Ireland moved within touching distance of a first ever qualification for the Olympic Games as they beat Malaysia 4-1 in Antwerp yesterday, rounding off their World League Round 3 campaign in fifth place.
It means Ireland should qualify for Rio 2016 barring some bizarre twists in the continental championships, which are the other route to Olympic qualification.
Goalkeeper David Harte —who was later named goalkeeper of the tournament — described the achievement as “surreal and indescribable”.
Yet again, the Cork man was impeccable between the posts, making a trio of crucial close-range saves in the second quarter when Malaysia threatened a fightback from an early two-goal deficit.
“We have given an Irish team the best possible chance to qualify for an Olympic Games,” he said.
“It’s out of our hands but we have done everything we had to do as a national team to try and get there; fingers crossed everything falls into place.” For a second successive game, Ireland won by beating higher-ranked opposition. Malaysia, like Pakistan, are a full-time professional outfit, a situation the Irish can only dream of at the moment.
Ireland had lost 4-2 to the Malaysians in the group phase when the Asian side started like a house on fire against a tentative Ireland.
Yesterday, it was the mirror opposite. Peter Caruth was in devastating form, picking out a diving Kyle Good to make it 1-0 just four minutes in.
Caruth then rocketed a ball to the top corner for the second just three minutes later.
Wobbles followed, especially in the second quarter. Faizal Saari butchered an open goal chance while Harte played his part.
At half-time, Ireland regrouped before unleashing the move of the match. John Jackson and Mitch Darling provided the impetus down the left sideline before Alan Sothern guided in his fifth goal of the competition.
Harte and his defensive corner team, led by Kyle Good, kept out wave after wave of Malaysian forays forward, with Johnny Bell taking two shots off the line.
Faiz Jali did nick one back with five minutes to go. It left nerves jangling but those were settled in the final minute when Shane O’Donoghue selflessly hit into Darling’s path to allow him tip in the fourth goal.
It ensured the fifth place and surely the Olympic spot.
Defender John Jackson said that he is “90%” hopeful that the ticket will be confirmed in due course.
“Winning two massive, back-to-back games, I am absolutely ecstatic. Where this result takes us, we are still unsure and until that moment comes, my emotions will remain at about 90%.
“Hopefully, in the next few weeks we will have a better picture and can start putting in our preparations to make sure we do ourselves justice in Rio.”
Coach Craig Fulton, meanwhile, vowed the side are willing to go above and beyond to level the playing field and surprise some of the heavyweights.
“It’s just been a massive, massive effort from all the staff. What goes on behind the scenes, no-one really knows,” he said. “It’s all down to preparation, the conditioning we did. We made a pact 14 months ago when I came into the job, bringing in a programme to get us more conditioned and professional in outlook than ever before.”
D Harte, J Jackson, J Bell, R Gormley, M Watt, C Cargo, A Sothern, S Dowds, S O’Donoghue, M Darling, P Gleghorne,
E Magee, P Caruth, K Shimmins, D Carlisle, K Good, C Harte, D Fitzgerald.
R Jamaluddin, M Jalil, F Saari, S Abdullah, S Mutalib, F Ashari, A Misron, N Noor, R Rahim, B Singh Charun, T Ahmad.
A Tajuddin, M Shansul, F Jali, A Hasan, S Saabah, I Jamaluddin, H Othman.
J Wright, N Stagno.