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Comment: Underfunded Ireland's fairytale World Cup run should entice sponsors into hockey

 

By Graham Hamilton

It was 30 years ago that hockey in Ulster and Ireland reaped major benefits when Stephen Martin and Jimmy Kirkwood returned home with gold medals as part of Great Britain's Seoul Olympics team.

Well, the sport's profile here is about to rise considerably again, as we await the return of the Green Army from London with world silver medals hanging round their necks.

It matters little that they crashed 6-0 to pre-tournament favourites Netherlands in yesterday's World Cup final - what they achieved up to then was way beyond what anyone could have expected.

Going into the tournament ranked 15 out of the 16 nations, underfunded and with just a fraction of the budget of their rivals.

Yet Graham Shaw's squad, with six of them from Ulster, defied the odds by taking on five teams ranked well above them on the world ladder and making it all the way to yesterday's decider.

A fairytale, a dream come true.

Their only defeat during that incredible run to the decider was a slender 1-0 reverse against hosts England who not only are currently the World No.2 but also had eight of Great Britain's Rio Olympic gold medallists in their squad.

But Shaw and his backroom team always pay meticulous attention to detail and had the girls well prepared, and well versed on what tactics were needed against each of their opponents.

I recall Shaw as a valuable member of the men's international team, winning 151 caps and a regular driving force from midfield.

When he hung up his hockey stick, out came the coaching manual and he had success with Loreto women and Glenanne and Monkstown men before becoming the women's senior international head coach after a short spell as Darren Smith's assistant.

He knew the limitations of what effectively are amateur players in a professional sport, but he set out his stall accordingly and inspired them to be positive.

When you have a quality goalkeeper, a solid defence, a hard-working midfield, the unselfish running of the forwards, a wonderful camaraderie throughout, and a belief that you are better than your world ranking suggests, then the predicted early flight home after three pool games was never going to happen.

Mind you, we didn't anticipate the Green Army finishing top of their pool to go straight through to the quarter-finals, and then those memorable shoot-out successes against India and Spain to reach the decider.

OK, some critics may say the draw opened up for them, just like it did for England in football's World Cup in Russia earlier this summer. But, hey, you can only play who is put in front of you.

And so the back pages north and south of the border have been rightly filled with plenty of hockey copy, and it's important that the sport takes full advantage of this rise in fortune, particularly as the women are likely to soar into the world's top ten just like the men whose World Cup campaign begins in India in November.

Here's hoping this memorable run brings better funding all round for the sport and that more sponsors seize the opportunity to come on board.

Belfast Telegraph

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