Flashbacks to floods of tears on rainy Saturday mornings in Kamo as a kid have come rushing back to Hannah Wilkinson lately.
In the tough times, the Football Ferns striker uses those memories of the days she hated to miss a game to remind her why, at 30, she still loves playing.
It’s also part of a strategy she’s using to get the Football Ferns back into goal-scoring mode before they star in the biggest sporting event to ever be played on their home turf in around 100 days time.
It’s unusual for Wilkinson to miss a goal. She’s just become the top goal-scorer in Melbourne City’s history, as the team sneaked into the A League women’s finals series last weekend.
But in the Football Ferns kit, Wilkinson admits she’s been struggling mentally with missed chances during the team’s warm-up campaign for the home FIFA World Cup in July. In fact, the Football Ferns haven’t scored a goal in all five of their losses this year.
So to turn that around, starting with their international friendly against Iceland early tomorrow morning, Wilkinson has been getting help from a mental skills guru, and recalling those earliest memories of her football career.
Hannah Wilkinson is one of three current Football Ferns to have played more than 100 games for NZ
Wilkinson grew up in the Whangārei suburb of Kamo, which, despite its size, is famous for turning out exceptional Kiwi athletes, like more than a dozen Black Sticks, Football Fern Katie Rood, All Black Ian Jones and Black Cap Bryan Young.
“At school, you either chose hockey or football,” Wilkinson says. “A teacher tried to convince me to play hockey, but I’m glad I didn’t with my height. [She’s 1.77m tall.] I don’t think my back would have coped bending over all the time.”
Wilkinson played football with the boys until she was 16, as well as women’s teams. “I trained every night with any team I could,” she says.
“I remember always being so excited for games in the weekend. But if it was raining, they’d cancel the games and I remember crying – any time the game was called off, I would be so upset.
“I found over the years, when things get really difficult with the career you’ve chosen and what you want to achieve, it starts to not feel fun anymore. The pressure builds. You have to try to remember those moments – crying when I couldn’t play.”
Wilkinson, one of a just a handful of Football Ferns centurions in the current team and one of New Zealand’s top all-time goalscorers, has had a few of those flashbacks lately.
“We haven’t had the results we’ve wanted. I’ve missed chances which typically I don’t miss,” she says of the Ferns’ disappointing year so far.
“That’s something that happens to strikers now and again. I’ve had to go back and think ‘I’m struggling here, so why do I love the sport? Let’s take off some of the pressure. I play best when I’m enjoying it, so I have to figure out why I started enjoying it.”
That’s why she’s grateful to be in a team sport, where team-mates “build you back up… if I’d played tennis, it would have been much harder.
“Any loss our team has is our loss. It’s your team-mates’ role to remind you it’s not your fault, it’s on all of us.”
Wilkinson has also been working with Kylie Wilson, a renowned mental skills consultant with a PhD in sport psychology, who has also worked with the Black Ferns Sevens, the Silver Ferns and New Zealand Olympic athletes.
“That’s something New Zealand Football has invested in this year, and it’s making a difference already,” Wilkinson says. “It’s a really important area that’s been neglected in the past, I think. But she’s a resource that’s being encouraged more.
“Kylie and I are still chatting. She’s key… an objective person to reframe everything for you. You get so narrowed down, she’s someone to take you back out of there, with very clear simple ways of thinking.”
Wilkinson had no idea that she was about to become Melbourne City’s top scorer this season – and she’s glad about that.
“It’s expectation, right? You have that in your mind and you overthink it,” laughs the player nicknamed ‘The Wilkinson Whisperer’ across the Tasman. In just two seasons with the A-League W club, she’s scored 21 goals (including five in one game back in 2021).
Another five of those have reached the back of the net this season – but it’s been essentially a half-season for Wilkinson, who got Covid while on tour in the United States with the Football Ferns and then badly tore a quad in preseason training with Melbourne City.
“It was the worst timing – although, I guess it could have been right before World Cup,” she says. “It was my first training back at the club and it was so disappointing. But that’s the reality of this career.”
She knows that only too well, having to battle back from serious knee surgery to play at the 2019 World Cup.
“We’re on the precipice of greatness but just can’t quite execute it” – Wilkinson on the Football Ferns.
