Ireland again proved they can mix it with world hockey’s best but fell just short in the Unibet EuroHockey Championships semi-final against the Netherlands in London yesterday.
Having ousted world number four Belgium in the pool stages to make the last four of European hockey’s showpiece tournament for the first time, a first competitive victory against the second-ranked Dutch - who have yet to concede a goal at this tournament - was expected to be a bridge too far.
The Green Machine have copped some hammerings from the Netherlands in the past, including a 5-0 loss in a warm-up for this tournament. Jeroen Hertzberger’s 12th-minute opener suggested it could be another long day, coming after Bob de Voogd had deflected a crash ball into his path. He got in front of Matthew Bell to steer it home, rewarding a relentless stint of Dutch pressure.
But it only served to stir 14th-ranked Ireland into life; Mitch Darling dinked his way into the circle and cracked a thunderbolt which Jaap Stockmann saved onto the post.
From then on, Craig Fulton’s tactics were spot on. Ireland endeavoured to keep the deficit to one goal and were conservative in attack.
They gave up 18 circle entries but only five shots on goal - three of which came in the same phase of play late on, and were all magnificently repelled by David Harte.
Just one penalty corner - slung wide by Mink van der Weerden - was conceded too, and Ireland created one of their own when Kirk Shimmins’ 50-metre raid was halted abruptly in the circle, but Shane O’Donoghue’s drag-flick hit the first runner.
A five-minute yellow card for Valentin Verga in the final quarter signalled an opportunity for Ireland to go for broke, and a sweet interchange between Ireland’s top performer John Jackson and Michael Robson almost unlocked the door.
Chris Cargo’s yellow card with seven minutes remaining dented Ireland’s ability to take risks, although some more Jackson trickery produced a final chance only for the Reading man to shoot into the sideboard from a narrow angle.
“All credit to Ireland, they made it a very hard afternoon for us,” said Netherlands’ Robert van der Horst.
The refrain from Fulton afterwards was similarly upbeat: “We don’t lose, we just learn. We tried really hard to get over the line and make the final but it wasn’t to be.
“The Irish team is strong mentally and will bounce back.”
His charges now have a bronze medal playoff to look forward to against England or Germany tomorrow (2pm), though they will hope the shoulder injuries suffered by centre-backs Conor Harte and Paul Gleghorne won’t limit their participation.
Olympic qualification is still very possible albeit out of Ireland’s hands, but they have at least proved the tournament would be poorer for their absence.
With Belgium, Pakistan and Malaysia among their scalps as well as narrow defeats to Netherlands and Germany on the ledger, in 2015 they have proven themselves to be the only side outside top 10 capable of pushing the world’s best outfits all the way on a regular basis.