The sheer gaiety of the Irish Women’s Hockey team’s unexpected success at the World Cup in England was bewitching. Over the summer, the history-makers went where no other Irish team had ever been before - a World Cup final. Nobody expected any of this. Perhaps that’s why it feels so glorious. Despite being ranked 16th in the world heading into the tournament, Ireland gripped the nation with an unexpected journey, conquering all that was put in-front of them.
Amongst many key performers for Ireland was Ayeisha McFerran, who was fundamental to their success. The 22-year-old from Larne, exhibited phenomenal poise, confidence and talent on the grandest stage to help Ireland make the unimaginable possible.
In the lead up to the World Cup, several ‘expert’ analysts dismissed Ireland’s chances of making it out of their group, let alone reach the final. In spite of this, McFerran asserted that the squad backed their own ability from the get-go. “We set pretty high expectations for ourselves from the start. We had faced the three teams in our group so many times in the past three years – so we were pretty fortunate in that we knew them pretty well.”
In recent years, Ireland had faced their pool opponents on several occasions. The Green Army secured narrow victories against India whilst pushing the USA close in May. Ireland had also notably defeated the USA 2-0 at the World League 3 in Valencia back in 2015, providing the squad with genuine belief.
McFerran added, “I think the main goal was to get out of the group first. We were the second lowest team ranked in the tournament but we knew we could do a whole lot better than what our ranking had to offer. We wanted that crossover quarter-final spot for sure, whether or not we achieved that the way we had envisaged is another story!”
Coach Graham Shaw had made it a priority to get his squad up to international speed. This would mean playing an astonishing 17 warm-up games in just over a month. The Larne shot-stopper attributes this preparation as a big part of their success and growth as a unit. “I think it definitely helped us as a team and we got to know each other more under those match pressure situations. We played 17 warm-up games in total before the tournament started and it was a big help. We got to practice shoot-outs as well.
Going into a tournament you don’t know what you’re going to face, so for me coming up against so many different teams and styles it prepared me for those pressure situations where you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The performances and results on the pitch were remarkable but the manner in which the squad went about their business captured the imagination of millions of viewers. It was evident just how much Ireland were enjoying themselves at the World Cup. There were beaming smiles during the national anthem and the sheer excitement shone through during interviews. The players were living their wildest dream alongside some of their best friends. “Honestly, it was so much fun. We were so fortunate that we all get along with each other -we literally know everything about each other. I think that did kind of help. There’s actually just so many funny stories we have as a squad.
The togetherness we had allowed us to grow as a unit and how it came across from the outside is genuinely how we were, we were so close and it was just great fun from start to finish.”
With the stunning triumph over India in the quarter-finals, euphoria began to sweep the Nation. The success of the National team began to plaster all over social media and news-outlets. The hysteria however, didn’t quite make it into the Irish camp as the team made a conscious effort to keep their feet firmly on the ground. “You hear bits and pieces. We were in such a bubble and the majority of us tried to stay off social media as much as possible. We honestly didn’t know of some of the things that were happening.
I heard stories of cocktails being named after some of the girls and the Galway races being delayed because of the penalty shootout! But we didn’t hear any of those sort of crazy stories until after the final.
We wanted to stay on track and keep grounded. We knew if we got caught up in all the madness we would start getting ahead of ourselves and not take it game by game. I thought we did a really good job in managing that.”
Unsurprisingly, the Irish supporters travelled in their numbers over to London to show support for the Green Army. The 2012 Olympic Hockey Stadium was turned into a sea of green, which even had the Netherlands players in awe of the support.
“The supporters in the stadium were absolutely phenomenal. It’s funny actually, I was chatting to some of the Dutch girls after the final and they were saying that our supporters are some of the best fans they’ve ever played in front. The fact that so many travelled over – typical Irish joining the party. The atmosphere was honestly totally electric.”
A historical team effort earned Ireland silver at the World Cup, but the accolades didn’t end there. After her extraordinary displays in goal, the quick-footed McFerran received the award for ‘Goalkeeper of the Tournament’, cementing her status as the very best in the world. Ireland had just conceded three goals prior to the final. McFerran played a huge role in this, enhancing her reputation of being an immense shot-stopper, making jaw-dropping saves which defied logic a times. Her imperial presence earned the praise from many of her teammates often describing her as unbeatable.
Despite receiving the individual award, McFerran is humble and quick to pass the tributes onto her support team who she describes as an essential cog to her success. “It still hasn’t really sunk in. I went straight back to America and into my season here with no real time for reflection. The award itself is 100% not only me. Without Grace O’Flanagan and Nigel Henderson, I would be a headless chicken. They keep me grounded, they make training fun. We are a team within a team. And without them this would never have happened.
