Time to quickly turn tears to cheers at Donnybrook

Time to quickly turn tears to cheers at Donnybrook
A view of the artificial pitch being laid ahead of the Women’s Hockey Olympic Qualifier games at Energia Park in Donnybrook, Dublin. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile.

Already we’ve all moved on.

For a moment there on Sunday night, a good share of the nation, or at least Twitter, was up in arms that just after the Irish hockey team thought they had qualified for next year’s Olympics — dashing to embrace one another as Canadian players simultaneously approached the match officials, more in hope than anger — anArgentinian umpire called Diego Barbas made the egregious decision to award Canada a penalty stroke.

The penalty was duly converted, sending the game into a penalty shootout which the Canadians would edge in sudden death.

For anyone following it on social media, or stirred enough to follow the game on the RTE News channel, it was enough to send you to bed that night in foul mood, the sheer injustice of it all.

But it wasn’t just easier for us in the morning.

It was gone, forgotten, like any other nightmare you might have fleetingly had while you were in the land of nod. When you put on some of your favourite sports podcasts, it didn’t even get a mention between Tiger Woods’ latest triumph, Arsenal’s latest strop and more Rugby World Cup.

Suffice to say, there wasn’t any Thierry Henry hysteria. The Canadian embassy could rest easily that there would be no protests at its gates from angry Irish sports fans.

For the Irish players and coaching staff though, it wouldn’t have been any easier in the morning. They were still having to deal with the nightmare, many of them probably having been barely able to sleep at all.

And unless there is an unprecedented and remarkable statement and action of apology from the world governing body, FIH, having the experience and opportunity of a lifetime stolen from them will be something that won’t just linger but haunt them for a long time.

A few weeks out from what would turn out to be a remarkable 2018 World Cup for the Irish women’s hockey team, I got to sit down with the then team coach Graham Shaw at a warm-up camp they were having in Cork.

Over the course of two hours, Shaw spoke very openly and honestly about his career and challenges in the sport but when it came to recalling some of Ireland’s near misses from major tournaments, his lip started to quiver.

As a player he’d missed out on making the 2008 Games on goal difference. In 2012, eight seconds from time a Korean goal denied them from a spot in London.

The worst of the lot though was 2015 when the women missed out on Rio in a penalty shootout against China. Ireland had dominated proceedings, forcing 13 penalty corners.

“It was like a death,” said Shaw, who was an assistant coach to Darren Smith at the time. “I had to go to my sister’s wedding the day after we got back and I wasn’t there. It was down in Kenmare but my head was somewhere else.”

A month later and the mourning continued in synch with their revival. The team had to face into an eight-team tournament in Prague to secure promotion back to European A level.

For half the squad who had played China, it was too much, too soon. For the half that did turn up in Prague, they, along with new head coach Shaw, openly wept in the team room before getting on the bus ahead of their opening game.

Even when they would shine at the 2018 World Cup in London, the scars of that China shootout were still there. In the World Cupsemi-final shootout against Spain, star player MeganFrasier would decline to step up, the memory of her effort against China coming off the upright still too vivid.

Vancouver last Sunday night was much worse again. In 2015 the Irish women’s team had been merely hugely unfortunate, the victims of rough justice, but not necessarily an injustice.

2019 for the men against Canada was precisely that. They weren’t just unlucky, they were cheated, more so than even the national soccer team were in Paris 10 years ago next month.

True, in this case, it wasn’t a player that deceived officialdom. But what people tend to forget about Paris is that Ireland were merely ahead on the night, they weren’t ahead in the tie.

It wasn’t as if they already had one foot in South Africa. Had Henry never handballed and William Gallas had never scored, the tie would still have been a dead heat. All we were denied was the chance to go penalties.

The hockey last Sunday was a completely other level of unfairness. They were ahead in the tie. They had not just one foot but nine toes in Tokyo. With a second to go, they were there. Then on the hooter Canadian forward James Wallace fell over in the circle.

To say any footage of whether Lee Cole fouled him was inconclusive would be an understatement.

Say what you like about VAR but when soccer and rugby resort to it they can call on cameras from every angle. Barbos couldn’t.

And yet, though neither field umpire suspected that Lee Cole had fouled Wallace, and though Balos had at his disposal the most sensible and fairest of fudges — to award a penalty corner — he played God. Penalty.

Watching “in disbelief” for BBC was Stephen Martin, the former Irish captain who also played in three Olympics for Great Britain.

“A penalty stroke can only be awarded if there is a deliberate foul in the circle or a deliberate prevention of a probable goal. Neither occurred in this case.”

Martin’s heart has gone out to the Irish players. Careers have been put on hold to chase this Olympic dream, many of them amateurs while preparing like pros.

But interestingly he has pointed out that they could have done more to help themselves last weekend. They had been two goals ahead entering the second leg.

But they sat back, lost their discipline and picked up a couple of yellow cards. Even if they held onto the ball in the last minute, they’d have held on to qualification.

He’s also suggested that the sooner that the Irish team move on, the better.

That sounds a tad cruel. While Irish hockey considers whether or not to press for a qualification slot, any cheap references and comparisons to John Delaney asking Sepp Blatter for a 33rd slot are just that.

This is far more Louth-Meath 2010 than Ireland-France 2009. The FIH can’t just be allowed to wash this off as just one of those things.

With a game with such high stakes on the line, it is farcical that the game hadn’t VAR facilities like there would be at major tournaments.

When a game is all about making the Big Dance, it should have the same facilities as there are at the Big Dance.

Maybe in time the Irish players will have to move on as Martin has suggested: After all sport offers no guarantees, certainly not regarding fairness, only that at some point it’ll break your heart.

But the least Irish hockey deserves is the support of Irish Hockey and Sport Ireland. No funding should be reduced for the men’s squad just because Diego played God.

And what Irish hockey also deserves more than just our temporary euphoria — like when Gillian Pinder stepped up instead of Frasier and put the ball in that Spanish net — and our temporary outrage like last Sunday night.

There was a lot of talk following the travails of Joe Schmidt’s Team of Us about how much the Irish public really care about the rugby national team, but the truth is outside of the national soccer team, we seem to care for it more than any other Irish side of ours.

For sure we’ll follow the boxers every four years, enjoy a scalp by the cricket side every few years, but who follows the fortunes of any other boys or girls in green?

This weekend is a chance for the Irish public to prove that theory wrong.

Energia Park in Donnybrook hosts the Irish women’s hockey team two-legged Olympic qualifier, Canada again providing the opposition. If you shouted when Pinder put the ball in the net against Spain, you can be cheering for her to do the same against Canada, taking any Diego out of the equation.

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