Their greatest hour to date will forever be associated with a classic festive jingle so there was some irony to the fact that the Irish women’s hockey team have just had such a muted Christmas.
An intensive two-week training camp in Spain meant they only flew home on December 23rd and they were back in collective training again, at their HQ on the Sport Ireland campus in Blanchardstown, by New Year.
But if they bag a place in a second consecutive Olympic Games in their final FIH qualification tournament in Valencia on January 13-21 then their “quiet Christmas”, as captain Katie Mullan describes it, will all have been worth it.
“I actually got home at 1am on Christmas Eve, enjoyed some time with the family and then came back down but don’t you worry, we’ll celebrate Christmas again in February if we get through,” Mullan says with her trademark grin.
“It’s very, very exciting. We’ve had fantastic preparation over the past month, including those two great weeks in Spain before Christmas, so no one minded.”
A lot of water has flown under the bridge since their World Cup silver medal heroics of 2018 when ‘All I Want For Christmas’ became their out-of-season celebratory anthem and an intrigued Mariah Carey slid into their DMs.
Another of their now trademark epic penalty shootouts, played out in biblical conditions against Canada in Donnybrook in November 2019, saw them make further history by finally bagging that elusive Olympic qualification after so many years of heartbreak.
Now Sean Dancer’s world ranked 13th side are back at the same point and just need to make the top three in Spain to qualify for Paris 2024.
Their initial group draw pits them against Belgium (ranked #4, Jan 13, 5:30pm), Ukraine (#28, Jan 15, 11am) and Korea (#12, Jan 16, 6.15pm).
“We’ll take it one game at a time. We played Belgium in recent times and to play the highest ranked team in the opening game is the best time to play them, it’s really exciting,” Mullan enthuses.
Their final group game, against a Korean side with whom they drew 2-2 in the 2022 Nations Cup, looks pivotal to decide if they make the crossover stages where Spain and England look likely to feature.
Qualifying for consecutive Olympic Games would mark another huge milestone for the Green Army so, can they do it again?
“Of course!” flashes back indefatigable Mullan (29), who, with a Masters in engineering from UCD, has put her career on hold more than once for her marvellous hockey odyssey which started 14 years ago at the Youth Oympics in Singapore.
The Coleraine star moved back down to Dublin in the past year to do an MBA in Trinity College.
“It was a huge challenge for me to do it alongside a fulltime training programme but I got it done and graduated in November and, for my slightly older body, not having to do all the travelling has stood me in good stead.”
With 226 caps already under her belt– only Chloe Watkins (237) of the current squad has more — how does Mullan continue to stay so motivated and positive?
“A lot of motivation comes from the girls around me and wanting to continue to grow the sport in Ireland and achieve big things. Going to Olympic Games and World Cups is a huge part of that,” she explains.
“We’ve been on such a special journey with this group over the last two years. Watching them grow and develop from the side that had five new caps for our last World Cup has been brilliant. There’s a super blend now between years and years of experience and the excitement of the youth.
“That’s down to our staff and Sean, the environment they’ve created. Having a semi-professional set-up allowed us to come together on Mondays and Tuesdays and really pushed us to create a fantastic culture. I really feel we’re going to see that blend come into action at these qualifiers.”
It’s a doubly exciting few weeks in Valencia as the Irish men’s team (also world ranked #13) are there battling for Olympic qualification as well. Mark Tumilty’s team are in a pool featuring Ukraine (#28, Jan 14, 7:34pm), Belgium (#2, Jan 15, 6:15pm) and Japan (#13, Jan 17, 6:15pm).
Mullan clearly feels her side are perfectly primed.
“The thing you take great belief from is the work you’ve done and this group has done an incredible amount of work. There’s been huge hours put in behind closed doors and I think it’s all of that work that gives you your belief.
“I really believe we’ve had the best possible preparation for this. No stone has been left unturned and that’s where you get confidence from. That’s how the group is feeling going into this qualifier.”