“To beat England at all is pretty noteworthy… but to achieve the feat at Wembley is really something out of this world.”
So goes Vera McWeeney’s Irish Times report of one of Irish hockey’s most famous days.
With the sad passing of Hockey Ireland Hall of Famer Anne Laing in late March this year, lockdown gave some time to sift through the annals of the inductees with one date a recurring entry: March 10th, 1973.
Laing was the original shot-stopper from Larne, a mantle she gladly handed over to Ayeisha McFerran after the 2018 World Cup.
Her performance against England was close to being her swansong after 13 years and 32 caps and was certainly among her most memorable of a fine career.
“What can one say about Miss Laing?” McWeeney continued. “She had our hearts in our mouths on occasion as she appeared to have been beaten completely yet, somehow or other, she made her clearances or conceded corners but only once let the ball through legally.”
Fresh-faced 16-year-old Maggie Gleghorne, on debut, struck with 10 minutes left to nick a 2-1 win at the home of English football, silencing well over 60,000 – other estimates pegged it at over 80,000 – shrieking schoolgirls with just a pocket of Irish kids filling the void.
It kickstarted a golden era that would lead to an Intercontinental Cup title, two World Cup appearances and the 1977 Triple Crown.
No doubt many of the World Cup heroes of 2018 will soon join the likes of Laing and Gleghorne – and Jenny Givan and Gwen Doherty – in the Hall of Fame. The London setting provides a neat piece of symmetry to a special moment in front of one of the biggest crowds in women’s hockey history anywhere in the world.
From 1951 to 1991, Wembley opened its doors to hockey for one day in March. Buses hoovered up schoolgirls from every corner of England – a St Trinian’s style army in full uniform – with the intention of making as much noise as possible on their daytrip.
The organisers were aware it could get raucous; the programme book politely requested “everyone can see and enjoy it only if all STAY IN THEIR SEATS”, adding “please remember too much noise is distracting for the players”.
Few paid attention with Top of the Pops presenter Ed “Stewpot” Stewart whipping up the decibel level in a pre-match disco. For the players, it created a surreal setting.
Waiting in the wings, a silver-service fish and chip lunch was being digested in the dining hall under the stand with the noise rumbling above in the stands.
“Even in the tunnel, the noise was deafening,” Jenny Redpath (née Givan) remembers. “It’s difficult to describe; it was like birds shrieking – so high-pitched; it sort of overtook your mind.
“After the national anthems, we were introduced to Roger Bannister. I was standing next to Margaret Gleghorne and both of us were crying. All I could think of was we were supposed to be playing an international here and there are tears flowing down my face.”
Ireland had been the willing guests on three previous Wembley editions, each ending with defeat by an ever-increasing scoreline; 1967 ended in a 7-1 wash-out.
England were an imposing force and would go on to win an IWHFA world championship in 1975; they were led by a genuine Superstar in Val Robinson; in addition to playing for England for 20 years, she won the 1979 and 1981 series of multi-sport television show Superstars.
And they duly looked set to dish out a customary battering.
“England bombarded us,” Redpath said. “I was standing on the pitch and just admiring the pace of the England forwards. I wasn’t really involved in the game; it was like outer-body stuff, watching these fantastic athletes running riot.
“Val Robinson scored and that was us 1-0 down and I still didn’t feel part of it! I thought we were going to be slaughtered!”
But, by fair means and foul, they dug in. Marie Bartlett showed a bit of divilment, saving illegally with her shins. No yellow cards or sin-bins, only a penalty bully which her fellow Limerick woman Gwen Doherty stormed out to block.
“That flicked the switch in my head; the crowd was gone, I didn’t hear them again and was immersed in the match, dropping to a hum or a buzz and I got my focus,” Redpath said of the turning point.
Alison Greer tore up the right, laid up for Redpath who eluded two tackles and slipped in a picture-perfect finish just before half-time.
The English onslaught continued after the break but – with generous help from the woodwork – Ireland clung on until Miss Gleghorne inched her way through and reverse-sticked the ball home.
The small batch of Irish fans
For the players a blur, for the crowd, the shrill tones disappeared but for a small troupe of Irish fans in the rafters with a dozen-strong troupe from Mount Anville among them.
Annette Fortune – a contemporary of Gleghorne’s from Irish schools’ trials – said the clincher was a suitably bizarre end to a weird weekend.
“We were all a bit bamboozled. We were right up in the rafters and you could barely make out the ball. You were hit by this wall of noise but, up till the second goal, they were all just screaming hysterically all the way through… [after the goal] it was the most enjoyable silence!”
Not for the first time the girls from the Sacred Heart school were feeling awkwardly out of place.
A day earlier, the group had arrived too early to the digs with Jesuit priests and so had to kill time. They stumbled on a cinema screening of Prudence and the Pill – a risqué comedy featuring five couples trying to avoid pregnancy by using contraceptive pills.
It was quite the eye-opener for group leader Claudia Tierney – in her first year as a PE teacher – who took on the main role after Yvonne Menton fell ill a couple of days before the big trip.
“People would look at you today like you had two heads when you think of the health and safety, taking a boat and a train. There was no debate; I was just gone 22 but I was allowed travel on my own with the team.
“One of the nuns from the school organised a place connected to an order of some Jesuit priests she knew for us to stay. We arrived early in London on the train and had to kill time; no smart phones or anything like that so we went to a Wimpy, got our burger and chips, and then the cinema!
“Off we go to the match the next day. What I remember most was the packed tube going back to London. I got a shout to say ‘Flanagan’s not on the train’. If that happened to me now, I would pull the emergency chord!
“We arrive at Euston station, not knowing whether to go back or what. And there she was at the top of the escalator! I was never so relieved.
“At the game, we were so far up in the air, it was impossible to see the match. Those were the days of the ball being rolled in for the sideline, bullies on the 25 and you wonder how a goal was ever scored with three people behind for the offside rule!”
Ireland survived the longest 10 minutes of their lives, holding on for that precious 2-1 success. In the context of the Triple Crown, it proved moot with Scotland not travelling to Limerick due to the Troubles in Belfast.
But the occasion remains vivid in the memory.
“I’d love to see it all again but it doesn’t really matter,” Redpath said. “It is all still in my head. Gwen’s penalty save was the major turning point; the goalkeeper was fantastic – totally unorthodox. Marie running out at corners and nothing but nothing was getting past her that day.
“It was the big one! We only got to play there once every five or six years. There was nothing like it. We did end up winning a Triple Crown in 1977 at Londonbridge Road and there was a good crowd but nothing to compare!”
Perhaps it sits more prominently in the memory for Redpath given she missed out on the Olympic Games, too – she was eligible and in training to play for Great Britain in the Olympics in 1980 until the Moscow boycott.
She feels, with the recent Irish women’s successes, the time is right to take a risk and try to recreate these halcyon days.
“It is a fixture I would love to see resurrected again. Especially having seen the girls at Donnybrook at the rugby pitch, it is something we can do – hold a major match once a year to entice 15 or 20,000 people along.
“We are crying out for top matches now and if we can replicate that whole experience, it would be excellent.”