The Irish women’s hockey team captured the imagination of the public with their run to the World Cup final in London. Gillian Pinder, the penalty hero in their semi-final win over Spain — provides the definitive inside story of the team of the year. She spoke with.
‘THIS IS THE MOMENT’
The nation held its breath.
So tightly, George was there — again — to cover it.
Only this time, Gillian Pinder was David O’Leary.
[Whistle blows. The crowd falls silent. Pinder starts to advance with the ball]…
[Pinder moves towards her left]…
[Pinder sways and shifts the ball to her right, shoots low, then the crowd and Hamilton erupt]….
Four months after the silver rush and ‘The Moment’, Gillian Pinder is sitting, almost secluded, in a dimly-lit gastro bar in south Dublin on a mid-morning break from coaching in her alma mater St Andrew’s around the corner.
This may be hockey country as much as it is rugby country but it’s not like Limerick where these days walking in a MacCarthy Cup wonderland the locals tend to cop if a member of that other team of the year is in their midst.
Here no one seems to recognise the face, only the achievement of what she and her teammates did last summer.
Who put the ball in the Spanish net, not once or twice? She did, she did. Pinder, Pinder, Pinder. Olé, Olé, Olé.
Pinder comes across as someone who is perfectly fine to be let go quietly about her business, especially her future plans. Instead of living off or being stuck in ‘The Moment’, she seems driven to create more memories for her team and country.
A few days after this conversation, the squad will be fitness tested in the new Sports Ireland indoor arena out in Abbotstown, and in preparation for it and next month’s camp in Chile, Pinder has been training like a demon to reclaim her customary position as the squad’s fastest player. In the last speed test, she informs you with a smile through gritted teeth, 19-year-old Sarah Torrans beat her by a nose. The queen wants her throne back.
At the same time she’s hugely aware and appreciative of how far the squad has already come — especially when she considers how far off they once were.
FROM CLIQUE CENTRAL TO THE CULTURE CLUB
Ask Gillian Pinder what she’d like to think she brings to a setup and the midfielder make no reference to her skill or speed or big-moment temperament which coach Graham Shaw lauded after that shootout.
Instead, without any hesitation, she proffers something more intangible if precious. “I understand the value of a positive culture.
“Having experienced ones that didn’t work great and then worked with ones that are just so fluid, that’s one of the most important things I can think of. To help bring young players through. Because I know for me and a couple of the other girls who came in around the same time as me, we weren’t always well received.”
Pinder was only in fifth year in school when she began training with the senior national squad, the same age as Amy Elliott — one of her current players in Andrew’s — is now and will still be when she makes her senior debut in Chile next month.
For Pinder, that will be one of the joys of the road to Tokyo, watching and helping an Elliott integrate and grow. Similarly with Torrance, who is the same age as Pinder was when she made her own debut against France seven years ago.
When Torrance beat her in that speed test, Pinder didn’t think the youngster was making her look worse but rather helping her to get better and faster for the next one. That wasn’t always the outlook on an Irish team.
“When I started out, the attitude of senior players was almost, ‘I see this girl as a threat to me, so I’m going to make life a little bit harder for her.’ It wasn’t that anyone was a bad person but as a combined unit, compared to what we have now, I’m not surprised in the slightest that we weren’t successful.
“The culture just wasn’t there. Even though I was only young I remember making a note of the behaviours around me that I liked and noticing the times somebody would have done things around me and thought, ‘No, you know what, I don’t like that, I’m not going to replicate that.’”
What things? Small things, or rather, big things. Like supposed leaders tending to exclusively hanging out with players of the same age or province. Or waiting to pounce on the youngsters any time they made a mistake while not being
particularly receptive to critical feedback themselves.
The camp was Clique Central.
“You’d be trying to learn off these players who were 10 years ahead of you and far more experienced. But some of them would be constantly correcting you and not letting you play your game or every time you’d do something wrong, you’d be told about it.
And when you accumulated all that, all you’d feel and think was ‘Bash, bash, bash.’ Now, it wasn’t like that all the time but it was definitely too common. “The dynamic now is completely different. You no longer walk in and it’s all the Munster girls sitting together or the Leinster girls or the UCD girls [doing the same]; you just sit down with whoever you happen to be beside and there is a huge effort to try and mix. We’re rebuilding again after the World Cup with new players in and of course initially you don’t know them well. But then we go to a camp like the one we had in Spain [in November] and by the end of the week you know about their family, what they’re like, what they’re studying in college.
