Last week we kicked off a series of long form interviews transcribed from The Return Fixture – ITBOTN’s National Women’s League podcast.
The second installment is Helena’s insightful chat with Mikaela Hunt, Southern United’s captain and inspirational leader.
Helena Wiseman: Mikaela Hunt has played in a National Women’s League final with Capital, made the playoffs with Southern in the story of last season, and three weeks ago she lifted the Kate Sheppard Cup with Dunedin Technical in another fairy tale ending. She’s Southern United’s captain this year and we are so lucky to have her with us this week so thank you so much for being here!
Mikaela Hunt: No worries, thank you for having me!
HW: I think we’re all really excited to hear an inside story of what’s been going on at Southern because you guys have been the real story – this amazing transformation that we’ve seen in the last couple of seasons.
MH: Yeah, it’s been really exciting for us. I think we’re still on this fairy tale ride, we don’t know when we’re going to come down from it. I feel like every week it’s someone saying something amazing about us that we’ve never heard before or some new person believing in us or someone giving us some shout out somewhere. So yeah, it’s really exciting for us and we still can’t quite… grasp it I suppose!
HW: I think it’s exciting for everyone, we were saying in our preview episode that you can’t help but support Southern and want Southern to do well. It’s been such a cool story and I think everyone does love that underdog tale. So just about you for a second to start with, can you tell us a bit about how you got into football, where you grew up playing and how you came to be playing at Southern?
MH: I started playing when I was about ten years old. Some of my friends were playing a five a side summer soccer thing on a Friday and we were just playing in an all girls team. I went along and had some fun with them and discovered I really liked it so I quit netball, much to my family’s disgust, and started playing football. I started playing in the Capital FTC teams when I was 12-13 and was playing for Upper Hutt. I did all my junior and all my women’s football, before moving to Dunedin, for Upper Hutt. I was really lucky to have such a good club that’s got such a good junior and senior environment.
And then I made the first Capital squad when I was year 10, so I think that’s about 14, 15 years old. So that was really exciting for me as a young girl. I was over the moon to be in that. Then I think I made my debut when I was 16, then I played for Capital a couple more seasons after that, and still playing for Upper Hutt this whole time. And then I moved down to Dunedin to study and that’s when I linked up with Dunedin Tech and Southern!
HW: So on Dunedin Technical, the big story that I know everyone’s going to be expecting me to talk about is a couple of weeks ago you guys won the Kate Sheppard Cup, which I think is the first time a Dunedin team had done that – so you made history there! How did that feel? Talk us through the emotions of that day and winning a final that you weren’t expected to.
MH: I think it’s the first time a Dunedin team has ever made the final regardless of winning it. So for us, last year we really wanted to make the semi finals, which we did when we played Glenfield who were just definitely better than us on the day and we were happy with that – we knew that was the end of our journey. But this year we really focussed on the final, that was our main goal and our assistant coach actually said to us at the start of the season “you guys are the best team in the whole of New Zealand” and we kind of all laughed at him and said “whatever! We’ll see what happens!”
And before you know it we were playing Wellington United in the semi finals and we just had this really good buzz around the team, we knew we had the confidence, we knew we had the players and it was an amazing game – we definitely deserved to win it.
It was crazy enough being in the final! The heart was unreal for the week coming up to it. We all couldn’t sleep at night. We had a rule you had to drink a litre of water every day so everyone was so nervous – it was funny actually, we were on the plane up there and as soon as the seatbelt sign came off everyone rushed to the toilets!
But yeah, the whole environment, getting to play at QBE was cool. We were lucky enough to have one of the Southern Steel coaching staff come and talk to us a couple of days before the final – because obviously they have had such an amazing season – just on how to deal with the publicity and the TV and the nerves so she was really lovely and we were lucky to have her there.
And just the final, we came into half time 4-1 up and that was just unreal – we had to just stop and take a breath and think “this is crazy how have we done this?” We said this is our game to lose but it’s also our game to win. Then we came out in the second half and did what we had to do I suppose and when that final whistle went, I can’t even describe it, I don’t think I’ve gotten over it yet!
It was just something that we’d been working towards all season and for us, we don’t get much competition down in the Dunedin league so we always focus on the cup – that’s our really big push for the year. So to win that, especially being Graham’s last season and we’ve had five girls in the squad that’ve played over 100 games for Tech which is crazy. I don’t think you’d find that in many other clubs ever.
