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Poignant test for Football Ferns keeper

Dynamic Football Ferns goalkeeper Erin Nayler faces her first test at home without her beloved No. 1 supporter in the stands. Suzanne McFadden reports

It's a friendly match. But Football Ferns goalkeeper Erin Nayler knows the clash with Japan on Sunday, before a Wellington crowd, will be one of the most challenging and emotional games she’s played in her 53-cap international career.

It has little to do with the opposition, although the Asian champions Japan are ranked seventh in the world to the New Zealanders’ standing of 20th.  

Neither is it about adjusting to a completely new style of play under the Ferns’ new coach, Andreas Heraf. That, she says, won’t be a problem.

Nor does it revolve around acclimatising after the long journey from the southwest of France to Wellington. For the first time, Nayler was able to fly home in business class, and she savoured every minute of it.

What will be weighing heavily on Nayler’s shoulders is that this will be the first match where her greatest fan will be missing from her personal cheer squad in the stands. Nayler’s mother, Diane, died just six weeks ago.

During Nayler’s seven years in the Football Ferns, her parents have been on the side-lines for many of her games, both here and overseas; the 2015 World Cup in Canada and the 2016 Rio Olympics among them. Her mother would get up at 3am in Auckland to watch her daughter’s professional club games in Bordeaux.

“It will be hard. She was my biggest supporter,” Nayler says.

After her mum passed away in April, Nayler returned to France to finish a bittersweet professional season with her club FC Girondins de Bordeaux. “I was very busy. But now, coming back to a home game that she would have been at, this will be a much harder game for me.”

She’s heartened knowing there will be still a strong support crew in the stands at Westpac Stadium. “There’s a group of 15 family members - aunties and uncles, my dad, my siblings and their partners will all be there.

“It’s cool knowing they’re there for you, no matter how you play. I’m sure my dad would be behind the goal if he could be. But they will be close enough.”

Nayler is also focused on what she wants to achieve from this game – the first at home for the Football Ferns in three years; the first in the capital in 27 years. The friendly match serves as a build-up to their World Cup qualification in New Caledonia in November.

The introduction of coach Heraf hasn’t been a completely smooth transition, as the team come to grips with a new performance-driven ethos.  

“It still feels the same, because the core of the team is the same and our culture is so strong,” Nayler says. “The only thing is adjusting to the new style of play, and sometimes that takes a little while for the team to fully understand that style, and to execute it on the pitch.

“We play completely differently now. We play a safer game, I guess. And we’re really looking to get results. That’s always has been our aim, but now there’s more emphasis on not conceding [goals] and getting results that way to start with. Then looking at how we can score and get points.

“I want to help the team as much as I can to not concede. Obviously that’s always my job in goal. But I think I’ve had a good season in Bordeaux and I want to keep building on that and keep learning.

“Now is the time when you take what you learn, before a World Cup or an Olympics, and iron everything out. I will analyse my game afterwards and see what I can learn from it. That’s assuming I start, of course.”

It would be a pretty safe bet that Nayler will be in the starting XI against Nadeshiko Japan. The other two keepers in the Football Ferns squad don’t boast the same experience - Rangitoto College goalkeeper Anna Leat has played three games for New Zealand, while 18-year-old Nadia Olla is in the Ferns camp for the first time.

Nayler feels her own game has flourished in her first season with Bordeaux. Last year she played for the champion Olympique Lyon side in the Division 1 Féminine league, but she got little time in front of the goalmouth.

“Now that I’m with Bordeaux, I’ve loved playing with them. The culture, the people and the team,” she says.

“But the main thing for me has been getting that game time. Playing every week, I’ve been able to make improvements in my game. The French are very technical, so I’ve improved a lot with my feet as well.”

Her command of the French language is also progressing after a stuttering start.

Bordeaux finished seventh – in the middle of the table – when the season ended last month, but it was a major improvement on the previous season, when the club just missed relegation. Now the No.1 keeper, Nayler's contract has been extended for another two years.

Flying home in business class earlier this week was a privilege that Nayler, and her Football Ferns team-mates, have long awaited. It comes as a major element of their Collective Bargaining Agreement with New Zealand Football.

“To be treated the same as the All Whites is so cool, and the travel part of it is a huge achievement. We’re already seeing the benefits of that this week,” Nayler says.

“The other girls are saying how they usually arrive and they’re so tired and sore. But this time we’re all feeling fresh. It makes a huge difference to how we prepare as a team.”

Experienced midfielder Betsy Hassett was the last of the Football Ferns to arrive in Wellington yesterday, flying in from Iceland. Today will be the first training of the full squad.

“It’s always a little disjointed to start with, but our team is super tight. As soon as we see each other, it’s like we’ve never been apart,” says Nayler.

The Japanese side, who won this year’s Asian Cup title, promise to give the Ferns a fierce challenge in their build-up to qualifying for next year’s World Cup in France.

“They’re a very strong team. I’ve played against them a few times, and it’s usually a tight game. So it should be exciting,” Nayler says. “It will be good to test as to where we are at the moment. We lost to Scotland in our last couple of games, so we’re hoping to have improved.”

After the game, Nayler will return home to Auckland for a couple of weeks.

Before she returns to Bordeaux to start training for the new season in mid-July, she plans to go on holiday with her family, most likely to India - continuing the legacy of her mother's passion for travel. 

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