Hannah Wilkinson interview: ‘Are You Experienced?’ – Football Ferns hotshot is the Vols’ Voodoo Child

Photo: Tennessee Athletics / Matthew DeMaria
Photo: Tennessee Athletics / Matthew DeMaria

Collegiate players with World Cup and Olympic experience are hard to come by, but the University of Tennessee’s Hannah Wilkinson fits the bill, and when she is not battling defenders the New Zealand striker is putting her creativity to equally worthwhile use.

Since her international debut against Australia just over four years ago, the 21-year-old has become an integral attacking player for New Zealand’s Football Ferns. Hannah has been helping to lead the charge for Tony Readings’ team in the Cyprus Cup and has hit the target in both of their games so far. An 87th-minute equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Ireland in the first match was followed up with the opening goal in a 2-1 defeat to Switzerland on Friday (7th March).

Her recent scoring exploits have taken her onto 19 goals for her country in 53 appearances and she has a number of major tournaments under her belt already. In addition to FIFA Under-20 World Cups in 2010 and 2012, Hannah scored a dramatic equaliser against Mexico to secure the Ferns’ first ever World Cup point in 2011. The team had been 2-0 down in that game and it was defender and captain Rebecca Smith, an in-depth interviewee on here last year, who started the comeback with the match already into injury time.

‘Bex’ and Hannah were also part of the side that reached the quarter-finals of the 2012 tournament in the London Olympics. Hannah’s standing continues to grow in the international game but she has been juggling that side of her endeavours with studying at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. The air miles are clocked up on a consistent basis and it is certainly a task for Hannah in combining college life with her on-field career.

The one-time Kamo High School student is deployed as a central striker for UT’s Lady Vols soccer team and there is no disputing her value to coach Brian Pensky’s squad. The idea behind my interviews on this site is blending the beautiful game with music and Hannah is one of those to represent that link so well.

“Music is a very, very important aspect in my life,” she said. “It’s a perfect release from the pressures on the field, which is why I make sure I have my guitar with me everywhere I go with my team.”

There are a good amount of players in the male and female game who love music and also know how to hold a note. Not all of them take that and put their efforts into coming up with their own material however. As we will hear more about later on in the interview, Hannah has performed her own songs and cover versions in public.

She has written three of her own tracks so far including this one – ‘Lean Into Me’. The Marvin Gaye classic ‘Sexual Healing’, covered by numerous artists such as the Grammy Award-winning Ben Harper, is also one that Hannah has laced with her impressive vocals.



She comes from the northern city of Whangarei and is very proud of her Kiwi heritage. It is quite fitting then that the act she names as her overall number one have a song called ‘Don’t Forget Your Roots’.

“I enjoy many genres of music – it always depends what mood I’m in. I’m very fond of Kings of Leon and other rock ‘n’ roll bands, and I’m a crazy fan of Jimi Hendrix.
“I also really like dubstep and trap music. My overall favourite band would have to be Six60, a New Zealand band.”

A former North Force player in her home city, Hannah has undoubtedly got a thing for coming up with a dramatic goal when her team needs it! This was illustrated again last October as the Ferns came up twice against the US Women’s National Team.

The Ferns had been beaten 4-1 by the world number ones in San Francisco with Hannah scoring past Nicole Barnhart. However, it was in the second match-up, this time at Major League Soccer team Columbus Crew’s stadium, that she would snatch a well-deserved draw late in the day. She cancelled out a goal from Sydney Leroux (another past interviewee on here) by firing past Hope Solo after some great work to find her by defensive teammate Rebekah Stott.

Her Lady Vols counterparts know all about her ability to make it happen late on and this led to a great team moment in October which ranks as a special one for Hannah. Trailing 1-0 at home to Auburn, Hannah’s parried shot after a bustling run was put away by Katie Lenz in the 89th minute and there were some ecstatic celebrations from all those of a Vols persuasion. There was no goal in the resulting overtime so the equaliser was decisive.

Hannah’s height (5 foot 11) often gets mentioned when it comes to her play and besides her physical prowess, which includes a strong turn of pace, she has the technical ability to match. All that is important, but what about the tunes she brings to the locker room when game day comes around?!

“I often get asked for my iPod in the changing room, just because I keep it up-to-date with all the latest mainstream popular stuff. The most popular choice among our national team is Beyonce.
“A lot of the girls don’t mind a quick dance before the match. It’s pretty entertaining.”

The aforementioned Bex Smith, who retired from football at 32 years of age last September, was a big influence on Hannah in their time playing together for New Zealand. In her interview on here heading into her final months as a player, she told how the national team once had a tour to China during which the senior players dressed up and sang Guns N’ Roses to help make the young players feel comfortable!

No matter which team it may be, there can be all kinds of differing musical preferences receiving play on the pre-game sound system. Has Hannah ever encountered what she would consider questionable song choices from those she has played with?

“I wouldn’t say anyone in our team ever had ‘bad’ music tastes – we all seem to like the same stuff!”

A pretty diplomatic answer from the ex-Glenfield Rovers player and 2011 New Zealand Football Young Player of the Year! She started to love the sport at the age of eight and not too many years later she bought her first CD. Looking back, Hannah gives a fairly low rating to her choice of artist, maybe harshly so considering they were one of the UK’s most popular groups at one time!

“I think I was maybe about 10 or 11 and I think it might have been an album by this boy band called Five. Thankfully my music taste has changed since then!”

