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Green army re-writing hockey history

August 4, 2018

Ireland's incredible World Cup adventure just keeps going. The team that entered the tournament ranked 16th in the world is now guaranteed at least a silver medal after the Green Army won a high energy match against Spain.

"Both teams have great spirit and it is a real shame that one team won't make it to the final," said Spain's Head Coach Adrian Lock, speaking before the game.

Sixty minutes and a tense shoot out later and it was Graham Shaw's Ireland who made it through to the final of the Vitality Hockey Women's World Cup.

Ireland have been re-writing hockey history since they arrived in London and were the first team to make it through to the quarter-finals. They have also been re-writing the script: "We only created that penalty corner routine a few days ago," revealed Shaw, talking about the goal that gave his team the lead.

"We were going to use it against India but we didn't win a penalty corner to use it."

In the match, the Green Army started the sharper, playing with the energy and confidence that has been core to their performance throughout the World Cup.

They won a penalty corner just three minutes into the game after captain Kathryn Mullan fired a speculative pass into the Spain circle. That ball struck a Spanish foot to win the corner. Shirley McCay's strike was deflected by Vitality Player of the Match Anna O'Flanagan through the pads of Maria Ruiz in the Spain goal to give the Green Army an early lead.

Most of the opening quarter was all about Ireland as Spain struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the occasion.

With a minute to go in the quarter, Spain were just starting to play their game. Rocio Gutierrez wove some magic up the right of the pitch, slipping the ball to Carola Salvatella, who was unlucky to tip the ball just around the corner of the goal.

"We are definitely not going to sit back and consolidate," said Graham Shaw at the quarter break. "It's not something we are very good at, we want to go out and score as many goals as we can."

Spain had other plans though, as they continued where they left off, piling pressure on the Ireland defence. The largely Irish crowd groaned as the ball was hammered into the circle by Beatriz Perez and flew into the net but fortunately it was off the stick of Mullan and Perez's hit had been outside the circle.

Xantal Gine nearly scored the most audacious goal of the competition as she chopped the ball backwards through her legs. Fortunately for Ireland the move was seen by Ayeisha McFerran in the Ireland goal and she reacted swiftly to clear the danger.

Deirdrie Duke was unlucky not to put her team two ahead after Nicola Daly and O'Flanagan worked the ball swiftly down the Irish right hand side of the pitch. McCay touched the ball to Duke but her shot flew just wide.

Ireland won their third penalty corner of the game when Nicola Evans put in a shift in the Spanish circle to force the ball onto a Spanish player's foot. The shot was chased down but the Irish will be pleased to have instigated an attack after an onslaught by their opponents for most of the quarter.

The wonderful stick skills of the Spanish players was very much in evidence as the Red Sticks tightened their grip on the game in the second half. Desperately trying to find the equaliser, the Spanish players probed at the Irish defence. The breakthrough came as Georgina Oliva played in a pass that found Perez. The energetic forward dodged the Irish sticks and found Alicia Magaz, who made no mistake as she slotted the ball past McFerran – only the third goal the 'keeper had conceded all tournament, except in shoot out situations.

With 15 minutes left, both teams were more than aware of the opportunity they had to create hockey history. The tension on the pitch translated into a few spilled passes and turnovers were rapid. Nicola Evans had a great opportunity to set Alison Meeke on her way but the pass was just too far ahead of the midfielder.

The final 10 minutes saw Spain really preventing Ireland from playing. Georgina Oliva was controlling the centre of the pitch and her clever passes were constantly putting the Irish defence under pressure.

The excellent Shirley McCay rallied her team, receiving a ball in the face for her efforts. She brushed that off and continued to urge her team forwards.

Oliva was sent off with a green card and this was a crucial loss to Spain as the diminutive midfielder had been at the epicentre of all Spain's attacking play. The drama intensified as Ireland won a penalty corner in the final two minutes. Ruiz was unable to save the shot but, fortunately for the 'keeper, Gutierrez was on hand to clear the ball out.

And so to shoot out. These two teams had both won shoot outs earlier in the competition, with Spain beating Belgium and Ireland defeating India. The psychological advantage of having won a shoot out was nullified by the fact both teams now had knowledge of each other's shoot out tactics.

In an attempt to do the unexpected, Head Coach Shaw changed his shoot out line up and Gillian Pinder stepped up to take on Ruiz. Pinder showed nerves of steel to flick over Ruiz and get Ireland off to the best of starts. Next up was Begona Garcia, who found herself in the unenviable position of facing the hugely talented McFerran. As so often, McFerran won out as Garcia shot wide.

O'Flanagan, Perez, and Upton all missed, but Oliva made no mistake as she shot home to bring the scores level. Chloe Watkins put Ireland back ahead but the most audacious shoot out goal, particularly in light of the pressured situation, was scored by Lola Riera, who lobbed the ball over McFerran's head.

With the scores all equal, the match went to sudden death. McFerran pulled off a magnificent save using her stick to pull the ball out of midair and then it was all on Pinder's shoulders to put her team through to the final. As the entire stadium held its breath, Pinder coolly slotted home and Ireland were through.

Speaking after the game, Graham Shaw said: "What a feeling. I didn't think this would happen. What a group of people, it just shows what can happen when the right people come together. The sport has been phenomenal, people have made the journey here to support us, that's amazing."

A speechless Elena Tice could only say "It was unbelievable."

Once she gathered her composure she said: "In every single game we have battled tooth and nail. We have executed our goals when it mattered, defended our goal when it mattered. We just said in this tournament it was important that we defended from the front.

"We are a young team and we have had to learn quickly. Our forwards set the tone with their energy and our midfield team are so hard working. We are the underdog in every game and in every game it is like we have won the World Cup.

"We are going to fight tooth and nail tomorrow as well. The last bit of our soul will be out on the pitch tomorrow." 

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