Monday, June 24, 2024

How hot milk and calm shoot-out head lifted Ireland women’s hockey

In an extract from new book Great Irish Sports Stars: Ayeisha McFerran, Ireland’s No 1 recalls a key moment in Green Army’s rise

Unlike most of the girls on the Irish team, Ayeisha wasn’t a fan of coffee. She found a drink of milk to be more calming, especially on a big match day.  

Before the team talk in the Killiney Court Hotel on the day of the Hockey World League 2 semi-final, Ayeisha ordered a glass of hot milk from the hotel reception. She lingered around the foyer, waiting for it to arrive, but it never came.  

During a key moment in the meeting, when Head Coach Darren Smith was addressing the team, there was a knock on the door.  

‘Hot milk – did someone order a hot milk?’ a short, elderly lady called out, scanning the room for any takers.  

Ayeisha melted like cheese into her chair, her face turning a beetroot colour.  

‘Me,’ she said timidly with her arm raised up in the air. The girls on the Irish team all sniggered. Darren was unimpressed by the interruption, and stopped the meeting as Ayeisha was delivered her hot milk.  

The milk must have done the trick though, as Ireland defeated Belarus by seven goals to nil, winning a place in the final against Canada.  

The final was being played at home in Belfield. If they beat Canada, they would not only be League 2 winners, but would have a chance to play in the qualifiers for the Rio Olympics. Ayeisha made sure she was sitting up and paying full attention at the final team talk – no milk had been ordered.  

As they all listened carefully to Darren, a knock came at the door. ‘Hot milk – did someone order a hot milk?’ the same lady said, sneaking into the room.  

Ayeisha began to slide down in her seat as the lady approached her. ‘But I didn’t order any milk,’ Ayeisha said awkwardly, feeling all eyes again upon her.  

 ‘That’s for me,’ Head Coach Darren called from the top of the room.  

The room erupted into laughter.  

‘For good luck,’ he said, raising the glass and winking at Ayeisha.  

After the meeting, Ayeisha spoke privately to Darren about her concerns for the Canadian match. 

 ‘Are you sure you want to put me on?’ she asked her Head Coach as he took a sip from his glass of lukewarm milk.  

‘Yes, Ayeisha, if it ends up being a draw and goes to a shoot-out, then you’re on,’ Darren replied as he erased the match game plan off the whiteboard.  

In goalie training with Nidge, Ayeisha had demonstrated how quick and agile she was at doing shoot-outs. The other goalkeepers on the squad were amazed at how good she was.  

But Ayeisha knew that doing shoot-out drills over and over again was completely different to doing it in a tournament. During the Canadian match, Ayeisha paced up and down the sideline, watching closely how each of the Canadian players behaved with the ball, in case any of them came up against her in a penalty shoot-out.  

With minutes to go in the final quarter, her coach sidled up next to her and said, ‘Put your helmet on, it’s time to get ready.’  

When the full-time whistle blew, Ayeisha was already waiting by the corner of the pitch, ready to go on. As she walked over to the goal, the packed crowd in Belfield started calling out her name. 

 ‘That’s weird, how do they know my name?’ she wondered, looking at the sea of faces all watching her as she moved into goal.  

The first Canadian penalty shooter spun around as she arrived at the kickers of the Irish keeper. Ayeisha stepped back, disappearing out of view. The player turned again, only for Ayeisha to swoop in and kick the ball away off the pitch.  

The shoot-outs came fast and furious, each team desperate to win. Ayeisha reminded herself what Nidge had said: stay up, don’t dive and don’t let the ball in. Each taker had eight seconds to attempt to score, but Ayeisha had her own rule – she would ignore the eight-second whistle and fight until the ball was either saved or sent wide.  

When Ayeisha saved the final shoot-out, Ireland had beaten Canada and won the Hockey Women’s League 2. They would now have a chance to qualify for the Rio Olympics! 

Great Irish Sports Stars: Ayeisha McFerran by David Caren (The O’Brien Press, £7.99) is out now in UK and Ireland outlets

Total Hockey


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