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Irish handed a Euro boost as Ayeisha McFerran is passed fit

 

Big return: Ayeisha McFerran is fit once again
Big return: Ayeisha McFerran is fit once again

By John Flack

Ayeisha McFerran has been passed fit for tomorrow's European Championship opener in which Ireland take on England in Antwerp, representing a huge boost to the national team's chances of pulling off an upset.

The Larne woman, voted Goalkeeper of the Tournament at last year's World Cup in London where Ireland defied the odds to lift the silver medals, had been suffering from a quad injury which forced her to miss the last four build-up games against Italy and Belgium.

McFerran will need to replicate the sort of form she displayed in London last August if Ireland are to have a chance of ending a dismal run against England and upsetting the form book once again.

Now with top Dutch club KV Kampong after finishing her studies on a four-year hockey scholarship at the University of Louisville, she performed heroics throughout the World Cup campaign, especially in the penalty shoot-out wins over India and Spain in the quarter and semi-finals respectively.

Ireland's last meeting with England came in London just over a year ago when McFerran was in outstanding form, and was beaten only by a wicked deflection as the hosts won 1-0.

The sides have met six times in previous European Championships, with England boasting a perfect return, scoring 20 times and conceding only twice along the way.

However, there is a glimmer of hope that Ireland are capable of causing an upset as England are going through a transitional phase and finished their campaign in the elite PRO League eighth out of nine teams.

They are, of course, the reigning Olympic champions but have only seven of the squad that beat mighty Netherlands on penalties in the final in Rio in 2016.

With a must-win game against Belarus on Monday and a potentially tougher test against Germany on Wednesday to come in the group stages, it's imperative Ireland secure a positive result tomorrow if they are to have a chance of reaching the semi-finals.

New head coach Sean Dancer, who moved from the lead role with New Zealand women to replace Graham Shaw, who went in the opposite direction, has introduced a more attacking style in his seven matches in charge to date.

Ireland captain Katie Mullan has always insisted that Olympic qualification remains the priority but she is also eyeing a semi-final place at the Euros which would be a first for the national team.

The Coleraine woman said: "We will concentrate on our strong base in the defence which has proved successful in the past and when going forward, the aim will be to try and get more outcomes in the circle.

"We go into the tournament as the fifth-ranked team but we know only too well from last year's experience at the World Cup that rankings count for nothing.

"In a tough group, we will probably have to win two out of our three games to reach the semi-finals and there's a big incentive to come out on top.

"The team who wins our group would, almost certainly, avoid meeting Netherlands in the last-four so we will give it our best shot.

"The European Championship is a really tough competition with every match being critical but we are used to that after the World Cup last summer."

Ireland's men start their Euro campaign today when they take on the Dutch reigning champions before what looks likely to be a crucial game for their hopes against lower-ranked Scotland tomorrow.

Fixtures: Today: Women's EuroHockey Championship: Pool A: Spain v Russia (5pm); Netherlands v Belgium (7.30pm). Men's: Pool A: England v Wales (10.15am). Pool B: Germany v Scotland (12.30pm); Netherlands v Ireland (2.45pm).

Tomorrow: Women: Pool B: Germany v Belarus (8am); England v Ireland (10.15am). Men: Pool A: Spain v Wales (12.30pm); Belgium v England (5pm). Pool B: Ireland v Scotland (2.45pm); Germany v Netherlands (7.30pm).

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