In recent years the Irish Women’s Hockey team have made a habit of sending both hockey and non-hockey fans alike into paroxysms of delight and joy. There’s something unique about this side. They are spirited, fierce and out of the ordinary. It’s testament to the values instilled by the collective group where hard-work, fight and nonstop improvement is expected.
These standards are abundantly clear to identify from 25-year-old Irish captain, Katie Mullan. Her pride of wearing the green jersey shines through with relentless hard-work and never say die attitude. Mullan epitomizes all the good things about this Irish team who have captured the hearts of the nation. She never fails to acknowledge the distinction which she believes she has in captaining her country alongside her teammates and most importantly, friends.
“It’s an absolute honour and a privilege to wear the armband. Every single cap I play I never take it for granted. I just love doing it. We’re such a close-knit group, we’re all such great friends. To be leading out so many people that you care about and people that you’ve watched grow up from late teens to strong independent women it’s such an honour,” said Mullan.
“I’ve said it a million times, I am the lucky one that gets to wear the armband. We have so many incredible leaders. I’m just the privileged one that gets to wear the armband really. It’s such an honour and I just never take it for granted.”
Mullan made her debut for Ireland in 2012 and reached the 100-cap milestone at the tender age of 22. She has undergone some of the lowest points with this team and is now reaping the rewards of years of sacrifice and dedication.
The Ballymoney star is currently on tour with the Girls in Green as they prepare for the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Ireland are on a warm weather training camp in Stellenbosch, South Africa. They are using this as an opportunity to acclimatise to the heat and hectic scheduling of the Olympics.
“It’s going well. The first couple of days there was severe wind, so we didn’t quite get the hot temperatures that we had hoped for. The last couple of days have been quite warm to get that heat training in and to try and acclimatize ourselves. It’s been pretty full on but that’s how we want it to be for the next few months,” she says.
Tokyo between July to mid-August is hot and humid. Japanese summers are known for their oppressive and sometimes deadly mix of heat and humidity. The Summer Olympics will begin on July 24 and run until August 9. It will not take an unusual heat wave to turn this into the hottest Olympics in history.
“Tokyo is due to be one of the toughest Olympics in terms of the heat and humidity. Obviously here in South Africa we don’t quite get the humidity, but we get the heat. The key thing for us is working on acclimatizing to the heat while we are here. Our decision making in the heat and the pressures that it will bring.”
Ireland faced South Africa and Germany in the space of just over a week. The Green Army will come up against both these sides in the pool stages in Tokyo. Ireland completed a 3-0 series win against South Africa which will give them huge confidence.
They defeated them 1-0 in the opening game of the tour and followed this up with an emphatic 5-1 victory. They wrapped up the series with a 2-1 win. The Green Army came up against Germany in between the matches against the South Africans. Ireland were defeated twice in two games losing 4-0 and 4-1 respectively.
Following their camp in South Africa, Ireland will head to Malaysia in March where they key goal is to mirror the heat and humidity expected in Tokyo. This will then be followed by trips to Belgium and Spain which have been provisionally arranged May and June respectively.
The full attention then veers to Tokyo.
“I suppose for starters, everyone wants to book that seat on the plane, so we have all that competition within the squad for selection. Normally we go to tournaments and the World Cup with 18 players, but the Olympics is slightly different in that you only bring 15 outfielders and a goalkeeper,” said the World Cup silver meddalist.
Ireland’s have been handed a tough group at the Olympics as they will meet the Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, India and South Africa.
The Netherlands are the current World Cup champions whilst GB are the Rio 2016 silver medallists and Germany are currently ranked fourth in the world. Despite the daunting task, Mullan is quietly confident about their chances.
“I think looking at the Groups for the Olympics with there only being two groups, there’s no easy group. You’re always going to be facing the top teams. I think it’s positive to be facing the likes of the Netherlands in our group. And then we’ve taken it to GB in the past number of years and on a couple of occasions we’ve taken it to Germany. So we’ll definitely be going into these games believing we can get something out of them,” said the 25-year-old.
“I suppose we have proven before that we can defy the world rankings as we did in the past. Once we’re in a good place with the squad and in good conditioning I think it’s possible for us to do something special this summer.”
With the encouraging results against South Africa on the recent tour and having never lost to India in a world ranking match, there is definite cause for optimism. Ireland famously defied the odds at the 2018 World Cup and will look to replicate their journey in London.
Having made her debut just under eight-years ago, Mullan has witnessed the progression and steps made by hockey in Ireland. The talent is now flooding through with competition at an all-time high.
