Olympic qualification is the Holy Grail for Ireland, says Tokyo-bound Shirley McCay
Ireland 0 Canada 0 - Aggregate 0-0 (Ireland won 4-3 on pens)
Ireland's women finally exorcised the demons of four years ago last night when they defeated Canada 4-3 in a sudden death penalty shoot-out after a 0-0 draw at Prestigia Park in Dublin to book their dream ticket to an Olympics for the first time.
Goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran was the Irish heroine, saving three penalties in total after Ireland had come from 2-0 and 3-1 down in the first phase.
There were scenes of unbridled joy after the final hooter as the players, including seven from Ulster, celebrated wildly, many of them in tears, watched by a crowd of over 6,000.
It had been a case of so near yet so far in Valencia in 2015 when Ireland were denied a place in the Rio Olympics by the width of a post in a penalty shoot-out defeat by China.
The majority of that squad were involved in the weekend double-header, and for Shirley McCay, who won her 300th cap in Saturday's 0-0 first-leg draw, the sense of redemption was even sweeter.
The 31-year-old Pegasus defender had been through three previous heartbreaking Olympic qualifying failures, stretching back to 2008.
Now she has finally achieved her lifetime ambition, after picking up a silver medal with Ireland at last year's World Cup in London. She said: "It's hard to put it into words but I suppose to say this is our Holy Grail would be a good way to describe it.
"We had a really special summer last year and some might say that was the pinnacle but, for us, that was a driving force to give ourselves an opportunity to go even further and qualify for the Olympics for the first time.
"Obviously I had been through it three times before and this was my fourth go. But I always thought that we would never have so good an opportunity to do something special, we never had so much self-belief that we were capable of doing it.
"Valencia in 2015 was obviously the most raw in terms of how close we came and where we put ourselves to come so close only to fail again and that's been the driving force for a lot of the team that are still there.
"We're obviously a lot more experienced now and we have taken so many learning curves from those missed opportunities and that's why we were determined not to let it happen again."
Ireland certainly didn't have things their own way last night, having difficulty coping with Canada's high press and being unable to retain possession when they moved forward.
McFerran was called into action for the first time when she saved well from a penalty corner in the eighth minute.
Canada threatened again close to half-time when Rachel Donohue's backhand effort flew over.
After a featureless third quarter, Canada forced two penalty corners in the dying seconds but the Irish defence held firm.
Ireland: A McFerran; R Upton, L Tice, Z Wilson, S McCay, B Barr, C Watkins, L Colvin, N Daly, K Mullan (capt,) A O'Flanagan; subs: S Barr, N Evans, G Pinder, H Matthews, S Hawkshaw, D Duke, L Murphy.
Canada: K Williams; K Wright (capt.), D Henning, R Donohue, K Johansen, N Sourissea, S McManus, A Woodcroft, B Stairs, S Johnston, S Norlander; subs: A Lee, E Wong, K Leahy, H Haughn, N Woodcroft, M Secco, R Harris.
• Ulstermen David Ames and Ian Sloan were part of the Great Britain squad that qualified for Tokyo after a 5-2 win over Malaysia in London yesterday completed a 9-3 aggregate victory over the two legs.
Results: Saturday: Women's Olympic qualifier first leg: Ireland 0 Canada 0; Ulster Premier League: Randalstown 1 (C Lee) Banbridge 1 (K McDonald); Lisnagarvey 2 (B Ravey 2) Ards 6 (E Reid, F Brown 2, A Carson, Z Malseed 2); Lurgan 2 (S McClure, J Morrow) Raphoe 1 (L. O'Donnell); Men: Ulster Premier: Bangor 0 Kilkeel 10 (G Russell 2, L Russell 2, D Finlay 3, D Rae, N Stevenson, P Gordon); Newry 3 (J Taylor 2, C McKnight) North Down 1 (S Moore); South Antrim 3 (A Glass 2, C Henry) Portadown 2 (S Johnson, A Stevenson); Intermediate League: Belfast Harlequins 9 PSNI 2; Parkview 2 Armagh 6.