In 2018 the Ireland women’s hockey team became one of the most amazing stories in Irish sport when they went from rank outsiders to world cup finalists. Katie Mullan was the captain.
Fairytales rarely come true, even in sport. But in 2018, one did, when the Irish Women’s Hockey team made it all the way to the World Cup Final, exceeding their wildest dreams and endearing themselves to the Irish public in a way not seen since the days of the legendary Italia ’90 squad.
Captain that day was Katie Mullan who had led the Ireland team to qualification for the World Cup, their first major tournament, in itself seen as a major stepping stone for the team and for the women’s game.
Hockey in Ireland is organised on an all-island basis, similar to rugby and Katie’s own sporting journey epitomises the broad base that makes hockey work and gives it the huge potential it now has. She hails from near Coleraine in Co. Derry and her sporting odyssey started by playing hurling and camogie with her brothers in her back garden. Indeed she played hurling (yes, hurling) up to the age of sixteen in mixed teams with her local Eoghan Rua club.
She chose to go to Dalriada School in Ballymoney in part because of the wider sporting options it provided. It was a decision she credits with starting on her hockey journey. Her PE teacher was Bridget McKeever, a former hockey international who encouraged Katie to see that she could also aspire to play international hockey for Ireland.
She learned the game in Dalriada and with the local club in Ballymoney. She recalls that boys at the school were encouraged to play rugby and girls were directed towards hockey. This traditional emphasis is reflected in the hockey clubs in Ulster where there are 43 women’s clubs and 24 men’s clubs.
In her teenage years she played sport intensively with her GAA club Eoghan Rua and was on county underage teams in camogie in Derry. It wasn’t long until that sporting prowess and ability to make it at representative level worked its way into her hockey career. She played interprovincial hockey for Ulster and continued on to represent Ireland at the Youth Olympic Games in 2010.
In 2012 Katie became a full international and has kept her place, with the only setback coming when she was dropped for a European tournament in 2013. That only made her more determined to succeed, she regained her place and became the captain of the national team in 2017.
Which brings us to 2018. The qualifying round in 2017 was tough and Ireland only won one of their four games in the group. But they were competitive and getting stronger, including a draw against Germany and a narrow defeat to England. They pulled through in the end ranked number 16 and made up of the only amateur squad heading to the finals.
“It was a bit of a dream, to be honest. We had never been to a major tournament. As a group of players a lot of us had been together for ten years and we had never managed to qualify. So for us, going to the World Cup was hugely exciting in itself.
“In our radar was a quarter final. I don’t think a lot of commentators in world hockey would have agreed but we knew we were capable of that. We had beaten teams in the top 10 in test matches so we knew we were capable of punching above our ranking. But I don’t think any of us visualised the world cup final.
“It was very much a game-by-game mentality for us – we never thought further ahead than the next game we were playing – and that really stood to us.”
“It was just amazing and I think the magnitude of it won’t hit a lot of us until we’re retired and we’re really reflecting back on it.”
A new game for the national team
How have things changed for the Irish Hockey team since the World Cup?
“The make-up of our entire programme transformed on the back of that run in the World Cup. Prior to that we were training at different venues regionally and meeting up on Sundays in Dublin. But now we have huge support from Sport Ireland and we train in Abbotstown two full days a week.
Katie explains that they are now ‘carded’ athletes in reference to Sport Ireland’s International Carding Scheme where elite sports competitors are directly supported to enable them to compete at international tournaments and at the Olympics. She also credits their main sponsors Park Developments and SoftCo for their support for the players and the team. It means that the Irish women’s hockey squad are basically semi-professional now.
The pursuit of a legacy
Asked about the affect that world cup story had on the profile of the game and on girl’s attitude to the sport she mentions the dual concepts of role models and legacy.
“There’s been a huge difference in the grassroots level of the game and especially in areas of Ireland where hockey wasn’t played at all. New clubs have been formed since 2018 and many of the current clubs have been almost oversuscribed. The number of kids we’ve met that have taken up the game since the world cup – it’s grown massively.
“Such an amazing part of that is the role models we have created for young kids. When I was growing up and wanting to play hockey for Ireland, I only knew that was possible because my PE teacher was an international.
“Wheras now, we’re out in schools, we’re out in clubs, we’re getting out on to the pitch with these girls as role models and I think that’s helping significantly that we leave our jerseys in good hands for the next generation.
“We, as a team, talk a lot about the legacy of the game as a real goal and something that we really want to leave as a group, and that’s something I’m really passionate about.”
Off the field
While all this activity was taking place on the field Katie also managed to spend some time in university. She went to UCD and finished a BSc in Engineering Science in 2017. She then completed a Master’s in Biomedical Engineering the following year.
After the World Cup in 2018 she became a professional hockey player with Alstar in Hamburg, where she was part of the team that won the German Bundesliga. But she stayed for just one year because she wanted to be part of the new arrangements for Irish hockey.
She’s heading to Trinity College in the autumn to work on an MBA and she commends both UCD and Trinity for accommodating her sporting career while at university.
Back on the field, the Women’s EuroHockey Championship will take place with the winner qualifying for the Olympic games in Paris in 2024, with one last qualification opportunity in January 2024. Katie would love to be there.