So it was just a really huge credit to everyone that’s put in so much work over the years and because it has been a year by year building thing – I think it’s eight years in the making they say. It was unreal and we still can’t quite process it, we were really lucky at prize giving – the club presented us with our shirts from the final which is just an ode to how much they’ve supported us this season. We were really lucky to be a part of it.
HW: Yeah it was such a cool thing to witness. I play for Forrest Hill and I was still just swept up in it because I could see how happy everyone was at full time. It’s interesting to hear all the preparation and work that went into it because I don’t think we’ve heard so much about the mental side of it, which is obviously a big factor. On that note, how has that buzz, the positivity, the mentality, transferred into your Southern United preparation at the start of the season?
MH: It was quite hard for us as a squad because we’ve got 12 players that were involved in the Tech side so the preparation for the season maybe wasn’t as good as we’d hoped it to be with a lot of ins and outs and wanting to make sure we were right for the week and for the games. But I think it’s just given us an all new level of confidence. The girls have been so supportive in the squad. I think it’s just created a whole big buzz of confidence in the whole squad – not only the Dunedin Tech girls but everyone. We know that we can go toe to toe with the best in New Zealand. Because we don’t have a whole lot of New Zealand representatives but I think that just goes to show that you don’t need them to do well! It’s just awesome exposure for the region and for the whole squad.
HW: So this year you’ve got a new coach – so that probably would have factored in to how the pre-season went. So has there been many big changes and how’s that affected the federation?
MH: It’s pretty similar. We’ve got the same amount of trainings, we train three times a week and also have an early morning gym session at the high performance gym. But yeah, Ignacio, or we call him Nacho, has been really good. The poor guy is from Invercargill so he has to travel up every time for training which must be so hard for him. But he’s been really good to us. He definitely understands the female game and he’s a really good coach for us. He brings a really good positive vibe to the team and despite what some people may think and what happened behind the scenes, he is really positive for women’s football and he’s been pushing a lot for us that we think and he thinks we deserve so he’s been really awesome.
HW: That’s really great to hear. So you talked a lot about positivity, and belief, and that keeps coming up. What do you think it is that’s, for lack of a better term, the X factor that Southern has found? What do you think has contributed to that because last season, for those of us up here, was a bit like watching a switch go on but I’m sure it’s not that sudden, what do you think has factored in to Southern’s resurgence?
MH: That’s a really good question. Obviously I haven’t been there in the past before last year to see the differences between what it was like and what it is now but I think for the girls it’s just been years and years of building up of them maybe not thinking they’re good enough or feeling like they don’t get represented well enough. Because there’s always been the talent down there – players like Chelsea Whittaker and Shontelle Smith and Kelsey Kennard – they’ve been there for years and years, you know nothing’s changed. But I think it’s them finally taking a stand and saying “no, we are good enough and we do now have the experience to go toe to toe with the best players in New Zealand.” I think it was just that extra shove of “you can do this and you are good enough.” But like I say it’s quite hard to say because I wasn’t there previously to know what it was like compared to now.
HW: It’s really cool to see, and I know some of the names you just mentioned are such incredible players and I think in the first couple of rounds we’ve really seen that. So the game against Northern, how did you guys feel about that afterwards? Because I think that was your first point in the North Island – you didn’t manage to pick up a point in the North Island last season – so was that a big thing mentally for you guys and were you really stoked to hold Northern who as you say have got a lot of Ferns in their side?
MH: We didn’t actually have a think about the whole North Island thing until we saw someone posted it on Twitter afterwards so it wasn’t so much of a big mental thing for us. I think our preparation has been a bit disjointed but obviously our Central game went really awesome so I suppose it’s not really an excuse. I guess we didn’t really get the advantage that Northern did of watching how we played and what we did and because they’ve obviously seen our Dunedin Tech game and we play really similar to what we did over the winter season so they really came into the game and you could tell they knew what we wanted to do and they knew how they could stop that. It definitely took a whole half for us to realise “right, this is how we combat it, we need to change a few things.” So I suppose we never really thought about the way we play being shut down so it was quite hard for us to get into the game.
But at half time Nacho gave us some good advice and we came back into the second half a lot better than what we did in the first. But we were stoked with just the resilience. The possession was so much theirs but I think if you look at the shots they would probably be about the same. We probably both had the same amount of shots whether they were on target or not. It was just the resilience – we weren’t willing to give them that time and space in the final third when it was most important. It was really promising to be honest.
