Once again we have reached that time of the year when I do my annual Northern League pre-season interview. Last year my subject was Western Springs coach Neil Emblen, so according to my strict rotation policy this year we turn our attention back to the high flying New Zealand women’s game.
Tessa Nicol is a gun goalkeeper with the New Zealand Under 20 national team. Having played for Football South in the ASB Women’s League since 2011, as well as for Dunedin Technical and Otago University in the Football South Premiership, late last year she made the big move North from her home town of Mosgiel to Auckland in order to train full time in the national set-up.
This winter she will play in the Northern League for one of the biggest name clubs in Auckland women’s football – The famous Lynn Avon – eleven times Northern League champions and nine times Women’s Knockout Cup winners…
EG: So you’ve just moved from Mosgiel to Auckland. Has that been hard? How are you settling in?
TN: I’m definitely getting there. The girls have been really welcoming, and that’s not just in my own age group, but the Ferns age group as well have been really welcoming too. Same with the coaches and the staff, they have been super supportive and they’ve been there to help me through lots of stuff like getting settled in, finding a job, getting accommodation, all those kind of things – they’ve been really, really helpful.
EG: That’s really good to hear. Is it a bit of a practice run for future ambitions to go overseas?
TN: I don’t know! I hope so. I’m hoping that eventually when I become good enough that some opportunities might come around at some point but I guess at the moment my focus is just on what I’ve got going on at the moment – it’s massive. I don’t really want to think too far ahead right now. It’ll blow my mind!
EG: There’s a lot of pressure on good players to move up here, right?
TN: Yeah and it’s a massive change. I’ve been goalkeeping for about six or seven years and I feel like I’m just starting. I feel like these past six or seven months I’ve only just started goalkeeping. It’s such a massive change and I don’t think anywhere can prepare you for the massive jump when you do move from a small town like mine to a big city like Auckland. Nothing can prepare you mentally or physically, you’ve just got to dive in there and do your best and learn on the spot!
EG: You’ve played a bit in the ASB Women’s league for Southern, and they’ve struggled a bit for results in both the men’s and women’s national leagues. Do you have any insights into why that is and what can be done to fix it?
TN: Personally for me a massive thing that I’ve found in the difference between Auckland style of football and Southern style is the intensity in trainings and wanting to drive to do well. I think it’s massive. If you haven’t got the intensity in trainings then you’re not going to have the intensity in games, and the willingness, so I think it’s probably treating trainings like games. Treating them as you would a match situation.
I think Southern have got a strong defence, we always have had and what we’ve been lacking is just that finishing and that final third. But I think we’re slowly improving. We’ve gotten a lot better over the past few years and that’s something we’ve been working towards.
EG: When you’re a part of a team that’s conceding a lot of goals, how do you keep your head in the game?
TN: It can be really hard at times, but then you sort of think, ‘yeah, I’ve let three or four past but how many have I saved?’ You’ve got to keep that mentality. If you have a negative mentality when you’re on the bottom hand of things you aren’t going to do well. You’ve got to go in there thinking ‘alright, yes there’s a potential that there might be a few goals scored against me but look at all the ones I’m going to save. I’m going to stand out today.’ That’s how I go into every single game.
EG: I guess it’s good practice if you’re getting lots of shots aimed at you!
TN: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with that! This is fine, this is my job, haha!
EG: Why did you choose football? Were there other sports you were interested in?
TN: Yeah, I did a little bit of swimming and then it got to the point where it was swimming or football. I had to pick one and I wasn’t very good at swimming so I picked football! I picked the one I was good at. But other than that, no, it’s always been football. I might have had a side sport every now and then like touch or softball or swimming or futsal but otherwise it was always football. It was never going to be anything else.
EG: Was there anything that got you interested in it? Was your family a football family or…
TN: No, my family wasn’t! My mum was a really good netball player and she wanted me to play netball when I was younger but I wasn’t interested. I thought it was a girly sport. And of course, everyone down South, all the girls play netball and I was like, ‘no I don’t want to play netball, I don’t want to be like everyone else!’ Basically I saw some older kids at primary school having a wee kick around in the mud and I was like ‘ah, that looks like my jam! I think that might be something I could be interested in’ and I started playing at school and before you know it I was enrolled in a club and started making Otago teams and yeah, it just went from there!
EG: And how does someone become a goalkeeper?
