ESB IHL semi-finals – Hermes 2 (Chloe Watkins 2, one ps) Railway Union 2 (Cecelia Joyce, Kate Dillon ps); Railway win 3-2 on penalties
On what will go down as one of the most memorable days in Irish club hockey history, jammed with incident, controversy, four extra-time deciders and a whole world of talking points, Railway Union were the first side to confirm their place in Sunday’s finals.
In so doing, they completed the set of national finals, taking their place in the IHL decider following last week’s Irish Senior Cup and the Indoor in February.
Their penalty win over Hermes was a truly stunning game, though it ended in unsatisfactory style with the administration of the penalty one-on-one format again a serious issue.
Emma Smyth netted the vital one-on-one but, a round earlier in the shoot-out, Kate McKenna’s effort was the defining moment. With Hermes leading 2-1, McKenna swung left of Emma Gray before reversing into the goal.
However, the whistle to signal the end of the eight seconds allowed in this format seemed to have sounded already, which would have rendered the effort void.
Nonetheless, the goal stood. Helen Stevenson kept out Elaine O’Neill’s next penalty before Smyth held her nerve to take the first final place.
Hermes briefly entertained notions of an appeal but decided better of it, ruing the penalty competition that has ended their dreams for two years running.
It was an unfortunate end to what was a cracking contest between two well-matched sides, facing off for the seventh time this season.
Hermes got off to a flyer, earning a corner inside 45 seconds, Niamh Atcheler drawing an excellent save from Helen Stevenson, and they took the lead in controversial circumstances.
After a goalmouth melee, Anna O’Flanagan found a foot but it looked to be heading well wide. It was deemed in front of goal, though, and Chloe Watkins – with yet another superb all-round performance on the big stage – converted the ensuing stroke for 1-0.
Emma Smyth then saw yellow, denying a quick break when she was tempted to stop an overhead over shoulder height. Upon her return, Railway found their way back into the tie from their first corner when Cecelia Joyce got a brilliant touch to Emer Lucey’s corner strike, ramping the ball high into the net for 1-1 on quarter time.
The second period was more sedate but Deirdre Duke continued to show her menace, smashing a half-volley at Stevenson while Smyth did likewise to Emma Gray.
Railway took the initiative in the third quarter as Hermes were blighted by green cards.
Niamh Atcheler denied Jean McDonnell with a huge tackle as Railway briefly had a three on two before Gillian Pinder was binned for two minutes.
During that time, though, their full press worked well with Aine Connery twice going close.
McDonnell twice drew saves at the near post from Emma Gray before Kate Dillon forced a penalty stroke, her close-range flick giving Sarah Greene little chance but to take evasive action in front of the goal, a brief signal from the umpire on halfway.
Dillon converted in the 44th minute to complete the comeback. Kate McKenna’s reverse and a deflection – along with McDonnell’s twin efforts – both from the left toward Gray’s near post were dealt with before Watkins was sin-binned for not retreating.
But they roared back into the tie in the final quarter, bossing possession and equalising in the 60th minute in brilliant fashion.
It was forged via three teenagers, Gillian Pinder working the ball to Watkins whose turn was sublime to ghost by two defenders and lay off to Duke.
The Alex schoolgirl returned the favour, eliminating the out-rushing goalkeeper and Watkins first-time volleyed into the welcoming net from 10 metres, wonderful touch from the young midfielder.
And in an incredible finale, Anna O’Flanagan terrorised the Railway defence down the right to draw a corner with two seconds left.
It was perfectly worked, Watkins taking a switch and rolling to injector Niamh Atcheler but she deflected right across the face of goal for what would have been the winner. Silver goal passed with few chances of note, precipitating the controversial shoot-out but Railway remain on track for a maiden outdoor national title.
* Deryck Vincent’s photos from the Railway vs Hermes game can be seen here; while post-match interviews with Isobel Joyce and Mick McKinnon can be seen below: