Chloe Watkins back in the bubble as Ireland look to book their ticket to Paris next summer

Monkstown player’s return brings a wealth of experience back in to the squad as they prepare for crucial Olympic qualifier in Valencia

Chloe Watkins knew better than most how the Irish football squad might have felt after last summer’s World Cup. You spend your entire career dreaming of reaching your sport’s biggest stage, you get there, the experience is over in what feels like the blink of an eye and you head for home knowing you didn’t do yourself justice. Inevitably, deflation kicks in.

“And there definitely was a low for a couple of months,” she says of her own state of mind after the Irish hockey team’s first-ever Olympic experience in Tokyo in the summer of 2021.

“So yeah, I could completely understand how the footballers might have reflected on their first World Cup. They’d been chasing that dream for so long, just like we’d been chasing Olympic qualification for years and years, with so much heartbreak along the way. So when you finally make it, but then it’s all over so quickly, there is definitely a dip afterwards, especially if you feel you underperformed – and it wasn’t the greatest Olympics for us performance-wise.”

“It’s a strange one – at the end of it you’re kind of left thinking, ‘now what?’”

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After a bright start to their pool campaign in Tokyo, when they opened with a 2-0 win over South Africa, Ireland lost their next four games and that was that. Their Olympics was done after just a week.

“We’ll always be proud of being the first Irish women’s team to qualify, it was still a brilliant experience – being in the athletes’ village, getting to see other sporting events, all that – although we missed out on having family and friends there because of Covid. And playing in a big stadium that was empty, with no support there at all, was very, very odd.

“So yeah, there was a low for a while, and I’m sure every athlete feels that way after something like that. It was then that I decided it was a good time to take a break, I just felt a bit exhausted.”

It had, after all, been a dizzying three years, starting with the 2018 World Cup when the team, remarkably, reached the final in London, Watkins’ penalty shoot-out expertise playing no small part in that story. But the postponement of the Olympics from 2020 to 2021 stretched an intense period even further.

“At the end of it, it felt like the right time to step back and reassess my life. I had some accountancy exams I needed to get done, but it wasn’t just about that. I felt I needed to put time in to other aspects of my life, things I didn’t want to keep missing out on, like family events, weddings, holidays, all the stuff that you do miss when you’re part of the international programme.

“I loved the break, having that freedom and flexibility over my own day-to-day schedule, choosing what I did with my time. But it’s funny, in some ways you miss the structure you have when you’re in the Irish squad. We used to joke about nearly disliking having down time and being away from the programme because we liked our routine, liked being in the bubble with each other. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword when you’re left to your own devices.”

Now? Watkins is back in the bubble. After two years away from the international set-up she returned to the fold during the summer and has been included in the squad for next week’s Olympic qualifier in Valencia, where the team will aim to book their ticket to Paris next summer.

Refreshed?

“I’m not sure about that,” she laughs. “I was always warned to never take a break because people said it’s very hard to get going again. I know what they mean now. Getting back into that intensity of training hasn’t been easy, but it’s been a gradual thing. I rejoined the squad last summer but I was never in the running to play in [August’s] European Championships, I just trained with them and played a little bit with the development squad, to get up to speed again.

“I didn’t really anticipate taking as much of a break as I did, but I think it did me a lot of good. I’m really enjoying being back with the squad and all we’re thinking about now is qualifying for back-to-back Olympics. We made it to back-to-back World Cups, after years of not getting to these big tournaments, so there’s been huge progress. We all have higher expectations and ambitions now – the aim has always been to raise the bar for ourselves. The first goal is to start qualifying regularly, the next is to really compete against the top teams, that’s where you want to be.

“After the 2018 World Cup, there was much more of a spotlight on us, and with that comes more pressure to achieve. Your mindset changes as a result – yeah, you expect more of yourself and the team. And you really notice that too with the younger players who have come in: they have high expectations too after the achievements of the last few years, they bring a fearlessness and energy to it all. Mix that with the savvy of the older players and you have a good blend.”

Watkins’ return brings a wealth of experience back in to the squad, the Monkstown player, who led the club to their first-ever Irish Senior Cup victory last April, having won 237 caps since her debut as an 18-year-old in 2010.

“It’s funny how quickly it’s gone by,” she says of her international career. “Well, when I say ‘quickly’, it’s been 13 years,” she laughs. “But it seems like only yesterday that I was one of the young ones in the squad.”

Now, at 31, she’s the oldest, but while there have been plenty of retirements in recent years, coach Sean Dancer’s squad still features seven players with 100 caps or more, including six survivors from the 2018 World Cup and 12 from the Tokyo Olympics.

The task in Valencia is a sizeable one: Ireland must finish in the top three of the eight-team tournament if they are to make it to Paris. Ranked at 13 in the world, they’re in a pool with Belgium (4), Korea (12) and Ukraine (28), with Britain (7), Spain (8), Canada (16) and Malaysia (18) making up the other pool.

The campaign starts next Saturday (13th) against the Belgians, the tournament’s top-ranked side, before the meetings with Ukraine (15th) and Korea (16th). Already, that game against the Koreans has an all-or-bust look about it, but that’s (dangerously) assuming there’ll be no slip-up against Ukraine.

“We’re looking no further than the game against Belgium ... but yeah, the Korea one will, most probably, be big. None of the games will be easy, though – we’ve played all three teams plenty of times and they’re always unpredictable. If we could start well against Belgium, that would take some of the pressure off, but the target game for three points is Ukraine, and then it could all go down to the one against Korea. We have to make the semi-finals, we have to finish in the top three in the tournament, we want to make it back-to-back Olympics. That’s where we’ve set the bar now.”

Back in the bubble. And hoping to make the Olympics again – and make happier memories this time around.

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