HW: I was there on Sunday and I definitely noticed, and Gemma Lewis commented on it post-match, the adjustment that you guys made at half time, which I thought was one of the most impressive elements of it because that’s the sort of thing that will carry you in a league. But on that style of play that you mentioned, and you did say it’s similar to Technical, we’ve been talking about how it’s quite a definitive way of playing. How has that been developing? Is that a coaching ideology or is it more a response to the personnel you’ve got at the moment?
MH: I think it’s more to do with the personnel. You have players like Shontelle Smith and how she can deliver a pinpoint ball behind the defenders and then you’ve got Lara Wall and Mikayla Gray who are so quick and so physical up the wings as well. It’s not so much been a coaching thing just a development of realising these are our strengths and we might as well use them. This is the way we can score goals and why don’t we keep doing that?
HW: There’s been some people, I know before the final, some people were saying it’s not really the most nice style of football – the long ball – how does Southern respond to that? Because I’d argue it’s just really effective.
MH: I don’t know, we haven’t heard too much of that. We haven’t had people saying to us “that’s not how you should play” but for us it’s direct and it works and if we do it well it’s really hard to defend so at the end of the day it’s not how nice your football is it’s what the score is! We think it’s lovely sometimes, if you watch some of the plays it looks really awesome when it turns out well. We’ve never really said “this is the way we play and this is what we want to do”, it kind of just happened so I suppose we can’t be criticised for it!
HW: Yeah it’s definitely super effective, against Central it was really, at times, unbelievable to watch. In terms of winning and playing football, what are your aims for this season? You probably want to back up last season’s success and prove that it wasn’t just a one season thing. So where do you want to finish this year?
MH: Obviously the final is a goal for us. It’s a lot harder this year because you only take the top two but I suppose that goes hand in hand with the double round so you have chances to make up what you may have missed in the first round or vice-versa. We’re definitely aiming for the final but as a squad we think about it being more than just us. We think about the future generations and the community and everyone else that’s involved in football.
So we think if we can set up a really good platform ourselves. It gives the younger players in the region the opportunity to be able to go and do that in five years’ time or ten years’ time, being able to make those New Zealand squads and be seen by selectors and just creating a really good environment for the future for people to look up to. It’s been a really big shift in the game down here with the community getting so much behind us. It’s about results for us, we really want to make the final, performances go with inspiration, but yeah – we just really want to inspire the next generation and set up a good platform for the future.
HW: I think that’s such a cool thing to hear. I’ve heard the same from Malia at Northern, it’s a really cool thing. I think it’s quite unique to the National Women’s League, how much all of you really think about the next generation for your federation. Talking about Football South, you’re quite well placed to comment on this because you grew up in Capital, what have you experienced in Southern that’s unique – either strengths or challenges – that you hadn’t experienced before at your home federation?
MH: I suppose when I was in Capital, Southern was always seen as the bottom of the ladder team and no one really had so much respect for them and the community has experienced that for the last however many years. So then coming down here and really making an impact on the football scene, first with Dunedin Technical over winter, making a semi final and then again with the National League – you know that first game when we won against Auckland. It was just this crazy sense of community that I’ve never quite experienced before. People had finally got in behind you and being really proud of everything that you’d done.
It’s a huge, I don’t want to be cliched and say ‘Southern pride’, but it is a really big Southern pride thing. They love being called the underdogs down here and everyone loves that underdog tag. I read an article about New Zealand punching above their weight with other countries in sport and it’s the same down here – we feel like we’re the New Zealand inside of New Zealand. We’re punching above our weight when we play the North Island teams. It’s just exciting for people really. They have so much pride in the community down here.
HW: I think that definitely has started to translate onto the football pitch, because I remember being at QBE and obviously Forrest Hill had a lot of supporters, because it’s ten minutes down the road, but there was a whole group of Dunedin Tech supporters and they were so loud and they had all their songs and chants. I just remember thinking “something really cool is happening down Dunedin way”. I think part of the growth is this scholarship/partnership that Football South established with the University of Otago – which is what brought you to Dunedin and you’re currently studying. So how has your experience of studying at the uni and playing football been so far and do you think it’s a good thing for the federation?
