Echo Sports Replay: Matthews recalls magic of Ireland’s World Cup adventure and reaching Tokyo
By Stephen Leonard
IN 2018 the Ireland Women’s Hockey team captured the imagination of the nation when they won silver at the World Cup in London.
The second lowest ranked team in the competition, Graham Shaw’s side stunned the hockey world by reaching the final where they were eventually undone by the mighty Dutch.
Hannah Matthews from Terenure (far right) celebrates with her Ireland team mates at the 2018 Women's Hockey World Cup
Loreto Hockey Club’s Hannah Matthews played her part in that amazing journey that included unforgettable victories over the USA, India and Spain and spoke to The Echo about her memories of the tournament and of later fulfilling a dream of Olympic Games qualification for the first time.
“We were actually really relaxed heading into the World Cup because it was the first time that we'd been at a tournament where there were no consequences” recalled Matthews.
“There was no ‘oh you’re not going to qualify for this or you’ll get relegated.’ It was literally just go out, play on the biggest stage you’ve ever played on and enjoy it.
“And I think when we had a look at the draw and had a look at our group and saw how things could shape up, we were confident in ourselves. So going into it we definitely thought we could do better than our ranking.
“One of the highlights of the tournament really was just running out on the pitch and seeing something of that magnitude. We had never played in a competition like that and we got off to a dream start.
“Beating the USA [3-1] was a really big one for us, because we always thought we could compete and get a win against them.
“They were few and far between, the wins we got against them and to do it in a tournament like that was great and then it turned out that the rest of the group struggled a little bit so, yeah, we had a great start in that and it just set us up.
“The match against India was a really tight game. Obviously we had a look at how the rest of the group was shaping up so we knew if we won that game we were straight through to the quarters, so it was a real type of ‘pinch me’ moment.
“I remember standing on the sideline with a few minutes to go and we were 1-0 up and it was like ‘Oh my God! Are we actually going to do this?’
“It was 1-0 against England and I actually scored an own goal. That was another really tight one and we kind of defended for our lives which was a bit of a theme for the whole tournament.
“It would have been really amazing to beat them in their home ground, but it was very relaxed. We knew we had done what we needed to and we were through to the quarter finals no matter what the result.”
Into the knockout stages of the tournament, Ireland added to their tremendous start with two nailbiting penalty shootout wins over India and Spain, Matthews’ Loreto team mate Ali Meeke serving up the most audacious stroke in the former while goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran pulled off no less than six penalty saves between the two games.
“The quarter final against India, that was a nervy one” recalled Matthews. “I remember thinking that if we got through to that semi final, that was going to be like we’ve made history. No other Irish team has done that in a World Cup before, so that was a nervy one, it was a tense one.
“You just don’t know what is going to come out of India. They’re just such skilful players, but Ayeisha was just absolutely on it. She had had such a great tournament up to that point, so I think we were all really confident in her.
“Yeah everyone’s confidence was just in a great place at that stage, so we just backed the girls to go out and do the business [in the penalty shootout].
The Ireland Senior Women’s team celebrate after stunning the world of hockey with their silver medal win at the 2018 World Cup in london having been ranked second lowest side at the start of the tournament
“I saw Ali’s penalty in real time and I just thought ‘God that is audacious!’ I couldn’t believe she’d done it. She even did the little look to make sure it had gone in. But that’s just Ali all over. She’s got such great skill and she’s just so classy so, yeah, that suited her down to the ground.
“It was incredible to make it to the semi finals. It was history and we were the ones who did it. That was something you’re never going to forget. You’ll always be part of the team that did that.
“We were then up against Spain. We play Spain every year, if not twice a year, so we’re really familiar with them and they’re really familiar with us.
“But I think we were quite comfortable playing a team that we knew, that play the type of hockey we’re used to playing against. So that was great.
“I just remember [after the penalty shootout] thinking ‘Oh my God! We’ve got a World Cup medal’. This was insane. We thought we could do well, but I don’t think any of us thought we’d be flying home with a medal.
“It was mental and then there was so little time to get your head around it because I think we were playing the very next day. So it was a mad couple of days.”
The amazing adventure drew to a close with defeat at the hands of Netherlands, but Matthews remembered “I think we just hadn’t really caught our breath after the madness of it all.
“We knew what we were up against and we had prepared for that, but I think we just needed another day to catch our breath, take your time and see this is what you’re up against.
“We thought ‘you never know. If we defend like we have done you always have a chance’. But it was just such a whirlwind really.
“It all just happened very fast and the Dutch were on fire. They were scoring goals for fun. They’re the best team in the World.”
