Erin Nayler interview: Unplugged in Berkshire – Kiwi keeper and the Royal riffs

Goalkeeper Erin Nayler joined Reading in August after four years in French football, though so much of the New Zealander’s playing story to date has centred upon life with her national team. Being a Football Fern often mirrors touring with a band, which actually proved pretty useful for their number one once she arrived in England this summer.

The next time the FIFA Women’s World Cup comes around, New Zealand will be the party hosts along with Australia. NZ’s Football Ferns, though, are a team more typically used to going the extra mile (or extra few thousand…) in the name of international duty.

For a group so accustomed to life on the ‘tour bus’, it probably makes perfect sense that they turn to musical expression for a vital dose of creative release. As vastly experienced defender and North Carolina Courage captain Abby Erceg put it (in her 2016 interview on here): “The Ferns are unique, especially when it comes to music. We have a lot of musicians, singers and dancers – talented or not – and we have been together for so long that we are all probably a bit too comfortable with each other.”

Team DJ/collator of requests at times in her international career, Erceg also highlighted forward Hannah Wilkinson ‘and her sidekick Erin Nayler’ for possessing ‘great voices’. So, how does the Ferns’ shot-stopper plead to that one?

“I used to sing more than I do now,” Erin explains. “I think I’ve kind of lost my voice over the years!”

“But I do enjoy singing, and when I got here to Reading, I picked up a little three-quarter guitar, because I wanted to get back into learning that again. Hopefully, in a year, I can be as good as Hannah Wilkinson!”

From the 19-year-olds at the 2011 World Cup, to two of the foremost Kiwi players today, those two have been on the footballing ride together for some time. Current Djurgårdens IF player Wilkinson (who featured on here in 2014 and 2017) has frequently showcased her guitar and vocal talent in recent years, even releasing her own material.

While Erin’s performances have been altogether more exclusive, she did draw upon her international ‘band life’ experiences shortly after joining Reading. Although since finding a flat with her fiancé Jordan, it was temporary accommodation when she first arrived with the Royals, and this Auckland native had to get creative.

“When we got here, there was no TV, so I was thinking ‘what could I do with my time?’ I thought I’d pick up the guitar again and I just grabbed one off Facebook Marketplace.

“It’s been a good little learning guitar, just a cheap one. I’ve been doing a little bit of Red Hot Chili Peppers; just the intro for ‘Californication’.

“A little bit of trying to learn Six60, which is a New Zealand band, but it was quite difficult; I think it’s for the more advanced players!”

On the field at least, she certainly fits that description, with Reading landing themselves a player who has so far been to four major tournaments (three World Cups). The 28-year-old was also a pivotal part of the New Zealand side that made headlines with the 1-0 win over England in Brighton in the final World Cup warm-up game last summer.

She arrived in the FA Women’s Super League off the back of four years in France, latterly with Bordeaux, which she feels was a particularly helpful precursor.

“I think coming from France, being there for four years, really tested a lot, so coming here to an English-speaking country, it’s been a lot easier to deal with things, in terms of setting everything up. On-the-field stuff, the first week definitely was quite challenging, just coming into a new team, having travelled 58 hours from New Zealand.

“I was quite jet-lagged for that first week. I’m settling in now, I’m starting to find my feet again.

“It’s taken a few weeks but I’m pretty comfortable here and I’m enjoying it. I came over with my fiancé, which has been a big help.

“I’ve always wanted to play in the league here; it’s a really strong and highly-regarded league.”

It could perhaps have been sooner, as she explains when asked of previous possibilities of moving to England.

“After the World Cup, I actually got a couple of offers from teams here, but I was still obviously contracted with Bordeaux, so I had to honour that. It’s definitely been on my radar for a while and now I’m glad to be here.”

The customary singing initiation hasn’t happened as yet, and if she isn’t fortunate enough to sidestep it, maybe one from the first album she ever bought would do the job. Such a throwback, though, carries a risk…of flying firmly over the heads of the younger players, given that the teen MTV reality star behind it just turned 36!

“This is quite easy to remember because I wanted it so badly! It’s kind of embarrassing but it was Ashlee Simpson; I don’t know why I liked her music back then but I was obviously obsessed with her.

“So I really liked her, and then the other album I got around the same time was by Simple Plan, which was rock.”

There is usually a contrast between the first we bought to what we listen to as adults, so what tends to dominate for Erin today?

“I kind of enjoy a mix of music, there’s not one particular genre I would say I like more than others. At the moment on my Spotify, I really like Hozier, so he’d be up there as one of my favourite artists.

“Alt-J and Sticky Fingers as well. I have a real mix on my Spotify, so a lot of new music; I kind of go to the top hits.

“When I was growing up, I actually really liked rock music, but now it’s more towards the sort of pop, or indie.”

