Shirley McCay says she is “not one for the spotlight” but there is something extra special about the big stage that awaits her 300th international cap today in Ireland’s Olympic qualifier against Canada at Energia Park (7pm, live on RTÉ2).
By some distance, the predicted 6,000 crowd will dwarf any other audience she has enjoyed at home as the country’s most-capped female athlete of any discipline looks to play her part in a famous weekend.
As in Game One, all the way back in 2007, Canada will be the opposition, starting a journey packed with, as she freely admits, many lows but has enjoyed a beautiful upward kick thanks to last summer’s World Cup silver medal. The diminutive defender from Drumquin laughs when she recalls her debut, an inauspicious affair.
“My first touch didn’t actually materialise, it actually hit my foot after I saw this lovely first-time pass down the line and I totally missed it!,” she smiled. “I spent much of the game, running around like a headless chicken; it was a steep learning curve.
Fast forward 12 years, and McCay will likely be a vital figure tonight and tomorrow (7.10pm) in the two-legged qualifier with the best aggregate score deciding the ticket to Tokyo.
“It’s surreal when you sit back and think about it and I feel very old even though I am just 31,” she pointed out.
McCay will be attempting to banish the bitter memories of three previous failures to qualify for the Olympics, dating back to 2008 when a shock defeat by Italy ended the dream. A 4-1 defeat by Belgium four years later, when a win would have seen Ireland qualify, ended hopes for London 2012. And all of that was followed by the heartache of Valencia in 2015 when a shoot-out loss to China denied them a place in Rio.
“My memory is from the first one in Canada in 2008, to qualify for Beijing, I remember wondering what everyone was so upset and disappointed about,” she recalled. “I was only 19 at the time and it didn’t really dawn on me until years later, that for a lot of those girls that was their last chance.”
Indeed, going around a fourth time on the Olympic trail was something she was reticent about as she considered ending her career on a high after London, taking a number of months away from the panel. “I thought my time was done. But after that time away, I felt I’d have regrets if I didn’t give it one last go. So here I am now.”
McCay feels the Irish side are in the best possible shape to finally get over the line and reach an Olympics. But she is wary of their Canadian opponents who have made a huge jump from 21st to 15th in the world in just a year, reaching the final of the Pan-American Games in the process.
“Canada are a team on the rise and it’s going to be tough against them, especially seeing as jet-lag and travelling halfway around the world to play us isn’t a factor as some people might think,” she explained: “Their players are all based on the continent and playing their club hockey in the likes of Belgium and Holland and then coming together to train as an international squad. They had their funding cut, so they have all made huge sacrifices and they will be gunning for us in Dublin this weekend.
“In contrast, our increased level of funding has had a massive impact but we won’t exactly know about how important it has been until after the qualifiers. Softco and Park Developments have allowed us to go to much more of a full-time programme and that allows much more contact time to train, push each other hard and have some flexibility with work commitments.” Indeed, she hopes they are perfect preparations to step into the biggest spotlight yet.