Shirley McCay proud to hit 300-cap milestone as Ireland eye Olympic place
Having made an inauspicious start to her international career against Canada in 2007, the wheel has turned full circle for Ireland defender Shirley McCay.
The Pegasus player will win her 300th cap in the first leg of the Olympic qualifying double-header also against Canada at Prestigia Park in Donnybrook tomorrow night (7pm).
Ireland are bidding to make it to an Olympics for the first time and go at least part of the way to soothe the lingering pain that surrounds the men's failure to make it to Tokyo in controversial circumstances last Sunday in Vancouver.
McCay, who works as a talent coach with Ulster Hockey, laughs when she recalls her debut against Canada at a tournament in South Africa all those years ago.
"My first touch of the ball didn't actually materialise, it hit my foot after I saw this lovely first-time pass down the line and I totally missed it," she smiled.
Fast forward 12 years and McCay will be hoping to play a more influential role in the Canada games this weekend when she achieves her own personal milestone.
"It's fairly surreal and pretty special, but while I am not one for the spotlight, I am really proud and I think it's come as a result of a lot of hard work and dedication - that's the thing I am most proud about," she said.
McCay, who hails from Drumquin in Co Tyrone, hopes she has become something of a role model, especially after helping Ireland lift the silver medals at last year's World Cup in London.
"When you're younger and you're playing, you don't really see yourself in that way, but when you get older, and especially in my line of work, it is noticeable that people maybe look up to you," she added. "That's something really special and a legacy that we can leave behind in that we are inspiring young girls and boys to take up the sport and aspire to playing international hockey."
McCay will be attempting to banish the bitter memories of three previous failures to qualify for an Olympics, dating back to 2008 when a shock defeat by Italy ended the dream of a place in Beijing.
A 4-1 loss to Belgium four years later, with London 2012 at stake, was followed by the heartache of Valencia in 2015 when a penalty shoot-out loss to China denied Ireland a place in Rio.
"My particular memory is from the first one in Canada in 2008, to qualify for Beijing. I remember wondering what everyone was so upset and disappointed about," recalled McCay.
"It didn't really dawn on me until years later, that for a lot of those girls that was their last chance and they weren't going to get that opportunity again.
"So a big learning curve for me was that you should never take those opportunities for granted."
McCay's silver medal that she collected at last year's World Cup is her most prized possession, but that would be surpassed by a ticket to Tokyo for a first Olympics, which would signal the perfect climax to an outstanding international career.