Men’s FIH Series semi-final
Ireland 4 (M Nelson, E Magee, S O’Donoghue, N Glassey) Korea 2 (B Jeon, S Lee)
The Green Machine recorded their first ever win over Korea in a ranking competition to guarantee their place in next October’s Olympic qualifiers with a 4-2 win in the FIH Series semi-final in Le Touquet.
For large tracts, Ireland were the dominant force in baking heat on the French coast as three goals in the minutes either side of half-time had them 3-1 up.
But the world number 17 side have a habit of causing Ireland pain. And Seungil Lee’s goal and a yellow card for Paul Gleghorne meant an intense defensive effort was needed to withstand an onslaught before Neal Glassey finally made the game safe at the death.
Early on, there was little to separate the sides with chances at a premium. Byungjin Kim broke the deadlock from Korea’s first chance, a tamely awarded penalty corner that was cleverly switched left.
Ireland equalised fortuitously before half-time when Matthew Bell’s hit and hope bounced via Sean Murray to a Matthew Nelson whose light touch looped up and in for 1-1 with 11 seconds to go to the break.
After the interval, Ireland started to carve Korea open and had two in as many minutes. First, Daragh Walsh and Ben Walker combined to play in Eugene Magee to gleefully sweep home at the left post.
Then Magee showed all his magic to lift the ball into Shane O’Donoghue’s path and his early shot had just enough on it to catch Jaehyeon Kim off guard.
Ireland looked more likely to kick on from there but were stung out of the blue by Lee’s corner goal. With Gleghorne in the bin, Korea went to 11 outfielders, swapping out their goalkeeper to try and make full use of the overload but the Irish defence was resolute to hold on until Glassey’s late clincher.
“A bit scrappy, a bit dramatic but would we do it any other way,” was goalkeeper and captain David Harte’s summation.
“In a complete picture, we were the better side and ultimately they were just looking to pick off scraps with pc variations and the likes. How we defended in the last 10 minutes when they went to 11 field players, I am incredibly proud of the team and how hard they worked for our ultimate goal of Tokyo 2020.
“The equaliser came at a great time for us, going in at half-time in a really confident mindset and mood. That set us on our way. That’s the style of play we are trying to play, be more dangerous on the counter while our defenders do their job at the back.”
As for getting one over Korea after they wrecked Irish plans in 2012 for London, Harte said that was not really playing on anyone’s mind.
“That’s more a media thing. From our side, there was a nice opportunity to beat Korea for the first time in a world ranking event. 2012 – people can say revenge for this or that but absolutely not. We just focused on what we needed to do.”
John Jackson concurred, adding: “It’s eight years ago now. There’s a little bit of history but so much has happened for us since then so treat it as a distinct different entity.
“You do tap into some of the emotion for some of the guys from 2012 and maybe that is a driver that it doesn’t happen again. Revenge wasn’t on our mind; this is an entirely different team, different circumstances.
“Our ability to fight is an enormous driver that we know we can rely on to get us through tough situations and we have been in plenty of them in the past. We used our experience to get us through this contest. We don’t like to do things easily but it is an Olympic ticket we are playing for so it will never be easy.”
Coach Alexander Cox took to the sideline with a heavy sling strapping his arm to his chest as a shoulder inflammation left him in “a hell of a lot of pain” for the last few days as he struggled to sleep.
He said he was “absolutely proud of the guys” for their efforts in affecting such a strong performance in a clutch moment.
“The last ten minutes were tough as hell but we delivered in the way only the Irish can. Grinding out the win is typically this team. If it goes like this with the work attitude that they have and the grind they have, it’s amazing being their coach!”
In hindsight, the sub-par defeat to Egypt can be reflected on as a seminal moment in this week’s development as the side held clear the air talks in the wake of the 2-1 result.
It is not something Cox wants to see too often, though: “It’s always easy now for me to say it was a positive thing that happened. Maybe it helped but I don’t want it to happen.
“I read a lot about world rankings and us being the ‘highest-ranked team’. That doesn’t say much to me. Compare number 10 to 20, it’s not a big difference. Korea are 17th but it says nothing – they could be nine or eight with the quality they have. It’s just a tough tournament.”
Harte added things “had to change” from that loss: “We came together as a players group, frank and honest open chat and said ‘this is not the Ireland team that we are’.
“We knew we could turn it around but this was always going to be the biggest test for us. The three days in between, we were busy with our homework and getting our training done behind the scenes so we could come out here and perform. Alex put in simple but effective game plan but it has really helped us in the end.”
As for the game plan, Cox said the two-striker, focus on counter plan is coming closer to fruition.
“In the third quarter, we grabbed the game. What I liked today was we knew Korea would be vulnerable in their counter-defence. We wanted to out-play them that way and we did play a lot of counters, not only creating but also moving us higher up the pitch.
“Eugene links really well with Ben Walker and also Michael Robson – who is originally a midfielder.
“It gives us more connections between midfield and attack. You also see because of the forwards we have, we sometimes lack players in the circle which is something we have to be aware of to create danger in the nine-yard [zone].”
For now, Ireland can look forward to the final on Sunday (5pm Irish time) with a victory boosting their chances of a more favourable opponent in the Olympic qualifiers.
Ireland: D Harte, J Jackson, J Bell, E Magee, S O’Donoghue, S Murray, B Walker, D Walsh, C Harte, L Cole, S Cole
Subs: M Bell, L Madeley, M Nelson, N Glassey, M Robson, P Gleghorne, J Carr
Korea: J Kim, N Lee, S Cho, S G Lee, T Hwang, J Lee, M Jung, E Hong, S H Lee, J Jang, K Kim
Subs: J W Cheon, S K Kim, H Kim, J H Kim, J Yang, B Jeon, G Kim