“Things like that weren’t really valued when I was starting out. People would be a bit defensive when you were trying to have conversations with them. It just didn’t feel like an atmosphere that was really pulling me in at the time.”
Or at least one to make her want to stick around. At 19 when an offer to play college hockey in the States came up, Pinder jumped at it.
It wasn’t just any college she played for. Based a couple of hours from Niagara Falls, Syracuse University is one of the most celebrated institutions in NCAA sport. Jim Brown, unanimously considered one of the three greatest American football players ever, was an Orangeman. Likewise NBA star Carmelo Anthony who led the college to the national title.
Their home court, the Carrier Dome, boasts the biggest capacity in all of college or NBA basketball. A cash cow like that helps handsomely fund all of the college’s sports programmes, including the field hockey setup that Pinder played for. The standard of play she found to be a bit lower than the Irish league, being effectively an U23 league, but for facilities it “blew Ireland out of the water”.
“Every college had a state-of-the-art pitch and bleachers. We were kitted out from head-to-toe in whatever we wanted. Sometimes we even travelled on private planes.”
In her rookie season, Pinder would help Orange Nation make the coveted Final Four for only the second time in its history, including scoring the opening goal in their Elite Eight win over Penn State. For an independent spirit like the Blackrock native, though, the student-athlete model over there was too regimental.
“They had such a hold on my life. Because I was on scholarship, they pretty much dictated what I did and when I did it and how long I did it for. I couldn’t get two minutes to myself away from the team and just hang out with friends that I had met outside hockey.”
The spring after that Final Four appearance, she came home for a few weeks and played for Leinster in the inter-pros. She instantly made an impression on the new national coach Darren Smith and from their conversation he instantly made an impression on her.
The following autumn she was studying in and playing for UCD alongside other stellar young talents like Anna O’Flanagan, Chloe Watkins, Nikki Evans, Katie Mullan, and Deirdre Duke. Smith identified that core as the future of the national team, and they realised he was the future too.
When Darren came in after the squad had missed out on [the] London [Olympics], they needed something fresh, they needed players to retire, they needed new players to come in. And the big thing Darren brought in was the idea of being friends off the field so we could play better on it.
He would — they would — try all sorts of things to create that spirit and connection. At least once the team room resembled a speed dating style night where you had a couple of minutes to find out as much as possible about the teammate in front of you before rotating onto the next.
During the summer they’d double-train most Sundays — two hours in the morning, then break for lunch, then train again for two hours in the afternoon. Just as importantly, before going their separate ways, they’d all go upstairs and together have a meal — and not just any meal. It would be prepared by five players, all different from the quintet who’d made the previous week’s.
Pinder found it an ingenious way of getting players to mix and collaborate with someone from a different demographic — young, old, north, east, or south. “You’d have someone on salad, then maybe two players on mains and another couple on desserts. And if you were taking too long, you’d hear the complaints from the rest of the girls who were starving!”
Even Smith and his staff had to do their shift, though after keeping his players waiting for ages, the Kiwi had to hold up his greasy hands and announce that the barbie was out of gas, mate.
But even then his players couldn’t stay cranky or hungry; he took them over to a restaurant in Dundrum Shopping Centre for a meal they can still remember as well as the one he failed to serve up.
For two summers they’d do that: double-train on Sundays, with the big meal to prepare and eat afterwards. By the third summer they were primed to qualify for the Rio Olympics. The fitness tests showed they were in the best shape of their lives.
Then in the qualifying tournament in Valencia, they topped their five-team group, thumping South Africa 4-1 and beating USA, previously something of a hoodoo team. On paper they were due a favourable draw in the next round, which if they won, would assure them a ticket to Rio.
They didn’t get that kind draw. China, ranked fifth in the world, had surprisingly lost a couple of games to finish fourth in their group. Ireland would pummel them in that subsequent world league quarter-final, everywhere that is but on the scoreboard; although they forced 13 penalty corners to their opponent’s two, they only managed to score the one goal, same as China. It went to a penalty shootout, then sudden death.
And that’s what it felt like when Megan Frazer’s shot came off the upright and a Liang Miyu convert for China. A death. The Moment in total reverse.
“I was one of seven or eight players who had been drawn up as potential penalty-takers but I wasn’t one of the five on the day. So you were feeling a bit helpless, standing with the rest of the team about 15 yards behind the five girls, just hoping it was going to work out. And it just didn’t happen. Watching the Chinese running on and piling on this girl who’d scored, it was devastating. Everyone was in tears.
