“Best ever” win gives Ireland Olympic shoot-out

Athlon Car Lease FIH Road to London, women’s Olympic qualifying tournament
Ireland 3 (Audrey O’Flynn 2, Alex Speers) Spain 2 (Barbara Malda, Carlota Petchame)

Both Alex Speers and Gene Muller described Ireland’s gritty 3-2 win over Spain as the best of their Irish careers as they moved Ireland to within one game of the Olympic Games.

But Irish captain Speers was keen to say the job is only “half done” despite leading her side to their biggest result in recent times.

She scored the vital third goal in Ireland’s 3-2 win over Spain yesterday in Kontich, Belgium and can now look forward to a play-off on Sunday for an Olympic berth with the host nation.

Audrey O’Flynn had Ireland in dreamland in the sixth minute as she flashed home a high drag-flick but Barbara Malda responded within a minute.

Spain had the ball in the net once more from a corner – harshly awarded in the first instance as Carlota Petchame kicked the ball into Sinead McCarthy’s foot – but the claims for a goal were half-hearted with a foot the decision.

While Spain had more possession of a scrappy half, Ireland could have been back in front had the unmarked Aine Connery and Lisa Jacob been able to outfox Maria Lopez de Eguilaz.

No matter, O’Flynn nailed her seventh corner of the competition low for a 2-1 lead at half-time, Nicci Daly doing an immense series of digs down the right wing.

It never looked likely to be enough for Ireland as Spain piled forward with Gloria Comerma and Carlota Petchame probing at every opportunity while Malda screeched a gilt-edge chance wide.

With Ireland down a player at one particular corner for breaking the line, solo runner Shirley McCay did wonderfully to block a corner slap-shot.

But, amid a spate of Spanish sin-binnings, the favourties were caught cold with seven minutes to go. The Spaniards actually had a penalty corner of their own but the immaculate Emma Gray saved, presenting the ball perfectly for Cliodhna Sargent to clear.

Two passes later, Nikki Symmons and Nikki Evans had created the chance for Alex Speers to kill the game off. Her first effort was blocked but Lopez de Eguilaz’ block spun invitingly for Speers to take her time and knock home second time round into an open net.

Petchame got one back with four minutes to go and Irish celebrations were made to wait as O’Flynn took a hefty blow to the jaw when blocking Raquel Huertas’ shot 30 seconds from time.

But Speers says they were never going to give up on what was their biggest ever result.

“We’ve been in big matches but never come out with the result like this so it shows our character and how much we have put into this in the last 18 months.

“We’ve got to where we want to be but the job is only half done. We’ll enjoy the moment now but when we debrief, that’ll be it, finished and looking forward to the final.”

A fourth win in succession, beating the 1992 Olympic champs and tournament top seeds was a different level to victories over minnows Russia, Mexico and France.

The winner was always destined to join hosts Belgium in the final, a factor coach Muller said upped the ante for both sides.

“It was such a high pressure game with so much at stake. It was effectively a semi-final,” Muller said. “Whoever won it was going to play in the final but we stuck to the task, played really well in patches.

“Given the pressure and the stage, without a doubt it was the biggest result of my tenure and the most important game all of these players have played.”

Ireland play Belgium on Friday evening (6pm, Irish time) in a dead-rubber with both sides qualified for the final before meeting again on Sunday in the all-important clash.

** Photos courtesy of Stanislas Brochier

Ireland: E Gray, C Sargent, E Smyth, E Clarke, A Speers, L Jacob, S McCarthy, A Connery, N Symmons, O’Flynn, Colvin
Subs: M Harvey, M Crowley, N Evans, S McCay, N Daly

Spain: M Lopez de Eguilaz, J Menendez, R YBarra, B Bonastre, M Prat, S Munoz, B Malda, P Sanchez, B Perez, G Comerma, G Oliva
Subs: M Lopez, C Petchame, R Huertas, O Pineiro, A Flores

Athlon Car Lease FIH Road to London, women’s Olympic qualifying tournament
Day four results:
Ireland 3 (A O’Flynn 2, A Speers) Spain 2 (B Malda, C Petchame); Russia 5 Spain 1; Belgium 4 France 0
Standings: 1. Belgium 12pts (+21) 2. Ireland 12pts (+13) 3. Spain 6pts (+6) 4. Russia 6pts (-2) 5. France 0pts (-10) 6. Mexico 0pts (-28)

Partners of The Hook