goalkeeping coach Nigel Henderson, “Yeah, it was pretty cool to be name Goalkeeper of the tournament. I never go into anything looking for an individual accolade at the end of something. However, it was definitely something special for myself, but Grace O’Flanagan and Nigel Henderson had a HUGE part in me being able to perform my best throughout most of the tournament, so that award is very much for them as well.”
The huge positive reaction to the teams performance at the World Cup finals in London were overwhelming for the squad, and it’s something the players would love to see repeated if they make the Olympic Games in Tokyo, according to McFerran. “I hope we get to experience something like that again. It has urged us all to be able to get into those big tournaments again. You never want to be that one hit wonder team, and we don’t plan on being it. The support from Ireland was huge, we only hear stories of what was going on because we were in our own bubble in London, but the fact the whole country jumped on the band wagon is great. Not only for us, but hockey and women’s sport throughout the whole island.”
After the euphoria of London McFerran had to head back to the US, to her college in Louisville, missing out on a lot of the celebrations at home. She says it was very difficult to re-adjust to college hockey,
“It was a very quick turnaround to head back to my team in Louisville. It was definitely tougher than expected, as I missed out on a lot of what was going on with the team at home and also trying to maintain the consistent performances that I had in the world cup. It was definitely a challenge mentally, something I will use and learn from in the future. My team and college were very supportive of what Ireland did at the world cup, and for a lot of them to be excited about what I did was pretty cool.”
During her time playing for Louisville she received many individual accolades, including being named in All-American Team of the Year four years in-a-row, and Senior of the year at Louisville.
McFerran is proud of those achievements, “It’s very nice to be recognised by a lot of peer coaches. I set out in each game to do the best that I can for Louisville and the girls I’m playing with, so to be given those accolades throughout my time here is for all the other girls and coaches I’ve played with as without them I wouldn’t have been able to do any of it by myself.”
She recently graduated with a degree in Exercise Science, and says that it was a massive challenge to head stateside at the time but she wouldn’t change it for the world. “It’s definitely been a challenge, both on and off the field. Going to America to play sports was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, as I’ve been challenged mentally. I’m not sure I would’ve got that at many other places. Also, being able to train pretty much as a professional athlete, whilst getting a degree, isn’t something you get anywhere else. The opportunities academically have been endless. First being able to get a degree, followed by the support from advisors, professors and tutors have been top class. It’s definitely been something that has allowed me to build connections throughout the world.
While no decision has been made about her immediate future, McFerran is fully focused on the Series Finals in Banbridge, it is something she hopes to have sorted as soon as possible,
“Nothing has been confirmed as of yet, my main focus until now was to graduate. Now that I’m heading home, I’ll get back into contact with some possible opportunities and see where it takes me.”
Photo Credits: Ayeisha McFerran, Hockey Ireland, Louisville Cardinals