TN: Um, by being very unfit. Haha! As an outfield player they would put me on right at the end, I’d run my butt off for twenty minutes and that would be it, I’d be done! But I just wanted to keep playing football and I knew that I wouldn’t go any further if I stayed outfield, I would just be staying at club level. I still wanted to do really well in football so I was like, right, I’m going to make a call and jump in goal. I started in goal as a futsal goalkeeper because I was getting tired running outfield and I did really well in my first game and that was it literally!
EG: A natural?
TN: Yeah, apparently!
EG: What position did you play in the outfield?
TN: I pretty much played everywhere! I was probably more of a midfielder or a striker to be honest. I didn’t spend a lot of time in defence. I played in defence for my last year of school as an outfielder for a run around but otherwise, yeah, it’s always been midfield or striker.
EG: What’s the best thing about being a keeper?
TN: You get to be the hero for the day, you know? You get to be the hero. You’ve only got as much pressure on you as you put on yourself. You’ve got to disregard what everyone else says because at the end of the day, you’re you, and you know what you could have done better and what you could have saved and what you couldn’t. You’ve got people saying ‘oh she could have saved this, she could have saved that’. Yeah, I might have, but I might have saved five or six others in the meantime.
You get to dive! You get to dive at people’s feet, you get to save penalties, you get to do all the heroic stuff.
EG: That’s interesting because a lot of people, I think, when they think of goalkeeping they think you’re on a hiding to nothing. When you let goals in it’s your fault, the whole goal was your fault, and if you pull off a great save you’re just doing your job.
TN: Nah, ten other people in front of you, it’s a team sport for a reason. Some people might think it’s ten people and the goalie but really it’s eleven players at the end of the day. You’ve just got to keep everything in perspective. You can’t put everything back on yourself otherwise you’re not going to make it.
EG: A lot of goalkeepers talk about isolation and loneliness, do you feel that?
TN: Oh massively! That’s probably why a lot of the people in my team will probably think of me as quite a full on person! It’s because I’m trying to make up for when I’m not there, making sure I’m still noticed and that they don’t forget about me! Because I’ve done the whole ordeal where you break into a new team and you meet new players and you’re not too sure how to interact with them and you don’t want to do anything to upset anybody. You don’t want to say the wrong thing. As a goalkeeper I think it is so important that you integrate with your team on and off the pitch. It’s massive because, otherwise, how are you going to form that relationship? People will see it as ten players and one goalkeeper.
EG: What stands out that you’ve learned from playing with the New Zealand Under Twenties?
TN: I think the pace. And my team trusting me with the ball at my feet is massive. That’s something that I haven’t really gotten a lot of back down home. It’s quite cool to be thought of as the last defender rather than the goalkeeper. They want to play it back to me and they trust me that I’m going to be able to play it out and to put it long and things. I don’t feel like when I get the ball back they are freaking out about where I’m going to put it. They’ve helped me so much with that, to build my confidence, so I owe my defence a lot.
EG: And talk to me about Eric Steele, what did you get out of those sessions?
TN: Everything! Every single session I go into from now on I’m constantly thinking about what line I need to be holding, whether or not I need to be going down my line or holding that angle. I’m just constantly thinking that every single shot that comes in – am I too far up or too deep, where do I need to be? It was just such an amazing learning experience and I honestly think the depth and whereabouts I need to be in relation to shots is something that I’m always going to have in the back of my mind from now on.
EG: What are you expecting from the Northern League? Do you know much about it?
TN: I honestly couldn’t tell you anything! I wouldn’t know, all I know is that it’s usually a face-off between Forrest Hill and Glenfield as far as I know! I have no idea. I’m just going to go in there and go hard. I wasn’t looking for a good team this season. I was looking for a team that had the potential to get better in further years – a team that’s starting out. So that’s why Lynn Avon stood out to me. We’ve got a new coach, we’ve got a new set of players, so I don’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to go to a strong team, I wanted to go somewhere that I wasn’t too familiar with, where I didn’t know anybody, and put myself under a bit of pressure.
EG: Wow, yeah, and I guess being a part of building a strong team is a really attractive thing to do rather than just join one that’s already there…
TN: Yeah, you want to be there from the start, eh? You want to make the most of it! See the successes coming through!
EG: I can totally relate to that. So do you know anyone at all at Lynn Avon?
TN: Ummmmmmmm… No! I don’t. I don’t know anybody there. I probably know Dan [Cope] because he messaged me last year and was like ‘hey man, do you want to come and play for Lynn Avon, we’re looking for a keeper?’ and I was like ‘sure, let’s do it!’ He’s been really helpful since I’ve moved up so I’ve gotten to know him really well over the past six or seven months. Otherwise, I don’t know any players.
EG: Can you give us any tips on who is coming into the squad this year?
