There was no difficulty hearing Norma Gartside’s dulcet tones as she delivered a spine-chilling rendition of Danny Boy – the national hockey teams’ anthem before Ireland’s Call took over – as it pierced the Brussels air at around 7.55am on a warm June day in 1991 before the European Championship game with Wales.
There were just a handful of spectators in the stadium on that occasion, the attendance obviously affected by the graveyard shift which is usually the fate of the teams who have to play off for the lower placings.
Three years later however, Ireland’s then manager – who still sings as a hobby to this day – could scarcely be heard above the noise which enveloped the national hockey stadium at Belfield as the anthem boomed out over the speakers when Ireland prepared to take on Russia at 8am at the 1994 World Cup.
More than 3,000 spectators were in the stadium despite the early start and Ireland won the game 3-2 to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon and secure an 11th place finish.
Hockey had finally come home and what an event it was as the Irish Ladies Hockey Union rolled out the red carpet to welcome 12 of the world’s best teams to Belfield.
The glorious weather no doubt helped the attendances which peaked at a capacity 5,000 on most days as spectators packed all sides of the ground, two of which had temporary seating.
Hundreds of noisy school children added to the atmosphere as chants of ‘you’ll never beat the Irish’ and ‘there’s no one quicker than McVicker’ became commonplace.
The latter was in deference to Lynsey McVicker, whose pace wasn’t restricted to the hockey pitch as she was also a talented athlete in her school days at Dalriada in Ballymoney.
A dedicated and selfless band of volunteers, some of whom didn’t see a ball struck, made sure everything went smoothly and the smiling faces that greeted you as you entered the stadium will be a lasting memory.
Off the pitch, ceol agus craic was the order of the day (and night) with impromptu traditional music sessions keeping fans entertained and plenty of refreshments available in the many temporary marquees that had been set up.
On the pitch, Ireland, captained by Cork Harlequins’ Sarah Kelleher, didn’t pull up any trees as they drew two and lost three of their group matches to enter the play-offs for ninth-12th place.
England, who were having a disastrous tournament by their own lofty standards, were up first and McVicker’s equaliser in a 1-1 draw forced a penalty shoot-out which Ireland lost 2-0 after a bit of earlier insidious/astute preparation from the opposition (delete as applicable).
Norma Gartside takes up the story explaining: “England had asked us for a warm-up game before the tournament at Grange Road which, of course, we accepted.
“They then asked us if we wouldn’t mind playing them in a penalty shootout after the game and we thought nothing more about it at the time.
“However, after they had beaten us in the shootout in the World Cup game, their manager told me that they had videoed our strokes in the warm-up match so they knew what to expect from ours.
“Let’s just say, we weren’t happy and Sandra O’Gorman, who was later named as goalkeeper-of-the-tournament, was livid when she heard about it.
“I know these days everybody videos virtually everything but, back then, it wasn’t the norm and we felt it was a little bit sneaky.”
That left Ireland with Russia to play for 11th-12th place and the hosts won 3-2 to finish off the tournament on a high.
Gartside added: “We firmly believed that we’d be lucky to have the proverbial one man and his dog at the game such was the early start but how wrong we were.”
“Looking back we did really well, considering we had only qualified as hosts and the whole tournament was a marvellous experience for all involved.”
Of the 16-strong squad, Tamara Macleod (formerly Strong) is the only player still to be lining out at the top level as a regular with Ards in the EYHL.
Ireland 1994 squad: Sandra O’Gorman, Alison Vance (GKs); Gail Stevenson, Laura Brown, Jeanette Turner, Shirene Young, Tamara Strong, Judith Chapman, Caroline Craig, Karen Humphreys, Mary Logue, Sarah Kelleher (capt.), Lynsey McVicker, Rachael Kohler, Julie Stewart, Teresa Hurley; coach: Terry Gregg assistant: Peter McCabe.
Results: v Argentina lost 3-0; v Spain: drew 1-1; v South Korea: lost 2-0 v Australia: lost 4-0; v Russia: drew 0-0.
9th-12th place play-offs: Ireland 1 England 1 (England won 2-0 on pens); Ireland 3 Russia 2; final: Australia 2 Argentina 0.
In 2002, Ireland’s last appearance at a World Cup, it was current team manager, Arlene Boyles, who was our unlikely top scorer, pipping Hermes’ striker Jenny Burke by five goals to three, all of them coming from penalty corners.
The 1994 version came too early for the pair and Boyles drew the curtain down on her career after the trip to Perth, Australia where she won the last of her 129 caps.
Ireland only secured their place in the tournament after recourse to the Court of Arbitration for Sport following a penalty controversy, much more complicated than the one which they had faced against the English in Dublin.
Lithuania won the shootout after a draw in the qualifying tournament in Amiens to deny Ireland the last place in Perth – or so they thought.
But the officials failed to change the order of the penalty takers in sudden death as the rules dictate and the FIH asked the teams to do it all again the following day after an Irish protest.
To their cost, Lithuania didn’t accept the decision and didn’t turn up for the rearranged shootout and, cutting a long story short, Ireland were awarded with a place in the Australian sun.
Once again, Ireland beat Russia to avoid the wooden spoon, Burke’s 66th minute winner earning a 1-0 victory.
A 17-year-old Alex Danson, who has gone on to bigger and better things, was among the scorers as England beat Ireland 3-1 for starters with Boyles netting the consolation.
Further losses followed against USA, Australia, Holland, Spain, Japan and South Africa in the group stages.
That left Ireland in the 13th-16th place play-offs and following a 4-3 loss to Ukraine, the Russians were defeated in a tight contest as Riet Kuper’s side again avoided the ignominy of finishing last.
The Irish press corps was again out in force as I was joined by Mary Hannigan (Irish Times), John Stokes (Irish Independent) and Gary Moran (RTE).
Although the Australian summer weather did help raise spirits, Perth is no Dublin and, once the work was done, finding a place to have a drink to wind down was to prove difficult after 9pm.
The city’s laws dictate that food must be purchased in order to buy alcohol and we ended up being found out by the time the third night came along, having ordered one portion of potato skins between four of us previously!
So, Dublin was a clear winner on most counts as far as Ireland’s two most recent World Cup adventures are concerned.
Hockey, unlike the football World Cup trophy, is coming home to England over the next couple of weeks, but London will have a hard act to follow after the joys of Dublin 94.
It was wonderful, just wonderful and made me so proud to be Irish!
Ireland 2002 squad: Tara Browne, Angela Platt (GKs); Arlene Boyles, Jenny Burke, Linda Caulfield, Eimear Cregan, Karen Humphreys, Rachael Kohler (capt.), Laura Lee, Pamela Magill, Claire McMahon, Lynsey McVicker, Ciara O’Brien, Jill Orbinson, Daphne Sixsmith, Linda O’Neill, Katherine Maybin, Catherine Murray.; coach: Riet Kuper; assistant coach: Graeme Francey.
Results: v England: lost 3-1; v USA lost 2-1; v Australia: lost 2-1; v Holland: lost 6-0; v Spain: lost 2-1; v Japan: lost 1-0; v South Africa: lost 6-0; 13th-16th play offs: v Ukraine lost 4-3; v Russia: won 1-0; final: Argentina 1 Holland 1 (Argentina won 4-3 on penalties).