This time, Wilkinson was out of football for 10 weeks, having just recovered from a bad dose of Covid. “I got hit hard by that – I couldn’t do anything for three weeks I was so unwell,” she says.
She now wonders if her quad injury stemmed from coming back to football too quickly after her illness. Her dad, Simon, a GP doctor in Kamo, tends to agree, she say.
“I get his opinion all the time,” Wilkinson says. “All the physios were thinking that might have had something to do with it too – because I’ve never had significant muscular injuries before.
“But I’m healthy now. What’s really remarkable is Melbourne City got me back stronger and fitter than before I was hurt. I’m really thankful for that.”
Wilkinson scored her most recent goal in Melbourne City’s 3-3 result against Canberra last weekend – the draw enough for them to finish third in the regular season, to play a semifinal against Melbourne Victory.
This weekend is a FIFA window, when players are excused so they can turn out for their countries – so Wilkinson and her best friend, flatmate and City team-mate Katie Bowen are in Turkey with the Football Ferns to play world No.16 Iceland and then world No. 45 Nigeria on Wednesday morning (1am NZ time).
It’s great news for the Football Ferns – who will have played a nation from every FIFA confederation going into the World Cup, starting July 20.
“But it’s kind of annoying Bow and I will get back from Turkey jetlagged, then potentially have to play the A-League elimination final two days later, which is not ideal,” Wilkinson says.
Still, she’s looking forward to the two friendlies for the Ferns as a “dress rehearsal” for the World Cup this weekend.
“We’re on the precipice of greatness but just can’t quite execute it,” Wilkinson says. “The last game we played [a 1-0 loss to Argentina at Eden Park] was pretty good, but we need to finish our chances.
“We’ve had a lot of changes, and that can be disruptive. Now we have our injured players back – Rebekah Stott, CJ Bott and Ali Riley – they’re all really experienced, key players so this tour should be much better for us.
“You need losses and lessons to figure it all out, and build from there. The results we’re getting are unfortunate and the media attention is reflecting that. But that’s good, they’re holding us to high standards – I like it.
“But we need to find out what’s not working, hopefully dust off all these mistakes, then go into a long two-month camp at home together and peak at the World Cup. That’s how I’m framing it.”
Wilkinson has been vocal in the past week, speaking out for rainbow ‘One Love’ armbands to be allowed at the Women’s World Cup (“I truly hope FIFA considers the importance of this, and the positive impact it will have on those who look up to us, especially for youth who might be struggling with their own identities.”)
And she’s a big fan of the new Football Ferns playing kit, which includes a teal blue strip, and the team no longer having to wear white shorts. (“The blue colour is an amazing change and even better the absence of white shorts now is fantastic for women with any kind of period anxiety.”)
While 30-year-old Wilkinson knows her 111 test career is drawing to a close, she’s keeping her hand in at drawing for a life after football.
Her mural representing the three women’s World Cups to be played in New Zealand across two years graces an outside wall of Eden Park, which will host the first game of this FIFA World Cup.
“It’s hard to get opportunities like that, so I’m grateful I’ve got myself to a place in my career where I can get opportunities in other areas of my life,” Wilkinson says.
“I’ve gone to college in the US and got an education, and then I’m in a network with a CEO of a stadium who sees I’m an artist and gives me a giant canvas to work on. How cool is that?”
She’s keen to do more outdoor mural work, and would love to leave her mark in Melbourne while she’s playing there. “I love the city and the art I’ve seen around it,” she says. “It’s something I want to get better at – because it’s a different medium. But like any athlete, I love a challenge.”
Wilkinson is now working on illustrations for a book, and the International Olympic Committee have commissioned her art work to go on display in Singapore during the inaugural Olympic Esports Week in June.
“My art is a good way to reset,” she says. “I’ve stepped back from songwriting and getting music out on Spotify like I was doing while I was playing in Sweden. But it was amazing to have my guitar while I had Covid – I got much better at it learning Jimi Hendrix songs.”
* The Football Ferns play Iceland at 12.50am NZ time on Saturday, live on Sky Sport 2, and Nigeria at 1am on Wednesday, on Sky Sport 1.