MH: Definitely. I think it just provides a pathway for people to realise that they can come down south and play football at the same time. My thoughts were “do I really want to strive to make the New Zealand teams and go up to Auckland” or did I want to come south and sacrifice that – which is never a nice thought to have. You shouldn’t have to make the sacrifice to study, to sacrifice your footballing career. For the scholarship being set up, enticing people to come down here creates the opportunity for people to be able to do both – play football and study down here. They’ve got some awesome players this year as well in the form of Britney and Lena. It’s only got positive things. I know for the men’s game they have quite a few of the scholarship playing in the youth league. It’s only positive really, lots of girls will be coming down and hopefully in the future that’s going to be the same.
It’s quite hard sometimes, juggling uni and football – exams go right through the National Women’s League season and it means sometimes you have an away game or an overnight game the day before an exam or maybe you have a Saturday exam on the same day as the game so you have to miss out on the game. Or you have training on a Tuesday night before a Wednesday morning exam. It is quite hard and it’s a lot of sacrifices for half of our squad who are students, but I think it just instils the commitment even more because people are sacrificing so much to be able to play for the team.
HW: Yeah I think that’s probably part of the hard work. I study and I can’t imagine the workload that you guys take on. I think it’s actually quite inspiring and I agree with you, I think it would be really good if this can play a part in starting to see players from down south be represented more in the national teams. Because I think that’s quite important for New Zealand Football – to start looking beyond Auckland.
MH: Yeah I agree. There are girls in the team now that 100% have deserved to be a part of the New Zealand pathway – if not now, a couple of years ago. The likes of Lara and Mickey, I think they are, I mean of course I’m biased but I think they are amazing and they should have been involved in the under 20s pathway. So hopefully in the future it means that people can be seen and can be a part of that while still being in Dunedin.
HW: So just to pivot a little bit, this year you were named captain – which is an amazing achievement – how do you think the captaincy and that leadership role has affected you on the pitch in terms of football?
MH: It is a pretty crazy thing, I was a bit over the moon, stoked to be named captain. It’s something that I haven’t ever had before. At Capital I was the vice captain to Briar Palmer and that was amazing in itself, I was very chuffed to be given that role. So this year to be given the full captaincy was pretty special for me. I’m a pretty loud player as it is! I think I cop a bit of flak for being loud on the field. It’s pretty much most of the same, I don’t feel any pressure to be doing any more than I was previously doing. We’ve got so many good leaders in the team so for me I feel really lucky that I’ve got such a good support crew around me. I don’t feel like it’s put any pressure on me or anything because there are so many great players around me.
HW: That’s really awesome, I could tell on the weekend that you’re a great leader and a great communicator on the pitch and I can hear it now in your answers – how much you care about Football South. You played with Capital in the final in 2016. With your leadership role and with your experience, how do you try and use that for the benefit of your new federation?
MH: For me, that was my very first season ever playing full 90 minutes. Before that I had only ever come on as subs or maybe started a couple of games every now and then. So that was actually my first consistent season I had. But the final was something else. I haven’t experienced anything like that until I played in the Kate Sheppard Cup final as well. I think, for me, I know how much it sucks to lose. It really sucks to lose. It’s never nice so I think going into that game with just that do or die mentality every time. It’s something you can bring and something that the girls that have been in Football South haven’t quite had the luxury of having before because they’ve had a different kind of feeling going into games. Let’s just not concede too many goals or let’s try to score one. It’s just that different feeling of going in knowing that you can win every game and every game leads towards the final and getting that trophy at the end of the day.
HW: This has really been so interesting for me, it’s been so great to hear how much you’re bringing up mentality and aims and goals and that emotional side of football. It’s really cool to hear about what’s going on in Southern there. So for you, just to wrap up personally, what are your personal goals for football – in the National Women’s League or beyond that?
MH: For me, it’s not so much about myself. I love playing football and I love being in the National League to be able to get better and to be playing Ferns every week is awesome. It’s something that I feel really grateful to be able to do – to be able to test myself against the Ferns every week. But for me it’s just about staying in the game and staying in the National League for as long as I can. I just really enjoy my football and I really enjoy being a part of the Southern team so it’s just about doing as well as we can with Southern.
HW: Alright, well I wish you all the best, I just really want to see another great Southern story and it’s been so great to talk to you. Thank you so much for all of your insight into what’s going on down in Dunedin. Thank you so much for being here! All the best for the rest of your fixtures this season.
MH: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been awesome.
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