Irish resilience rewarded thanks to Mullan's strike
Ireland 3 Russia 2
Katie Mullan's late winner sealed Ireland a dramatic victory over Russia yesterday in Antwerp and clinched a record-equalling fifth place finish at the European Championship.
The Ireland captain fired home with under three minutes left as her team registered their third win of the tournament after a scrappy affair played in the 'graveyard shift' at 9am local time.
Russia led early on and fought back to level at 2-2 after goals from Sarah Hawkshaw and Nikki Evans had made it 2-1 to the Irish before Mullan struck the decisive blow.
Very often in the past, Ireland have faded towards the tail-end of tournaments but, on this occasion, they finished strongly with two consecutive victories, having beaten Belgium 2-1 on Friday.
Earlier, in the group stages, last year's World Cup silver medallists had been unfortunate to lose 2-1 to England and draw 1-1 with Germany, both higher-ranked teams.
To finish fifth with three wins, a draw and only one defeat was a more than satisfactory return as Ireland's attention now shifts to the Olympic qualifiers.
Mullan said: "The game with Russia wasn't a pretty one and we knew they would come out and look for the win and they made it very difficult for us."
"We were disappointed with the way we started the game but, all in all, it was good for us to have to battle for the win as we had done in the previous game with Belgium to clinch the three points.
"It was a 5.15am alarm which we are not used to but, at the end of the day, we make no excuses as we have to prepare for all the different scenarios in tournament hockey,
"I am really proud of the girls; we are ticking away nicely and looking to prepare now for the qualifiers."
To finish fifth - an achievement Ireland hadn't managed since 2009, having done so four years earlier in Dublin - was a fair reward for their efforts but, with higher expectations since last summer's World Cup when Ireland brought home the silver medals, there were some mixed emotions.
Mullan added: "We were disappointed not to reach the semi-final stage but as soon as that happened, we said we were going to go for fifth and so we are somewhat proud of that."
"The margins are so tight and, on a different day, we might have had that semi-final and a later game today."
Shirley McCay, who was competing in her seventh and last Europeans, can now look forward to her 300th cap ahead of the qualifiers, having made it 295 appearances yesterday.
The 31-year-old, who set up both goals in Friday's win over Belgium, is set to retire from international hockey after the Tokyo Olympics, should Ireland qualify.
McCay believes Ireland are certainly capable of doing so, her confidence and that of her team buoyed by a series of good performances at the tournament which was won by the Netherlands, who beat Germany 2-0 in the final. The Pegasus defender said: "If you told us before the tournament, we'd win three games, draw one and lose one, we'd have taken that."
"The Russian game certainly wasn't our best display and, without making excuses, not many of us got a good night's sleep before the match as there were a lot of noisy celebrations going on until the early hours after Belgium won the men's final."
"But I think we are a better team than the World Cup now and we've a real drive both in attack and defence, not that we didn't have that last summer.
"I think we probably rode our luck last summer but at this tournament, while we also got lucky at times, we also created our own performances and our own victories.
"On another day, we could have been getting draws and wins out of those games against England and Germany and maybe getting to a semi-final.
"That's tournament hockey and to have finished fifth after that is maybe slightly disappointing but the future of this team is bright."
"We were delighted with our overall performance and being able to win ugly and grind out results and it's so important we take that into the qualifiers.
"I firmly believe that we're a better team than we were a year ago." In yesterday's game, both teams had difficulty retaining possession in an uneventful opening period with few chances at either end.
Bogdana Sadovaia gave Russia a 23rd minute lead from a penalty corner before Evans equalised from close-range after latching on to an overhead pass.
With 10 minutes left, Evans set up Hawkshaw to make it 2-1 but the Russians fought back to equalise through Aleksandra Leonova from another set-piece two minutes later.
Mullan hit the winner in the 58th minute, sweeping home an Anna O'Flanagan pass from close-in.
Results: Pool C: Ireland 3 (S Hawkshaw, N Evans, K Mullan) Russia 2; Belgium 3 Belarus 1; bronze medal match: Spain 1 England 1 (Spain won 3-2 in penalty shoot out ); final: Netherlands 2 Germany 0.