“Because we’d trained so hard. We’d flipped the whole mentality of hockey in the country, the way we approached everything. We were now international athletes every single day of the year as opposed to only on the Sundays that we were training.
Everything was just so good and we were so together as a team and we really trusted and liked our coaching staff. We’d just topped our group and beaten some of the top nations in the world and felt like we could have gone on — but we didn’t.
For some players who had also missed out on the London Games, it was one heartbreak too many, so they stepped away. Smith also departed to return home to New Zealand where he coached the senior national men’s team — the Black Sticks — in last month’s World Cup.
It was left to his assistant, Shaw, to pick up the pieces, even though he was shattered himself. But he did, as well as adding some new ones, enhancing the culture and standards established by Smith.
Ahead of a key competition in Malaysia in January 2017, the Belfast players would train in SINI [Sport Institute of Northern Ireland] where there’s a heat chamber while the southern-based players trained in rain jackets to simulate the stifling heat. When they got to Malaysia they’d play all their practice games and hold all their training sessions at midday, even though their pool games were all in the evening. Then they’d stay out of the sun as much as they could and drink almost as much as water as they could, secure in the knowledge that if they had a midday crossover game, they were as ready as they could be.
They’d nail down protocols for whenever you were on the bench. No shouting onto the field; trust your teammates to make the right decision and conserve your energy. In hockey, a player of Pinder’s calibre typically plays for six minutes, then comes off for three, goes back on for six, repeat. So if you came off on a warm day, you’d instantly be handed an ice towel and place it over your head. Just like their training, it was all about maximal effort, then optimal recovery.
In her years studying business and law in UCD, Pinder would typically workout at 7.30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning with her clubmates. Last spring when she served a three-month internship in a company upon graduating, she’d join the 6am gym group of working girls. Which meant the alarm going off at 5.12. Which meant being in bed the night before by 9.30.
“I needed that sleep. You’d regret it if you went past it. I tried and learned very quickly.”
That again, optimal recovery to exert maximal effort.
And something else made it easier for her to get up so early.
Ireland by then had qualified for the World Cup.
“I don’t think we’ve ever been so prepared for three games as we were for our three group games. Not only had we analysed our opponent’s strengths but we knew their individual players inside out, and how to approach them and close them down. For instance, Melissa Gonzales is the US captain, one of the best players in the world. She’d play directly opposite to me on the pitch, so I knew that if I didn’t have a good game, she was going to cause us serious damage. But we decided we weren’t going to let her turn and play forward. She could have the ball as long as she wanted and pass it backwards or laterally but she was not going to play through us. And we managed to restrict her.
That was a game we felt comfortable in. I’m not saying it was easy, but at no stage were we really under the cosh. It was really nice to have started well and get the reward on the scoreboard because sometimes you can play good hockey and have nothing to show for it.
“This was a game we had really targeted. Initially we had said we wanted four points from our first two games, that we’d settle for a draw against the States, but after beating them, the goal changed — we wanted six points of six and we knew that if we did we were through.
“I remember seeing the papers the following day and they said it had been the hottest day of the year so far in England. We were ready for the heat but it was so hot, we still struggled a bit. Our GPS data showed we hadn’t hit the standards we’d normally like to hit. I still wouldn’t say we were lucky to win, but given our physical output scores, we did well to get the result we did.”
“It was just a case of going out and performing well and enjoying the atmosphere because it’s not often you play against a host nation. England put on an outstanding tournament but I think the team itself must have felt a lot of pressure. A lot of the teams were staying in the same hotel as us, including England, but whereas the rest of us would all use this huge dining room with this huge buffet, the English had their own private room. They had people coming up knocking on their doors, looking for their laundry. They had every little thing that could be done for them to perform laid on for them. But maybe that put too much pressure on them.”
As soon as the crossover games were played and we discovered we were going to get India, we were delighted, purely because we’d already prepped for India. We knew them inside out. And the last three or four times we had played them we had beaten them.
“If you had said to us before the tournament that we’d get to a quarter-final, we’d honestly have said, ‘Gee, yeah, we’ll take that.’ Especially if we had met a Holland there who would have been really difficult to overcome. But now we wanted to get to a semi- final. We could see it opening up. And yet we didn’t feel any huge sense of pressure because we had achieved everyone’s expectations for us.
“I didn’t take any of the penalties. Again, I was one of seven potential penalty-takers but on the day I wasn’t one of the five.
“Graham wouldn’t dictate who takes a penalty; he’d never say, ‘Gil, take this.’ He’d leave it up to the players; ‘Who wants to take one?’ And there were five others who stepped forward before me. We’d practised a few in training the day before and I’d missed every one!”
