by Stephen Findlater
Versatile Katie Mullan is ambitious that the Irish women can push on a step further and breach the top four in Europe for the first time.
The Green Army return to the top table following promotion in 2015 in Prague and are now aiming to push for a semi-final spot having finished fifth three times before. It follows an upbeat 18 months, beating a couple of Olympic-bound sides at the Hawkes Bay Cup in 2016, a tournament which brought together a new look side, before showing up well in the World Cup qualifying process.
For Mullan, she stepped into the captaincy role with Ireland this year in place of Megan Frazer following a knee injury that has seen her out of action for the last nine months. The UCD woman, 23, has been part of the Irish setup for five years now, starting life in the forward line before being employed in defence at times and frequently in midfield.
But her return to the forwards has proven a fine decision by coach Graham Shaw, her aggressive style matching their ambitions in the press while her eye for goal has yielded some eye-catching results.
Prior to the World League Semi-Final in Johannesburg, she scored winners against both Korea and Germany in June – the first time Ireland had ever beaten Die Danas. She followed up with a critical equaliser against India in the seventh place playoff in South Africa, en route to a 2-1 win that boosts their hopes of a first World Cup place since 2002.
It was a dramatic tie with India taking the lead and looking set to move out of sight when Irish goalkeeper Ayeisha McFerran was sin-binned, conceding a stroke in the process. Grace O’Flanagan came off the bench to save the stroke with her first touch of the tournament and went on to keep out a couple of second half corners before the green army turned the tide. To do so, they scored twice in the closing 12 minutes, continuing a theme of late goals in the last few years.
Reflecting on that tie, Mullan said: “Winning that playoff was extremely important in terms of our chances at World cup qualification. The resilience to comeback in the final quarter was first class. “Credit must go to Grace; not only did she save a stroke with her first touch but she also brought a real element of calm and belief onto the pitch.
“I have no doubt that our many last minute comebacks over the past 18 months stood to us in that game but most important thing was that we stuck to the game plan and didn’t force the ball.”
For Amsterdam, O’Flanagan will wear the number one shirt with McFerran returning to her base in the University of Louisville where she studies. Clodagh Cassin comes in as the other goalkeeper while Lizzie Colvin swaps out for Ali Meeke in midfield in the only other change.
Waiting game for the World Cup spot
Ireland now face a waiting game to see how those tickets to London 2018 work out, sitting third on the list of potential qualifiers once the continental championships play out. “Initially I was doing a lot of research as to when we might know for sure if we have a World Cup spot,” Mullan explained. “But with most of the continental games not taking place until late October, I’ve put it aside. Otherwise, I would drive myself mad! We have an impact on what happens at the Europeans so that is where all our focus lies!”
Their group in Amsterdam features a couple of rematches with games against England and Germany from the World League along with a tie against their regular sparring partners Scotland. It means they know their opposition extremely well; Mullan scored against the English in Johannesburg in a close-run 3-2 defeat.
“We know how England play and what to expect tactically. If you give them soft opportunities, they will take them. Its important for us to stay switched on for 60 minutes against them as they have some skillful forwards. We will look to start our European tournament with the confidence and belief we had against them in that second half.”
For Germany, in addition to their win in Berlin, they drew 2-2 in South Africa but were left frustrated as they led with seven seconds to go only to concede from a penalty corner at the end.
“The last two times we have played Germany they have been close encounters. We are looking forward to having another go at them. We must ensure our basic skills are as good as, if not better, than theirs on the day. The physical output against them was demanding so we must be prepared for the same again in Amsterdam.
“Scotland pose a different challenge for us in the Europeans; we must bring a high tempo to the game and must be prepared for them to come out of the blocks against us. Both teams know one another very well so for us this match will be about doing the simple things well.”