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How Ireland's remarkable journey to World Cup silver medals has instilled belief for Olympics quest

After defying all the odds in London, coach Graham Shaw's team are setting their sights on Tokyo 2020

Picture perfect: Irish team show off their World Cup silver medals after their heroics in London
Picture perfect: Irish team show off their World Cup silver medals after their heroics in London
Applause all round: Ireland’s Zoe Wilson, Grace O’Flanagan and Hannah Matthews thank the travelling fans

By John Flack

It was the biggest sports story of a glorious summer by some distance as Ireland's hockey players defied the odds and even their own modest expectations to lift the silver medals at the World Cup in the scorching heat of London, having exorcised some painful demons along the way.

Three years earlier, Ireland had been denied a place in the Rio Olympics by the width of a goalpost in an agonising penalty shoot-out defeat to China in Valencia.

In reaching the World Cup final, Graham Shaw's squad - made up of lawyers, accountants, students, a doctor and a hockey coach, along with three full-time players - erased that bitter memory by winning penalty shoot-outs against India and Spain to reach the final.

Larne woman Ayeisha McFerran was the heroine in the ice hockey-style one-on-ones as she pulled off save after save in the respective 3-1 and 3-2 shoot-out wins, ultimately clinching her the goalkeeper of the tournament award.

Few people gave Ireland any chance of getting beyond the last eight in London, as they went into the tournament as the second lowest-ranked of the 16 nations and were up against professional outfits in the group stages in England, India and the United States.

In fact, until last year, their Irish counterparts had to pay an annual levy of £500 just for the privilege of representing their country.

Many of them had put their careers on hold, including Nikki Evans, Anna O'Flanagan and Chloe Watkins, while others took unpaid leave from their jobs to take part in the build-up and the World Cup itself.

Shirley McCay, who was joined by fellow Ulster women Katie Mullan, the team captain, Megan Frazer, Lizzie Colvin, Zoe Wilson and McFerran in the squad, was not particularly sanguine about Ireland's prospects going into the tournament, based on bitter past experience.

The 30-year-old Pegasus player had shared the heartache in Valencia in 2015 but had also been in the Ireland squads that had failed to qualify for the Beijing and London Olympics in 2008 and 2012.

McCay said: "To get out of our group would be a great achievement but, put it this way, we'll not be standing on the podium."

It seemed like a pragmatic assessment at the time but such an obvious one that the second part of her statement was never reported - but how wrong we were!

Ireland began with a 3-1 win over the United States with McCay joined by two-goal Deirdre Duke on the scoresheet and, after other results had gone their way, a win over India five days later would guarantee Shaw's girls a place in the quarter-finals.

O'Flanagan's early penalty corner conversion clinched a nervy 1-0 victory as McFerran pulled off several brilliant saves to ensure the initial objective was achieved.

Ireland manager Arlene Boyles was in tears at the final whistle as she was embraced by Shaw, having experienced plenty of heartache in her own international career including a golden goal defeat by China in the deciding match at the qualifying tournament for the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

"I think it was more the emotion of the journey I'd been on and also trying to recognise the journey the girls had been on. I think that's what cumulated in me blubbering like a three-year-old on Graham's shoulder," explained the former Pegasus player on the BBC NI documentary Live like Legends, charting Ireland's incredible journey.

After a 1-0 defeat by England in their final Pool match, Ireland faced India again in the last eight and after a 0-0 draw McFerran performed heroics in a 3-1 penalty shoot-out win with Watkins calmly slotting home the decisive goal.

Next up it was Spain in the semi-finals and O'Flanagan scored a carbon copy of her goal against India but the former Olympic champions equalised to force a shoot-out.

Cue scenes of unbridled joy as Gillian Pinder scored the winner in sudden death after more heroics from McFerran.

Ireland were in dreamland but there was to be no fairytale ending as the World No.1 nation, the Netherlands, won the final 6-0 the following day watched by a capacity 10,500 crowd, the vast majority of them Irish, turning the stadium into a sea of green.

However, deflation soon turned to elation after the final whistle as Mullan recalled.

"Immediately after the game, I had a sense of disappointment when I looked around the stands and saw the Irish people who had spent a lot of time and money coming to London to support us and I felt we'd let them down," said the Ireland captain.

"But they actually were so proud of us and then, 10 minutes later, you're getting a World Cup silver medal put around your neck.

"We were told by Graham in the huddle, 'If you don't go out and enjoy that moment you're going to regret it for the rest of your lives'. It was the best piece of advice we'd ever been given.

"Now we want to back this up by qualifying for a first ever Olympic Games and we all believe we can make it to Tokyo in 2020."

The documentary, 'Live like Legends' will be repeated on BBC2 NI on Sunday at 10pm and is also available on the BBC iPlayer

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