If the Ireland players were stunned by their own achievement on the World Cup stage, they were bowled over by the euphoria of the Irish public and the reception they received on the streets of Dublin upon their return home.
“I just couldn’t believe it” said Matthews. “We were in a complete and utter bubble while we were over there. We just thought that no one was playing attention to us. We were just getting a quick mention at the end of the news or something like that so we really had no clue what was going on at all.
“Our flight had been booked for later that day and then I was getting texts saying, no, I think we might be on an earlier flight because they had stuff planned.
“But no one had any idea of the magnitude of what was planned and to think that that many people came out to Dame Street, it was just incredible. For them to take time out of their day and even people who came out to the airport, it was something I don’t think any of us had experienced before.
“Our club Loreto were so proud of us, win, lose or draw, but yeah, to share it with my clubmates Ali and Dales [Nicci Daly] was really amazing and then to come back and share it with Loreto was great.
“Their support over in the World Cup was incredible and everyone was talking about how great the supporters were, so it was really special to be able to share it with all of them.”
Hannah Matthews (right) with her Ireland team mates
Matthews, who made her senior international debut back in 2014 did suffer her share of heartbreak with the team, most notably in 2015 when they just missed out on qualification for the Rio Olympics following a penalty shootout loss to China.
“Yeah that was really crushing and that was another tournament [2016 Olympic qualifiers] where we out-performed our ranking” recalled Matthews.
“We actually ended up topping our group and it almost threw us in a way because then China, who were a top ten team at the time, on the other side had had a horrendous group stage and we ended up playing them in a match that almost shouldn’t have happened.
“It was really weird the way the tournament played out and to go so close [to Olympic qualification] it was just so devastating.
“After having been on an incredible high after beating America to then being on the lowest of the lows, it was just so hard to pick ourselves back up.”
Yet pick themselves up they did, not only to win silver in the 2018 World Cup, but to also finally fulfil that goal of Olympic qualification the following year when they edged out Canada in another thrilling penalty shootout after having seen their two-leg tie in Donnybrook end in a draw.
“There are a lot of players on the team who have been there for over ten years at this stage and there are a lot of players there from when we tried to qualify for Rio” said Matthews.
“I think we were nervous ahead of the games against Canada, just given the structure of qualification this time- just two matches against one team- so there was really no room for error.
“It was just that unknown. It had never been done this way before. We were one of the last matches to be played, so we had seen other qualifiers being played out.
“We were confident that we were a better team than Canada, but there were definitely a lot of nerves that were hard to shake completely from what had happened the last time [against China].
“All I can remember from the first game was the worst rain in my life. We actually had a bit of momentum in that game, but then in the second half the weather, not to make excuses, you couldn’t really play hockey in it and neither could they.
“The ball wasn’t travelling on the surface so that was really frustrating and it also felt that we had let all our supporters down a little bit.
“There should have been some goals, there should have been some excitement, but that was the way it worked out.
“So people were quite worried [heading into the second game], but I thought ‘you know what, it’s nil-all, it’s just one game now. You don’t have to worry about, oh we’re one-nil up and we need to protect the lead or we’re down and we need to make that back up.’
“So it was actually quite nice for it to be so simple, just go and win the game.”
Yet as had happened so often, Ireland’s resolve was again to be tested in a shootout that would determine who travelled to Toyko.
“You know when the shootout started, it didn’t start particularly well for us and I was very worried” admitted Matthews.
“There’s a picture that just captured all my emotions. I just looked so stressed out, so it wasn’t an enjoyable one to watch.
“The World Cup ones [shootouts] were just like, ‘God this is amazing!’ and the drama of it all, but, no, it was really really tough to watch in Donnybrook and thank God we came out the right side of it.
“It was really really emotional. I think myself and Megan Frazer cried for about two hours afterwards.
“It was such a long, long build-up from when we knew we were playing Canada to when we got to play those two games, so it was a really emotional night, but absolute elation. We had a great time.”
While the team can now look forward to taking their place on the Olympic stage in Tokyo, the delay caused by the COVID-19 crises has been tough for players and management to deal with.
“The delay has been really tough, because we had got to the phase of our programme where we got a lot of the tough training behind us and there was just a trip to South Africa and couple of other trips left where you could really enjoy and feel like you were nearly there.
“I think we all felt like we were so close and now it’s been put off and we have to go through another year.
“It’s really difficult in the lead up to a big tournament like that. There are a lot of things playing on your mind and to go through that again is really tough.
“But I think we’re used to having to train on our own a lot from previous years, and we’ve coped with that quite well.
“But getting to Tokyo is just a way of banishing any of the demons from the past, any regrets that you had from the last time, so we all just really want to get out there.”