Belfast Telegraph

Meet the Northern Ireland hockey stars who are on the verge of conquering the world

By John Flack

They have defied the odds to stand on the verge of glory. Today, Ireland's women hockey players aim to book their place in the World Cup final - with six Ulster players part of the quest.

Ireland play Spain in their semi-final in London today in the biggest day in the sport's 130-year history in Ireland as the team continue their fairytale.

Regarded as a minority sport, hockey's profile has surged in the last two weeks, leading to front and back page headlines for the Green Army, as they are known.

They travelled to London ranked 16th, and most pundits expected them to home early.

Instead the sport's superpowers have gone, among them Argentina and Germany. Also out are hosts England, some of whom struck gold as Team GB at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Putting Ireland's achievement in context, the England players are all full-time professionals and its hockey association budget in the Olympic cycle up until Tokyo 2020 is £17.6m.

Ireland has around 5% of that figure and, bar three players who are on career-breaks and playing abroad, the entire squad work for a living or are students.

Until recently, the players had to pay an annual levy of around £500 per year to cover training, pitch hire and travel costs.

Belfast midfielder, solicitor Lizzie Colvin, said: "We don't mind the sacrifices we have had to make as we all love the sport and it's a dream come true to even be at a World Cup, let alone in a semi-final. We have already exceeded expectations but we don't want to stop now and look forward to putting in another big performance against Spain."

Irish fans have gone to London in their droves since Ulster goalkeeper's Ayeisha McFerran's quarter-final heroics in a penalty shoot-out, when they defeated India.

The 100,000 tickets for the finals weekend were sold out months ago.

However, many of those who had bought tickets were expecting hosts England to have been in the final four weekend. Many have been resold on social media.

Belfast man Davy Frazer, over with his wife and family to support his Harlequins club mates, Lizzie Colvin and Zoe Wilson, has had mixed fortunes.

He said: "I had planned to go home when Ireland got knocked out. So, we decided to stay on when that didn't happen. We managed to pick up the three tickets needed for Saturday.

"But we still haven't got sorted for Sunday's final or bronze medal play-off depending on how Ireland get on against Spain."

If Larne's Ayeisha McFerran gets her way, Ireland will be in the final. She said: "We've grown in confidence with every game and are confident we can get into the final. We've beaten them before and we can do it again."

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