TN: As far as I know a lot of players have transferred clubs this season and from what I hear everyone’s going all over the show. We’ve lost a lot of key players from what I know. It’s going to be really tough this season I think, for us. Especially because we don’t have anyone really that core from last season.
EG: Did Dan bring many players from Three Kings?
TN: Not as far as I know. He was doing reserves stuff, but from what I can see they’ve all been in Lynn Avon for a while. We haven’t brought anyone in, we’ve just lost players. It’ll be interesting though and you just never know what happens!
EG: You’ve come across a lot of players in the ASB Women’s League and the national set up. Can you give me a couple or three names of people who are really tough to play against?
TN: Oh my gosh… It’s so hard to single people out because everybody is just so strong. For sure, always when we come up against Northern – last season in particular – massive – like I’m always a little bit nervous when I’ve got Roody [Katie Rood] shooting at me, or Aimee Phillips! They are two massive stand outs for me in the women’s league. And then you’ve got the likes of Jazz [Jasmine Pereira] who’s like, as soon as she gets in front of goal she is so lethal. And I guess Canterbury is always a really strong side to go up against. But any players in particular? Oh, add CJ. Oh my gosh, CJ Bott, when she is running, seriously, when she is running down the flanks and you can see her coming straight towards you at a hundred miles an hour – that is when you know you’re in trouble and you’ve got to watch for those balls over the top because she is such a strong player. Anybody that gets in front of goal up here I’m usually pretty ‘urgh’ but it’s an opportunity to foil them so…
EG: Can you name one person who’s the toughest?
TN: Oh my gosh, that’s so hard! So looking back on last season… I would definitely say Roody was my toughest person to come up against, not only just because of her abilities but also because she put a penalty past me and that really annoyed me! That was really frustrating. But she’s so dangerous in front of goal, she is one of the only players that I think, personally, when she gets in front of goal she looks to shoot and not to pass and that is so important as a striker. When she gets on the ball anywhere around my eighteen I am always set for her.
EG: Do you have any insights into why New Zealand women’s football is so strong at the moment?
TN: I just think we’ve got a lot of girls who are really dedicated and are pushing each other to do better. It’s not any of this ‘come to training, have a laugh, go home’. It’s ‘come to training, work hard, work hard on your individual strengths and THEN go home, and then still be thinking about football and what else we can be doing’. Everyone that I’ve come across up here that’s in the New Zealand frame is looking to strive and push for a place in that Ferns squad. They are not turning up to training just because they are talented. They are turning up because they’ve got an X factor, they are doing well and because they want to be there. They are pushing all the time. We are all professionals as far as I’m concerned. We treat football as a job. We are going out there to do a job! We are going out there to beat teams and to hurt teams! We’re not just rocking up for a giggle!
EG: Do you think there is anything more that could be done to make us stronger?
TN: For me, talking about the New Zealand environment, more international experience would be amazing. Because you can only get better when you’re playing against opposition that are just as good or better than you. And I think more probably needs to be put into getting more international friendlies and things. Obviously easier said than done – it’s a lot of money! But if it was possible, in a perfect world, international experience would be awesome and even getting teams to come over to us. That would be great.
EG: It’s been said that a lot of people don’t realise how hard women’s footballers here work and train. Can you give us a bit of a rundown of what a typical week is like?
TN: So, for me, when I’m not working I’m training and vice versa. At the moment I have no rest days. I don’t think I’ve had a day off for the past three or four weeks. I’m always working, training or coaching. So basically I’ll work through the day and then I’ll have a gap where I’m off to Ferns training for a couple of hours. Then I might come back and do another couple of coaching sessions, and then I might even have coaching later on that night. Then, on top of that, I’ll have a gym session somewhere in between all that two or three times a week. Not to mention there’s going to be a game on Sunday.
It gets full on, but if it’s what you want to do then that’s what it takes. You’re happy to do the hard yards to get to where you need to be. It keeps me busy and it keeps me focussed too on why I’m up here.
EG: Where do you see yourself in five years?
TN: Do you know what? I get so many people asking me this question. Every time they ask me it I honestly have no idea. What I want in five years’ time is for me to be happy with what I’m doing. If that’s football then that would be amazing, but if it’s something else as well – as long as I’m happy then that’s what I want to be doing. Ideally, of course I want to be playing football in five years’ time. Knowing at what level – I’m not too sure. But I just want to be happy with what I’m doing. In work. In football. In life.
EG: Fantastic. Great way to finish. That was my last question!
TN: Sweet as!
A grassroots sports photography enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent football club on earth - A.S. Roma.