Ayeisha McFerran says it’s time for Ireland to forget about past glories as the players shift their focus to pursuing their Olympic dream.
The Larne woman was voted goalkeeper-of-the-tournament at last year’s World Cup when Ireland captured the hearts of the nation by lifting the silver medals. Ireland went into the tournament ranked 16th in the world and after their heroics in London soared eight places up the list.
However, McFerran insists the fact that Ireland tore up the form book suggests others could do the same in the FIH Hockey series tournament which starts in Banbridge on Saturday.
Ireland should canter into the final of the pre-Olympic event without breaking much sweat and if they can do that, they will book a place in the last stage of qualifying for Tokyo 2020. The hosts are up against Malaysia (ranked 22nd in the world), Czech Republic (19th) and Singapore (35th) in the first phase and will be hot favourites to come out on top.
In the other group, Korea (11th) should overcome lower-ranked Scotland, Ukraine and France and go on to meet Ireland in the decider on June 16.
McFerran declared: “We’ve had to put aside all the hype of last year although we always knew we could do something special.”
“We’re a very talented group of girls and we definitely have the confidence and the belief that we can do something special again and qualify for Tokyo. But I also think we proved last year that anything can happen on any given day, so we will be going out and treating every opponent with respect.”
“It’s about us performing to the level we know we can and if we can do that we will succeed in the tournament but if we don’t show up then things might not go the way we want.”
McFerran, one of seven Ulster players in the squad, expects the opening two games to be the toughest, based on past experience. Ireland did beat Malaysia 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier in the heat of Kuala Lumpur two years ago and were 3-1 winners over the Czechs at the last European Championship in Amsterdam in 2017.
McFerran added: “Malaysia are a very good side and coming from that Asian hockey culture, they are very skilful and very quick.”
“They have been training full-time since January so it will be a very tough game for us and we are expect it will be the same against Czech Republic. World rankings mean nothing as we proved at the World Cup and all three group games are going to be difficult but we are ready for the challenge.”
All of Ireland’s games will be live streamed on the BBC NI Sport website. Nigel Ringland and Simon Mason will be joined in the commentary booth by former Irish international Alex Speers, current Belfast Harlequins player Jenna Watt and Olympic gold medallist Stephen Martin.
Meanwhile, Sean Murray has been handed an extension of his contract at leading Dutch club Rotterdam, having secured a dream move to the continent from Lisnagarvey last summer. It’s a major boost for the 22-year-old forward, who is one of nine Ulster players in the Irish squad preparing for the first stage of the Olympic qualification process in France later this month.
The former Wallace High School student is excited to have been given a vote of confidence by Rotterdam, who play in what is generally regarded as the best league in Europe.
He said: “It’s a fantastic standard of hockey and playing with and against some of the best players in the world has been an amazing experience for me.”
“It took me some time to get used to the pace and intensity of the game over there but I think it has helped me become a better player. To be given the chance to have another season with Rotterdam is a very exciting prospect, especially as the club is making a few new signings.”
However, Murray’s immediate priority is to keep alive his ambition of playing at an Olympic Games for the first time with the trip to Le Touquet just around the corner. He has yet to play on hockey’s biggest stage but he did take part in last November’s World Cup in India. On that occasion, Ireland failed to live up to expectations, a disappointing 1-1 draw with China and a 4-2 loss to England sealing their fate.
It was a similar story at the Rio Olympics in 2016 when Ireland again failed to get out of their group and had an early flight home. However, as the highest-ranked team, at 11th in the world, Alexander Cox’s team will be expected to get through to the final eliminator for Tokyo.
Ireland are up against Egypt (20th), Scotland (23rd) and Singapore (36th) in the first phase of the tournament and require a top-two finish overall to progress.
Murray added: “World rankings don’t really mean much and I expect every game to be tough although Scotland will probably be the hardest of them all. We know each other pretty well and whereas the other two teams in our group are more of an unknown quantity.”
France (world ranked 15th), Korea (17th) and Chile (28th) make up the other pool and it’s likely Ireland will face either the hosts or the Asians in a must-win semi-final. Ireland round off their preparations with two internationals against the French at Lisnagarvey on Tuesday (7pm) and Thursday (12noon), ahead of the Olympic qualifier which gets under way on June 15.
Saturday’s Women’s FIH Hockey Series Programme:
Pool A: Ireland v Malaysia (3pm); Czech Republic v Singapore (5pm)
Pool B: Korea v Ukraine (11am); Scotland v France (1pm)