New Zealand take on South Korea in their final group game of the Cyprus Cup on Monday (10th) in Paralimni before the tournament has its round of concluding matches two days later. Hannah will be aiming to add to her two goals and she may just revisit another type of performance she was responsible for on a previous visit to the country.

“At the end of a tour in Cyprus one year there was a woman performing live on stage in the hotel bar and I managed to get up there to use her acoustic-electric (guitar) and sang ‘Don’t Forget Your Roots’ by Six60 in front of my whole team. That was my first time ever singing on stage and I loved it!
“I also recently performed live in a bar in Knoxville and sang an original song of mine and a cover of ‘Because of You’ by Ne-Yo. I really enjoyed it.”



Hannah comes from a family of footballing enthusiasts as her father Simon coached her and her two brothers, Tom and Samuel. Her sporting hero is her compatriot Paige Hareb, the professional surfer, but naturally there are women’s soccer players she admires greatly. One of those is US striker Abby Wambach, who is the all-time leading international goalscorer (male or female) with 165.

Hannah got to swap shirts with her after the 1-1 draw between the Ferns and the USWNT last year. The US legend has had some amazing games in her career but in that one she had a penalty saved and could not get on the scoresheet. The last line of defence stopping her was the Ferns goalkeeper Hannah names as the most memorable out of all her colleagues who have had to sing for their fellow players.

“Probably my teammate Erin Nayler who had to do her initiation in Switzerland – singing a cappella in front of everyone. She’s a great singer but was so nervous – it was funny!”

Like Hannah, Ferns stopper Nayler is 21 and she was alongside her in the Under-20 World Cups of 2010 and 2012. The Auckland native made her senior debut against Italy last March and Hannah chose her as the teammate she would record a cover version of a song with.

“I would probably say Erin Nayler. We do a lot of singing together on tour anyway and we’re always roommates so there’s plenty of time to practice.
“I would love to perfect the song ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears. A slower, different-sounding cover.”

Hannah studies Psychology at UT having originally taken on the subject at Auckland University of Technology. The story of how she got in contact with coach Brian Pensky is one he remembers very vividly. He was sat in his car in the parking lot waiting for his children after their swimming practice when he read Hannah’s email mentioning she had scored in a World Cup. At that point he decided she would fit into college soccer without too many problems!

For Hannah, the opportunity to hone her playing ability and study in the US is one she has been extremely grateful for. When she first came over though, she had to contend with starting college life and her classes with the semester and the soccer season already well underway. Playing catch-up is never enjoyable or easy but Hannah has shown tremendous determination to deal with the challenges so far.

“I love US college life! It’s very busy but it’s awesome.
“I try to play guitar and have jams with friends as often as possible to take me away from academic and soccer pressures. It provides a good balance.”

Four-time Southeastern Conference Tournament winners under Angela Kelly, the Lady Vols have a tradition of playing predominantly winning soccer. Indeed the 2013 season was their fourth in succession and 14th overall in which they had won more games than they had tied or lost, with an 8-7-4 record.

Canadian national team mainstays Rhian Wilkinson and Marie-Eve Nault have represented the team in the past and the present-day Vols are currently in their spring exhibition schedule with Brian Pensky’s third season looming. Hannah is eligible for one more season on the team and the 2012 NSCAA All-American, who scored eight that year, wants an SEC Championship and a place in the NCAA Final Four.


Photo: Tennessee Athletics / Matthew DeMaria
Photo: Tennessee Athletics / Matthew DeMaria


One of the standout moments from last season came in August as they beat Central Florida 2-1 after falling behind, with Hannah and Katie Lenz getting the goals. Hannah won the Valais Women’s Cup with New Zealand in Switzerland in September, scoring in the 4-0 final win over China before incredibly playing two days later for the Vols against Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

The team narrowly missed out on qualification for the SEC Tournament based on tiebreakers as they finished the regular season tied in 10th. 2014 brings a whole load of new chances for the Vols and senior Hannah is very enthusiastic looking forward, with some terrific memories to savour already.

“The best moments with the Lady Vols were wins against top 10 sides, especially when playing at home in front of our fans. We get a lot of support for our games, which is so awesome – there’s nothing like a good home-game win.
“The bus rides for away games were always very entertaining too!”
With aspirations to play in the top international leagues one day, Hannah has a great grounding at this point, which includes playing at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff against Great Britain and Brazil in the 2012 Olympics. She also started in the last-eight defeat to the eventual winners, the US, at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park and her importance to the Ferns has only grown since then.

The regular final question on here has provided some fantastic responses in the past but it is not an easy one to answer! I ask the player to put themselves into a fantasy 5-a-side team, choosing four of the best teammates they have ever played alongside to join them.

Of course Hannah is still in the early stages of her career, despite the significant experience she already has, but her team provides perfect balance between her life with the Vols and the Ferns. Here she is to describe who made the cut and why!

“Goalkeeper – Erin Nayler (New Zealand) – the best keeper I know, saved a penalty against Abby Wambach!
“Defender – Rebekah Stott (New Zealand) – a really solid and attacking-minded centre-back.
“Midfielder – Cheyenne Spade (Lady Vols) – a really smart player who can read my runs in behind and slip me the ball.
“Striker – Alexis Owens (Lady Vols) – a really fast and positive player who was so good to combine with up front.”

Follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes

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