Ireland’s men’s hockey team qualify for Olympics with defeat of Korea

Irish team hang on in final stages to secure famous victory and spot in summer Games

Ireland 4 South Korea 3

The nerves of Irish hockey supporters? Shredded. But after an excruciatingly tense game against South Korea in Valencia on Sunday, their joy was unconfined when the clock struck 60 minutes, Ireland’s 4-3 victory in their qualifying tournament’s third-place play-off booking their place in this summer’s Olympic Games.

Goals from Matthew Nelson, Ben Johnson, Johnny McKee and Shane O’Donoghue secured the win for Mark Tumilty’s side in a rollercoaster of a game, Ireland building 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 leads through the contest, but South Korea fighting back every time.

There were too many scares late on to count, the Koreans believing they had made it 4-4 in the closing minutes of the third quarter, only for the video umpire to rule the effort out. And with just 75 seconds to go, Jeong Junwoo’s close range shot glanced off David Harte’s left post when he seemed set to send the game to penalty strokes.


It was breathless from start to finish. Ireland took the lead a minute before the end of the first quarter from a penalty corner, Nelson turning home Lee Cole’s strike from close range. And they made it 2-0 early in a goal-fest of a second quarter when Johnson sent a reverse shot in to the roof of the net after excellent work by captain Sean Murray and McKee.

Korea pulled one back soon after from their first penalty corner, Luke Madeley brilliantly saving the initial shot on the line, but Kim Junghoo’s rebound hitting the post and going in off goalkeeper David Harte’s back.

Sixty seconds later, Ireland restored their two-goal advantage through McKee. Kyle Marshall had picked Daragh Walsh out on the right wing with a superb aerial ball, Walsh playing in Murray whose cross McKee turned home. But with just a minute to go before half-time, Korea halved the deficit again, Jeong Junwoo deflecting a penalty corner sweep past Harte. A score of 3-2 to Ireland at the break.

A 60-second spell in the third quarter encapsulated the game. A bullet of a penalty corner strike from O’Donoghue made it 4-2, and hardly had the celebrations died down when Harte gave away a penalty stroke that Jang Jong-hyun converted. Now 4-3.

It all got nervier still when Lee Nam Yong, Korea’s 40-year-old captain, thought he had made it 4-4, the video umpire eventually disallowing the “goal”. And soon after Cole had made an outstanding clearance off his line from a Korean corner, Lee’s frustration got the better of him, picking up a 10-minute visit to the sin bin after his stick had a brush with Peter McKibbin’s crown jewels.

Fourteen years ago, South Korea left Irish hearts in smithereens when Lee’s goal eight seconds from time at Belfield sent them to London 2012 and left Ireland at home that summer. This time, though, Ireland prevailed, holding off unrelenting Korean pressure thanks to Harte’s goalkeeping and an exceptional collective defensive effort.

“I’m lost for words,” said player of the match Murray. “Credit to Korea, it was a horribly, horribly tough game. We’ve been on the other side of that before when we lost a game and missed out on the Olympic Games, now I get to feel what it’s like to qualify. I can’t put in to words how proud I am of the team.”

It is just the second time since Ireland’s independence that the men have qualified for the Olympics, their only previous appearance coming in Rio eight years ago. They haven’t long to celebrate, mind, in less than three weeks they’ll be off to India where they will take on the Netherlands, Australia, Spain and India in the FIH Pro League.

There was no joy for the women’s team in Valencia, their 2-1 defeat by Britain in Saturday’s third place play-off ending their hopes of making it to Paris. Hannah McLoughlin’s penalty corner conversion with the last action of the game proved to be a consolation score, by then Sarah Jones and Katie Robertson getting the goals that sent the bronze medallists from Tokyo on their way to another Olympic Games.

Britain, as keen observers noted, had 12 players on the pitch early in the third quarter, but Irish Hockey hasn’t yet decided if they’ll make an issue of the infraction. “We’re looking at it and will respond tomorrow,” said a spokesman. “The sense of it seems to be that it had no material impact on the outcome. Player was on for circa one minute. We’ll have a more definitive response tomorrow.”

Ireland (men): D Harte; L Madeley, T Cross, S O’Donoghue, L Cole; S Murray (capt), M Robson, S Hyland; J McKee, M Nelson, D Walsh. Subs: K Marshall, J Carr, N Page, P McKibbin, J Lynch, J Duncan, B Johnson.

Ireland (women): A McFerran; R Upton, H McLoughlin, E Curran, B Harper; S Hawkshaw, C Beggs, K McKee; N Carey, K Mullan (capt), N Carroll. Subs: E Murphy, S McAuley, M Carey, S Torrans, E Neill, C Watkins, D Duke.

  • Sign up for push alerts and have the best news, analysis and comment delivered directly to your phone
  • Find The Irish Times on WhatsApp and stay up to date
  • Our In The News podcast is now published daily – Find the latest episode here
Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan

Mary Hannigan is a sports writer with The Irish Times