If Ashlee Simpson struck a chord with a certain segment of mid-2000s adolescents, Paramore did likewise – and to a comfortably greater degree – in the years that followed. Erin, who went to school in Takapuna on Auckland’s North Shore, recalls Hayley Williams and company coming to town.

“I haven’t been to too many (live shows) but I remember my first one was Paramore, so it was when I was in my teens as well, when I enjoyed that type of music. The first time was with my friends, and then the second time, my fiancé got me a ticket.

“I saw Ellie Goulding as well in New Zealand and she was really good.”

As a well-regarded up-and-coming prospect, Erin was named as an alternate for the 2012 Olympics, which of course saw music an integral and memorable part of the opening and closing ceremonies in London. With New Zealand’s games taking place in Cardiff, Coventry and Newcastle, the team didn’t get to see all that firsthand (no Spice Girls!), but here, Erin gets her golden ticket, and she can even play around with the rules of time.

So if she could see any act (living or dead) in their true performing glory, who would she choose?

“It would be awesome to see one of those legendary bands, like The Beatles, or even Red Hot Chili Peppers I’d really enjoy.”

Speaking of the Chilis, thanks to football’s aforementioned initiation tradition, Erin was left with some ‘Scar Tissue’ of her own, when with the national team in Switzerland some years ago!

“Oh, yeah, that was horrible. I remember that very vividly, it was a bit scarring actually!

“I think it was an Adele song, so that was a poor choice; a very hard song to sing. I think it was ‘Set Fire to the Rain’.

“At Bordeaux, luckily, I escaped with no initiation.”

Although spending time with several clubs back home, as well as Lyon and Grenoble before Bordeaux, her national team experiences have really been the principle parts of her career so far. In amongst the music memories with the Ferns was ‘Wilky and the Uku-Ladies’.

“I remember at the Rio Olympics we formed a little band, a ukulele band. Hannah (Wilkinson) was teaching everyone the basic chords to play the ukuleles, and everyone was actually quite good at it!”

Along with the humour and the added unity it harnesses for teammates, music is never difficult to find on a match day – from the stadium speakers to the changing room. Erin describes how it tends to work when it comes to her preferred personal routine.

“I’m more of a quiet one, so I’ll keep to myself and try and get my mind ready for the game. I’ll listen to the music that they have, though, because they have good choices, but I’m not one of those crazy ones.

“There are a few in the Ferns that get up and dance; I don’t know how they’re not tired before they go out!”

Understanding and refining what works for her in general has been critically important over the years, and is central in why she is still playing – and playing professionally – at 28. The Ferns’ number one throughout their 2015 and 2019 World Cup campaigns, and the 2016 Olympics, Erin recently released her e-book on the mental side of goalkeeping, which aims to provide a toolkit for keepers of various levels.

Writing actually links in well with the mental balance she looks to find as a player.

“I do a lot of writing, which I really enjoy. I sort of did it on the side to earn some extra money but I also enjoy the creative side of it.

“I’m also doing a university course at the moment, a Diploma in Health from the Naturopathic College in New Zealand. I think having those things on the side can really balance life, which is really important, because if goalkeeping was the only thing I did, I think it would be so tough to not have anything to take your mind away from that, especially when you’ve made a mistake or haven’t performed.”

She can reflect on a sizeable developmental journey since the early days. She remembers her time as a New Zealand Under-20 as anything but comfortable for the most part, but ultimately, a fundamental push towards the career she has since carved out.

The standout coach she cites from her time in football so far is English, and Burton Albion’s academy manager in the men’s game currently.

“Growing up, I had a goalkeeper coach for a long period of time; he was my coach for the national team, Danny Robinson. He took me from Under-20s, and his approach was very unique, but I think it really worked for me at that age.

“It really got me focused, so he was very intense, and he demanded standards. If I wasn’t focused one day, he would know straight away.

“It really made me mentally strong, I think, and that was what I needed at that age. Now, I’m at a point where I know if I’ve had a bad game, and I think the most important thing is my learning from that to carry through.

“I will approach every training session with intensity and train like I play. I do still like having lots of feedback; getting different opinions is good but I still know what I need to do.”

It would be a stretch to say players typically welcome the less enjoyable experiences, though it is said that there is more to be learned from the tougher times, and one short stint was definitely that for Erin.

“My most challenging time would be the first contract I went into, and that was Sky Blue, in America, and I don’t even really regard that as part of my career now; I kind of try and write it off because it was such a bad experience. I was only there for three weeks, and then obviously didn’t get any game time, and it was very challenging, but I think mentally I came back stronger from that.

“That was an Olympic year and my performances actually got better because of that, I think.”

In those Rio 2016 Games, Erin had an Olympic clean sheet to enjoy in the 1-0 win over Colombia in what was a hugely challenging group also containing France and world champions the USA. The US were also the opponents for one of her career’s undoubtedly memorable games.

