Belfius EuroHockey Championships
Women’s Pool C: Belgium 1 (A Ballenghien) Ireland 2 (B Barr, A O’Flanagan)
All-time top scorer Anna O’Flanagan added another vital goal to her memorable collection to earn Ireland a 2-1 win over Belgium that all but secures safety for the 2021 edition of the European Championships.
It came with just 80 seconds to go against the hosting Red Panthers, stunning a half-full stadium as the home fans stayed away with no semi-final to look forward to.
For O’Flanagan, she gambled, ghosting in behind the last defender as Nicci Daly’s touch flipped into her path after a remarkable Shirley McCay pass, volleying in by Aisling D’Hooghe.
The striker joked the ball should never have come her way as the Irish bench implored McCay not to risk taking on her high tarriff backhand cross, suggesting a clean strike was a one in a hundred chance.
Belgium went to video, perhaps shocked at how perfectly it flew into the middle, giving the crowd a slo-mo glimpse of a lovely piece of skill.
It crowned a topsy-turvy game in which Ireland started slow, adjusted their press to dominate and take the lead via a smart corner move.
Belgium had produced some stirring stuff in the first few minutes with Jill Boon whipping a backstick shot at goal while Alix Gerniers and Louise Versavel were causing danger. Shirley McCay was required to clear another out from the goalmouth before Ireland got their bearings on the counter.
Barr gave them the lead in the 11th minute from a clever corner move, Roisin Upton switching to the injector McCay whose cross was tipped in by Barr.
A trio of Irish corners were blocked – one of which was given as a stroke but then reduced to a corner by video – before Belgium came back into contention. Boon’s sharp pick-up and shot on the turn tested Ayeisha McFerran and the forward against found only the goalkeeper’s pads from a clever leading run and first time touch.
The second half continued in an open fashion with Ireland having three shots in succession before Boon renewed her rivalries with McFerran. Deirdre Duke was found brilliantly by Pinder but D’Hooghe saved well while an Anna O’Flanagan corner went over.
The equaliser came in the 43rd minute as Gerniers drove around the circle and in the right channel before crossing, finding Ballenghien for a simple finish, 1-1.
It left the game on a knife-edge going into the final quarter where the Belgian hosts made most of the play, especially when Nikki Evans was shown a yellow card.
Ireland survived that spell and duly found a winning goal with just over a minute remaining when McCay delivered a perfect cross from the left wing into the centre. Nicci Daly’s touch lifted the ball into the path of O’Flanagan who touched in the winner.
It puts Ireland with a point of equaling their best ever finish in Europe, fifth, the new target after the semi-final dream slipped away on Wednesday.
“We had a point to prove; we were really close to getting into a semi-final for the first time for Ireland,” O’Flanagan said.
“We missed so narrowly but now we want to get fifth in the tournament. When it went to 1-1, we had to dig deep and were resilient. We knew a chance would come and we had to take it.”
It was also important to show they belong at this level with expectactions significantly raised since last summer’s World Cup silver.
It is something the side is acutely aware of and so a pressurised win against a top ten side was needed.
“We have a new ranking now; when you are 16th, its ok to play above that. Now, its really important for us to play at our ranking and we’ve done that at this tournament.
“Doing that at this tournament at that new level, it’s really promising. We narrowly missed out against number four and five in the world but have beaten a team around us. That’s what we need to in October’s Olympic qualifiers as well.”
Coach Sean Dancer, meanwhile, added it was important to perform in a high pressure environment: “We haven’t spoken too much about [relegation]. It’s all about performance and trying to get better every game, execute under pressure.
“We’re getting there but there is room for improvement. The qualifying games at the end of the year are cut throat and we have to be better. This is part of steps forward we need to be making.
“The tournament is very tough but a great opportunity to keep learning. It is very hard to replicate games like this and getting through a situation like this is really good.”
Hannah Matthews agreed, adding that having this kind of gritty win under their belts will be a big psychological boost.
“Number one target would have been to qualify from this tournament but, long term, that is the big focus. We have to use these experiences. It is so hard to get these high pressure games organically so we really want to have them in the memory bank when we go there, knowing you could pull it out of the bag.
“The results in the group were really disappointing but, in the context of the whole year, we’ve done really well with some consistent performances as a squad. Big picture, this is a good tournament for us.”
The Irish men, meanwhile, have a stressful day ahead of them. They could be relegated if England and Scotland draw in the first game on Saturday morning in Pool C.
A win for either will open the door for Ireland but they must win against Wales, potentially by a couple of goals, to stay afloat.
Belgium: A D’Hooghe, S Limauge, J Vandermeiren, E Puvrez, L Versavel, B Nelen, S Vanden Borre, P Leclef, L Hillewaert, J Boon, A Ballenghien
Subs: A Raye, A Fobe, A Gerniers, A-S Weyns, M Struijk, E Picard
Ireland: A McFerran, N Evans, K Mullan, S McCay, L Tice, B Barr, C Watkins, L Colvin, A O’Flanagan, Z Wilson, D Duke
Subs: R Upton, G Pinder, N Daly, H Matthews, S Hawkshaw, A Meeke, L Murphy
Belfius EuroHockey Championships (Irish time; Wilrijkse Plein, Antwerp)
Saturday, August 23
Pool C: Ireland v Wales, 2.45pm
Sunday, August 24
Pool C: Ireland v Russia, 8am