“It’s grown massively. The exposure now is huge. We’re getting new players constantly into the squad. They’re performing at club level getting noticed and they come into our squad and they impress at our training sessions. It’s really exciting to see. It leaves our sport in a much healthier place. Maybe in the past competition wouldn’t have been that high. At times the same squad would have gone to tournament after tournament,” said the Irish captain.
There is probably no greater evidence to observe this than the current squad on tour in South Africa. Head Coach, Sean Dancer has given Emma Buckley, Ellen Curran, Hannah McLoughlin, Sarah Torrans and Emily Beatty an early chance to stake a claim for a place in the Olympic squad. The youthful quintet make up the squad which features 15 of the side that won the Olympic qualifier against Canada in November.
“Now, I believe you will see changes in selection at every tournament this squad goes to. I suppose that will include the Olympics. I’d imagine there will be changes in our squad and there will be big names that miss out. That’s the new challenge for us. It’s how top-level international sport should be. You hear other players in different sports talk about it all the time. It’s something we have to get accustomed to and the culture in the squad will stand to it.”
In June 2015, Mullan was part of the squad which were left devastated as they failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. With the game against China all square, the game went to a shoot-out. Ireland lost 4-3 in sudden death. Heartbreak. Their Olympic dream was shattered. And so were the players.
Fast forward four years and the emotions couldn’t be more contrasting. Building on the World Cup silver medal and witnessed by over 12,000 fans over two days, Ireland fulfilled their long awaited dream. The Green Army qualified and guaranteed a very first women’s appearance at the Olympic Games.
“To be honest I was pretty numb at times. It was such a big thing for us. Then for it to happen in the fashion that it did, we were all a bit shook. I think it was a massive two days for our sport. From where we were and where we’ve come to. So many of us have played 100 of caps for Ireland in front of a crowd which you can count on two hands and maybe a couple of dogs! So for us to be standing in front of a packed out stadium on a rugby pitch under those flood lights was surreal,” said Mullan.
The event itself was one for the record books. Ireland were granted use of Energia Park in Donnybrook where a drop-in pitch was installed. The opening day crowd of 6,086 was the biggest for women’s international sport in Ireland and this was broken the next day when 6,137 fans turned up to witness history.
“Even though the weather wasn’t great it didn’t take away from the occasion that it was for our sport to host something like that and to do that. To spread our sport across the country and the impact and joy it can bring. So many people I’ve met have told me they know of people who are struggling with illness and other things and they watched us that day and got so much joy. I don’t think we even realise the impact we can have sometimes on days like that.”
“It’s forever going to be a hard memory to beat, considering the World Cup was incredibly special but then to have something so special on home soil so quickly after the World Cup to secure that Olympic Qualification was incredible.”
Ayeisha McFerran added to her already cemented place in hockey folklore with three vital saves in the shoot-out. With Canada 3-1 up in the shootout and Olympic hockey qualifying hopes dangling by a thread, McFerran rose to the occasion to drag Ireland back. This Irish side never know when they are beaten.
“I think the biggest thing that it shows is for any young girl or female sportsperson that you can never give up. It’s never over till its over. Once you have that belief within a group anything is possible. It’s possible to come back from 3-1 down in a shootout to qualify for the Olympics. I think that’s the thing that’s so special about this group of players”, said Mullan.
“From player 1 to player 18, everyone believes constantly in our ability and our goalkeeper’s ability. That’s something incredibly special. To get that amount of belief across a group is not something you come across everyday. I’ve played in a lot of teams and the belief we have is hard to put into words. It sometimes make you feel a bit invincible. To have so many young school girls be in the stand that day and to see that against all odds, we couldn’t have asked for much more.”
Mullan gave an insight into her leadership and emphasized the importance of leading by example. She doesn’t see the impact of words if they aren’t followed by action.
“For me growing up the best captains I’ve played under are those that led by example on the pitch. You can give it all the lip service in the world but it’s more about your actions and people feeding off those actions. That’s my key mantra. Obviously on the other hand there are times where nerves are at an all time high. Like when you’re in the changing room in Donnybrook before running out in front of 6,000 screaming fans. That’s when the team looks to you and those are the moments where you have to be able to say the right thing. So I don’t speak all of the time but I know the time and place to do that and I think that’s crucial.”
With just under six months to go until the Olympic Games being, Ireland will be silently fancying their chances for another upset. One thing is guaranteed with this Irish side led by Katie Mullan and that is heart, resilience and quality. Mullan captures the essence of why supporters love the idea of a leader whose sheer force of will could turn a brick wall into dust. The hard work starts now.