The award is great though and is a great recognition for Irish hockey. Davey Harte has also won the award of best goalkeeper in the world and to bring home another one for the country is great for Irish Hockey. It’s great recognition for the work of our goalie coach Nidge (Nigel Henderson) has been doing. He’s worked with us for most of our careers and Grace as well who is a phenomenal keeper.”
McFerran, the goalkeeping superstar, became Ireland’s youngest ever goalkeeper back in January 2014, a day after her 18th birthday. Her hockey career began with her hometown club in Larne, before she moved to Randalstown and then onto Pegasus Hockey Club. In 2015, she won the goalkeeper of the year at the 2015 IHL tournament.
Her ability to remain calm and composed in pressure situations is startling. This enables her to pull-off saves which she isn’t entitled to make, more often than not. The Louisville keeper claims she is quite the opposite off the field and once again pays tribute to Nigel Henderson for the work he has done. “It’s funny because off the pitch I’m probably a loose-cannon. Nigel has definitely helped me settle my game. When I was younger I would always just charge out to the ball and always be quite aggressive. He helped me calm my game down more and try be more mature in my goalkeeping.
— RTÉ Sport (@RTEsport) August 2, 2018
I definitely try to bring that out with me in my shootouts. I wouldn’t call it cockiness but I am confident within myself that I know I can control the circle and dictate the exchange between the forward in the shootouts.”
In both the quarter-final and semi-final, Ireland were involved in two crucial one-vs-vs shootouts. Ayeisha McFerran cemented herself into Irish sporting history as she dominated the exchanges with the attackers and made countless saves to help secure victory for Ireland. McFerran explained one of the keys to her success was down to the help of Performance Analyst, Mark Kavanagh. “Our video analyst Mark did a phenomenal job. He was able to get shootout footage of the whole squad we were facing. For the Spain and India shootout he was able to get footage of everyone in the squad who took a one-vs-one and that was a great help for me.
Being able to analyse their natural instinct and see if they would come flying in or try take it around me, was very helpful in preparing me for those scenarios.”
From conversation, it is obvious that McFerran is a comprehensive thinker of the game. She explains how she approaches the shootouts with every detail covered. Mind games are also an important feature of her preparation as she takes as much time as possible when switching to pile the pressure on the attacker. “It depends what sort of player I am facing. I try to do my research before, get video of them in action so I am prepared of what I might face. The majority of the time people are going to go back to what they are used to doing.
Whenever I am going back to the goal, I try to take as much time as possible – On one hand it counts as a rest for me but on the other-hand some players might become anxious having to wait and think about the one-vs-one while I make my way back to the goal.”
Like many elite athletes, McFerran is a fierce competitor and hates losing. “I have to win! If I don’t win I get very upset. I’m very competitive. I’ve been told it’s a bad thing so I’ve had to settle down a little bit.” This has been engraved in her mentality since she was a kid where she tried her hand at all kinds of sporting activity.
“I was one of those kids who played every sport possible. I was just a bundle of energy, so hyper all the time and I think my Mum was trying to ship me of and try to burn all that energy! I played soccer, did track and field and played hockey - they were my main ones!”
Currently studying at University of Louisville, Ireland’s World Cup heroine has impressed overseas. In December of last year, she was named in the ‘All-American’ team of the year for the second-year running. Speaking of her ambitions for the future, McFerran has her sights set on potentially playing in Europe. “I want to finish up my career here in Louisville. Once I graduate next May, I can start thinking about hopefully moving to somewhere in Europe - that would be the dream. To go to Germany or Holland would be great. The goal is to get to Europe but where exactly yet, I don’t know!”
Judging by her recent exploits, there is sure to be a long list of suitors for her services. McFerran is also highly ambitious for the progression of the National team after their all-conquering success at the World Cup. “The next thing for us is to qualify for Tokyo. We obviously came very close to Rio and then the World Cup this year was obviously very, very successful for us. So I think Tokyo has to be the next step for us where we have a women’s Irish Hockey team qualify for the Olympics.
Next year is a huge year to try and achieve that goal for us.”
There is no doubt that Ayeisha McFerran is one of the rising stars in Irish sport. Her performances over the past few years have been nothing short of sublime. This is testament to her hard work which she is reaping the benefits from. In what is an important period for women in sport, McFerran is truly an inspiring role model for youngsters. Watch this space.