The summer of 2018 will forever be remembered for one of world sport’s most remarkable underdog achievements as the Ireland Women’s Hockey team astonished the world and progressed to the final of the 2018 Hockey World Cup. The global media followed the inspiring story of success against all odds.
Ranked 16th in the world, Ireland were the only amateur team to compete in the 2018 World Cup. The talented squad faced a tough challenge to get past the group stages. History was not on their side as no Irish team had ever competed in a World Cup final in any team field sport.
Indeed the team did not have a main sponsor as the tournament approached. SoftCo had sponsored grassroots hockey for over 15 years and when Hockey Ireland came calling, there was no hesitation. The SoftCo marketing team embraced the challenge and a new partnership was born.
The World Cup kicked off in London on 21 July 2018 in sweltering heat. The team marched directly in the quarter-finals with wins over the USA and India. Ireland again faced India in the last 8 and coach Graham Shaw’s side prevailed 3-1 on penalties, with goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran the hero after making three shoot-out saves.
After Anna O’Flanagan’s goal against Spain in the semi-final was cancelled out, Ireland again went on to hold their nerve in a dramatic shoot-out as McFerran made four crucial saves, before the nerveless Gillian Pinder calmly scored to create history as the minnows made history to reach the 2018 World Cup Final.
The nation came to a standstill for the final. Ireland’s remarkable journey did not quite have the fairytale ending as captain Katie Mullen’s side lost against a world-class Dutch team. It was a truly unforgettable tournament, every member of the squad played their part and Shaw managed to get the best out of a talented group, who sacrificed so much along the way.
The heroes returned with World Cup silver medals around their necks and received the gratitude of a nation with the centre of Dublin packed with well-wishers. They had proved that with commitment, talent and hard work there was always room for the underdog in the demanding world of professional sport. The team won a host of awards for their efforts and not even the Grand Slam-winning, New Zealand-beating Irish rugby team couldn’t beat their hockey counterparts to the Team of the Year award. SoftCo got in on the act with the award for the best Sports Sponsorship of 2018.
Most importantly, the success translated into additional funding for Women’s Hockey. The Irish Government expanded funding to the sport, SoftCo extended its commitment to Irish Hockey and Park Developments came on board with financial support to ensure players could combine international Hockey with educational and professional commitments.
When the celebrations subsided, the next challenge facing the squad and management team led by Arlene Boyle and new Coach Sean Dancer was to achieve another historic milestone and become the first Irish women’s hockey team to qualify for the Olympic Games.
Qualification was decided over two matches against Canada in Dublin in November 2019. The road to Tokyo once again came down to a nail-biting shoot-out. All seemed lost as Canada took a 3-1 lead with two rounds to go. However, Ayeisha McFerran added to her place in hockey folklore with three vital saves while Beth Barr, Chloe Watkins and Roisin Upton showed nerves of steel to win the day 4-3 in sudden death. Ireland’s shoot-out queens were heading to the Olympic Games. While the coronavirus has delayed that Olympic journey, these inspirational women aim to add to their medal collection in Tokyo in 2021.
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