Shootout heartbreak for Ireland in Nations Cup semi-final

Sean Dancer’s Ireland lost by the finest of margins in a classic against India in their semi-final of the Women’s FIH Hockey Nations Cup. After 60 minutes of nail-biting drama, it took a penalty shootout to separate the two sides and decide who would go into the gold medal match against Spain.

The girls in green defended for much of the match but were impressive in attack, causing the Indian defence plenty of problems. Charlotte Beggs and Sarah Hawkshaw marshalled the midfield well, with Hannah McLoughlin and Sarah McAuley creative out of defence. Indeed, it was underdogs Ireland who went in front through a sublime Naomi Carroll shot in the closing stages of the first quarter. Captain Katie Mullan had made a gut-busting run down the right sideline before a diving pass found Carroll, who used her first touch to lift the ball over her defender’s stick. She then dribbled the ball in the air into the attacking circle and hit sweetly off her right foot in between the goalkeeper’s legs to put Ireland a goal in front.

India won 12 penalty corners in the match, four of them in the first half, but Liz Murphy was in electric form between the posts and kept the Indian threat at bay. In fact, it was Ireland who looked like they had scored the second goal of the match when Christina Hamill found Siofra O’Brien, who crossed on the reverse for Carroll. The ball found its way into the goal off a combination of Carroll and her defender, but India referred and the video umpire adjudged that O’Brien had used the back of her stick and so the goal was disallowed.

It was a reprieve for India who went in at half-time looking dejected, unsure of how they would unlock the Ireland defence.

As they so often do, Ireland began the second half brightly – a reverse shot from Mullan that was touched over by Carroll the best chance of the quarter for the girls in green. But then India piled on sustained pressure, winning no less than seven corners in the third quarter, and the pressure finally told. The 11th Indian attacking penalty corner was one too many for the Irish defence as Udita swept a bobbly shot into the bottom left corner, and it was India who went in at the last break the happier of the two sides.

Both teams showed supreme fitness in the final quarter as the tempo of the game never let up. India will feel they had the chances to put Ireland away as they were handed some golden opportunities by Ireland defenders, but Murphy’s incredible performance continued as she pulled off save after save to keep the scores level.

With just a minute left in the game, India reviewed for a penalty corner, and it was awarded by the video referee. Once again, it was Mullan in the big moment, and she ran down the shot, getting a touch on the swept shot to deflect onto an Indian foot.

Neither team was willing to give away too much in that final minute, and the game went to a penalty shootout. The last time these teams met in a shootout was the 2018 World Cup when Ireland won 3-1 to go into the semi-final of that competition. But India goalkeeper, Savita, has a reputation in shootouts that will only grow after today.

Both keepers made saves, Savita impressively saving a stroke when she had fouled Ellen Curran during her shuttle, but it came down to the last shuttle with India 2-1 in front and Katie Mullan had the chance to make the scores level. Savita, though, stood tall as Mullan dummied a shot, and when the Ireland captain shot wide on her reverse, it was ecstasy for India and heartbreak for Ireland.

Ireland goalkeeper Liz Murphy said her team can still improve in their last match: “I think we can take a lot of positives from today, we played really, really well. But I think we do have an extra 10 percent defensively. We gave away too many corners and let India come back into the game. We’re not going to do that tomorrow and I think we’ll come out even stronger tomorrow,” she said.

Head coach Sean Dancer said his team executed their plans: “India are a very attacking team, so we wanted to control the way that they attacked and we did that really well. We probably gave away too many penalty corners,” he admitted, “but we did well for most of it. And then we wanted to bring out our speed and skill which you saw with the goal that we scored and the goal we had disallowed,” he added.

“Standout performance for us today was Lizzy Murphy in goal,” said Dancer. “Even though we conceded a lot of penalty corners, she saved almost all of them.”

It’s been a growing experience for this young squad. “We have done a lot of good things over the tournament and have improved game on game,” said a proud Dancer. “So today was a very good performance that’s been building for the past couple of days. We hope that we can finish off tomorrow against Japan. There is a bronze medal on the line and that’s something that we need to be good at – finishing off tournaments. I’m really happy with how the girls have improved and I hope we can keep improving tomorrow,” he finished.

Ireland play their final match at 12.30 pm tomorrow (Saturday) against Japan in the bronze medal match.