** This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner on Monday morning
Graham Shaw hopes the seismic publicity his Green Army troops created over the last two weeks in the Olympic Park can lay the base for “a changing moment” in hockey’s history.Their odyssey ended with a 6-0 loss in Sunday’s final against a Dutch juggernaut in the final but not before becoming the people’s champions.
The bandwagon brought Aisling Bea, Shane Horgan and Andrew Scott to town, taking their place in the sold out 10,600 crowd. The London-Irish community came out in full force along with planes and ferry loads of fans, scrambling overnight to pick up tickets.
A week before, just three journalists were in situ for the loss against England. Now, the local organisers were forming an overflow section for the glut of new arrivals.
Could they witness one last shock from a wild tournament, one in which the world number 11 Spain had just won bronze? Emphatically no. Lidewij Welten – the world’s best player for 2017 – found an inch of space in the circle and clipped home for an early lead.
Three more followed before the half was out and another two in the opening minutes of the second half. Ireland held firm for the remaining 25 minutes but this Dutch side is one of the most dominant in any sporting arena in the world.
This was their eighth World Cup title, retaining it to add to the World League and European Championships won in 2017. They have not lost a game since the 2016 Olympic final shoot-out.
But Ireland departed the stage with their heads held high, the unpaid side topping a group with three professional outfits before knocking out the higher ranked India and Spain in heart-stopping shoot-outs.
“Don’t judge us on today,” Shaw said of the final. “That Dutch team are miles ahead of everybody in the world right now. Judge us on a silver medal in a worldwide competition. I don’t know anyone in Ireland who can say that, a truly remarkable achievement.”
They did it all with smiles on their faces, frequently describing it “as like Christmas” and asking for people to “pinch me” as their run got more and more surreal.
And they played a blinder with the media, ceding to every request as the coach and the team knew they would never have a better stage to promote the hockey gospel.
“Hopefully this will be a changing moment in our sport,” he said. “Hopefully it a changing moment in these girls lives because they deserve it. We see people in our sport who are iconic in their country for what they have done. These girls now are absolute legends in my book. What an achievement! To come in second lowest ranked and to make a World Cup final is just an absolute dream come true.”The knock-on effect is also tangible. They are assured of moving into the top ten in the world rankings, something that brings a big boost of a possible home Olympic qualifier in 12 months time.
More immediately for Shaw, he has already found out about one new convert with his daughter saying she wants to be a hockey player having never shown any interest before.
He also hopes that it will bring much greater funding, providing leverage to get the resources to allow the team spend more time together.
“We’re second in the world and just played in a World Cup final. It’s now or never. If people can’t get behind the sport now and see what we can achieve and the rewards for the Irish community now, when?
“If we can put long-term strategies in place and a home in place, we can achieve more in future. There is enough talent in Ireland to win medals in this sport, there is no doubt in my mind. It’s about giving them a platform to succeed.
“We’re not the kind of people to stand still. There will be a lot of satisfaction in what we have achieved but we want to make the next step to the Olympic Games and compete there.
“The challenge lies in how often we can get the group together. That’s the big problem we always face. When they’re based all around Ireland, it’s very, very difficult to get them together.
“Then when we do get them together, we’re trying to rent pitches. We end up scattered around as a senior squad, 21s squad, 18s squad.
They’re challenges we now need to overcome. Is it a big gap? No. We’re well capable now of qualifying for Tokyo.
“There is going to be expectation now but with expectation comes opportunity and we’re going to grab this opportunity now, because we want to qualify for Tokyo.“That’s the next aim now. We set out two years ago to qualify for the World Cup and then represent ourselves as well as we possibly can in this World Cup.
“Obviously now we need to build on that. Our next objective when we come together in October will be the Olympic games.”
They will do so with a vastly inflated supporter’s club. Just 80 people took in one of their last warm-up games against Japan at the Mardyke.
This week, they played to five figure crowds three times, each one with the Irish voices by far the loudest. Cardboard signs of “Pinderella will go the ball”, “Thank Heavens for Evans” and “Hockey ár lá” were slung over railings; it was unlike anything the Green Army had ever seen.
“The support has been overwhelming. I mean today felt like a home game. Just an incredible atmosphere and we’re so grateful to the people who travelled over to support the team and we’re so grateful for the support you guys give us.
“It has been an incredible journey and a real dream come true. I’ve kept away from social media in the last few weeks because you can get ahead of yourself, I’ve tried to stay a little bit grounded. I’m just looking forward to getting home and sharing our stories. What a remarkable achievement this has been!”