In only her eighth senior appearance for the Ferns, she saved the legendary Abby Wambach’s penalty to help earn a 1-1 friendly draw in Columbus, Ohio in October 2013. For Erin, who also had a collegiate year Stateside (at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne), the happiest times she has had in the game overall have certainly been internationally.

“I think everywhere I’ve been it’s been quite challenging. What I find the most enjoyable is just playing on the world stage with the national team; it’s not really a specific period but I think nothing can beat representing your country.

“Travelling the whole world with your best friends and playing in front of thousands of people, it’s a pretty cool experience.”

Naturally, she has some prime candidates in mind for the regular ‘cover song’ question. So, if she was in the studio and needed one or more teammates from her career to collaborate with…?

“This one’s easy. This would be Hannah Wilkinson, and then we’d get Katie Bowen in there as well, to be a back-up singer.

“We’ve actually done a couple before; ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, we used to love doing that song. So we’d probably do something from that genre.”

Utah Royals defender/midfielder Katie Bowen has often served the pre-game tracks up with the Ferns in recent times. This year has of course forced upon so many people a break in so much of what they enjoy – like those lighter moments with teammates.

Although football has returned in its mostly crowdless form since, there was plenty of time earlier on in 2020 where players were separated from the company and the routine they recognise. In football and life, if certain songs were playing during a significant moment, then the reminders can be instantly brought to life at the pressing of a play button, no matter how many years later. That is the way of it for Erin, too.

“I think no matter what you’re going through or which stage of your life you’re in, you have songs around that time, and then they can also bring back memories. Like if I listen to a song that I was listening to when I joined this team or whatever.

“For some reason, you always go to music that fits the mood as well; if I’m sad, I listen to sad music. I think it’s just natural for people to do that, but it definitely helps.”

It is haunting how songs can seem to perfectly align with someone’s sentiments at a particular moment. Having somebody who understands where you’re coming from is always important, even if it’s just the voice in your earphones!

For goalkeepers, nobody truly knows the intricacies of their craft like those who have played the position themselves. As such, criticism from pundits can often feel ill-thought-out, if coming from someone outside that world-famous ‘GK Union’.

Erin shares her feelings on that subject.

“The first thing that springs to mind is when a goalkeeper is beaten near post and they always go on about that; I think that’s very circumstantial, so that one just does my head in. I think if anyone isn’t a goalkeeper themselves, hearing opinions that are wrong is really hard to listen to; you have to block them out.

“It’s a very specific position, and if you haven’t been there, I don’t think you should judge, because mentally, it’s a very tough position.”

Having embarked upon the 2011 and 2015 World Cups under the stewardship of English coaches (firstly) John Herdman and (latterly) Tony Readings, it was the sage Scot, Tom Sermanni, at the Ferns helm for last year’s tournament. While they made the Olympic quarter-finals in 2012, New Zealand are still bidding to reach the knockout phase of a World Cup for the first time.

A 2019 group with Canada, Netherlands and Cameroon was far from generous, but hopes were high from within that they were ready to take that fabled ‘next step’, and only heightened by that warm-up win over England. After looking like possibly taking all three points in the opener against the Dutch team, even hitting the crossbar through Olivia Chance, that they were beaten in stoppage time just about encapsulated the feeling of their tournament.

For a group containing a number of players who have gone through several tournament cycles together, the disappointment they were left with in France was significant, though a chance comes again at the rearranged Tokyo Olympics next year. Continuing to fly the flag with her country will remain high on the agenda for Erin.

At club level, meanwhile, going into a new professional and living environment, especially 11,000+ miles from home, will always bring its challenges. Having her fiancé along with her offers an immeasurable help.

“Most of the time we’ve been very fortunate and he’s been able to come with me, wherever I go really, because his job is full-time online. It’s really good, and whenever I get a break, he can still work from wherever, so we can go wherever in the world and he can be a part of everything, which is cool.”

For all the treasures a playing career can hold, the ultimate power – deciding on someone’s chance to play, getting that new contract, making a tournament squad – doesn’t lie with the player themselves. That can so often prove the greatest heartbreak, but in the regular closing question, Erin gets to truly be number one, as both goalkeeper and manager.

Through the years, this one has worked by the interviewee envisaging a 5-a-side game, for which they need to select four teammates from their career to play alongside. There is no emphasis on choosing their outright ‘best’ four they have ever played with, just simply a sample mix of those they have especially enjoyed being on a pitch with.

“I’m gonna say…Carol Rodrigues (forward), from Bordeaux, my Brazilian teammate. I’d have my two best friends, Hannah Wilkinson and Katie Bowen.

“So those three, and who else would I have? CJ Bott (defender) would be pretty fun, too.”

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