“When it came to penalties in this one, I was waiting to see [the lay of the land]. I wasn’t ‘I’m taking one and I wasn’t like ‘I’m NOT taking one.’ Nikki [Evans] had taken one against India and missed so straight away she said, ‘I don’t want to take one.’
“That meant it was either me or Megan. And I suppose after her experience in the shootout for Rio when her shot had come off the post, she declined as well. So I really didn’t have a choice but to take one! Though as it would turn out, I’d take two.
“The four other girls said they wanted to stay with the same order as the last day. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s no problem. So where am I going?’
‘Well, you’re going first.’ Because Nikki had gone first the previous day. I was actually trying to get a bottle of water onto the pitch but because of the image and sponsorship rights, I couldn’t, so I was nearly fighting with a steward — ‘Give me a drink!’ — when the ref said, ‘Ireland, come on!’
“I think that was brilliant. Because I didn’t have any time to think. I just got my sup of water, yelled then for it to get off the field, and then just took the penalty. Their goalie referred it [to the VMO], thinking I had fouled her, so it was a really nerve-wracking time as they played it back, but once I saw it I knew, ‘No, it’s going to be grand’, because the replay shows she clipped my stick.
“When a shootout goes to sudden death, the order changes. We went first for the first five penalties, now it was their turn to go first.
“And of course, AYEISHA [McFerran] saved it. It reduces the pressure on our penalty-takers so much to have a goalkeeper like her because you know she’ll save at least three. And she did. I remember leaving the group of five and walking over to where they roll you a ball, but after that, I honestly can’t remember much about it, only they didn’t make me wait too long. I get more nervous now watching it back than I was at the time. I don’t know how I managed not to play the occasion. I just must have entered my own little world. I’ve obviously seen the video back and that’s how I now remember it; from the vantage point of all those replays, as opposed to how I saw it through my own eyes at the time.
“I can remember after it went in though. I started running towards the girls, then realising, ‘Jesus, Ayeisha is the real hero here,’ so I made a sharp change of direction towards her. But no sooner had I got to her and hugged her then the rest of the girls were there.”
And so that was it. That was The Moment. Valencia in reverse.
Everything after that was mere postscript. Maybe they could have given a better account of themselves in the final. Maybe, if they had more than a 24-hour turnaround, they would have. By 8.30pm after the Spanish game, they had turned their focus to Holland and were studying video of them but in truth they were still struggling to come down from their high.
I was rooming with [Cork Harlequins] Yvonne O’Byrne and the two of us were lying on our beds, our feet up on a couple of pillows, trying to recover as much as possible, when she started bursting out laughing. And I was like, ‘What’s up?’ I thought she had got a funny message on her phone. But she hadn’t. ‘Gil, we’re in the final of the World Cup!’ And the two of us started giggling together.
I don’t look back at the Holland game and think, ‘God, we got trashed’ even though they beat us 6-0.
I look back over the summer and am just so delighted and proud of what we achieved. Of course we would have wished to have given them a better game, but like, every team in the whole world wants to play the Dutch right now. Since winning silver in Rio, no one has got close to them. They’ve barely conceded a goal. And we just admire the way they play and say, ‘We want to be able to do that.’
A week or so after London, Pinder found herself suffering withdrawal symptoms. What were all the girls doing now? That’s been the great thing about London; all the receptions and invites it’s spawned has allowed them to meet up so often. But they’d still have been meeting up anyway. They had their Christmas party the other week, and them being them, they couldn’t just have any ordinary Kris Kindle.
Instead they made it into an elaborate game where they gathered around in a circle and could steal and swap and try to dump their respective presents. Last year no one wanted to be left with the pillow cover someone made with a picture of Shaw on it. This year? Ask her next year.
By then, she hopes they’ve qualified for Tokyo. They’ve got a serious boost from the fact that a key qualifying tournament next year will be held in Dublin; finish in the top two in that eight-team tournament and they’re assured of a playoff to make the Olympics.
But before all that there’s that imminent, gruelling fitness test in Abbotstown. Hell? For her, heaven.
“I just love that feeling of being involved with a team that’s so close.
“I don’t want to sound clichéd but we have this bond on our team that has just become unbreakable. And so you want to do everything you can for the person standing beside you, on and off the pitch.
“I love the thrill of pushing my body to a level it doesn’t want to go to or isn’t comfortable going to and see how far I can push it.”
For her sisters, anything.