in the background

'We don't often get the chance to shine': The goalkeeping coach behind Ireland's World Cup hero

Nigel Henderson speaks to The42 about working with goalkeeper of the Hockey World Cup Ayeisha McFerran.

HOCKEY COACHING WILL always be a ‘poor substitute’ for playing in Nigel Henderson’s life, but helping Ireland to achieve a World Cup silver medal helps to fill a good portion of the void.

Henderson Nigel Henderson standing alongside Ayeisha McFerran. Nigel Henderson Nigel Henderson

After retiring from playing as a goalkeeper in 2008 at the age of 40, Henderson made an almost immediate transition into coaching, a role which he has held throughout the intervening 10 years.

He’s known as ‘Nidge’ in hockey circles and is not to be confused with the misunderstood gangster protagonist in the former Irish TV drama ‘Love Hate.’

“I’m the original Nidge,” he tells The42. ”That’s my nickname from school. They just stole the name off me.”

Through his work as a goalkeeping coach, Henderson has worked with the likes of two-time World Hockey Keeper of the Year David Harte as well as Ireland’s current goalkeeping duo Ayeisha McFerran and Grace O’Flanagan who featured at the World Cup.

McFerran was heralded as the star for Ireland at the end of the tournament, but Henderson has always been there in the background guiding her along.

Boarding the plane to London for Ireland’s first World Cup appearance in 16 years, Henderson knew that a win and a draw in the pool stages would be enough to see the second lowest-ranked team in the tournament safely through to the quarter-finals.

With some luck on their side, Graham Shaw’s side could even enjoy a prosperous campaign.

What unfolded, however, turned out to be a very different journey that surpassed everyone’s expectations.

Their progress quickly drew attention nationwide after they topped Pool B and Irish audiences tuned in to watch them go all the way to a historic World Cup decider against the then seven-time winners the Netherlands.

Their quarter-final and semi-final fixtures against India and Spain went to penalty shootouts where McFerran excelled between the sticks on both occasions.

Players even remarked at the time that they knew victory was theirs at shootout time, such was their level of confidence in McFerran’s abilities.

Henderson could see that kind of potential in the Larne native when he first started working with her as an 18-year-old and he was filled with pride when she collected the goalkeeper of the tournament award at the end of the World Cup.

“You could see Ayeisha was a big-game player,” he recalls, “but she just needed a bit of fine-tuning and she’s matured and learned a lot about herself in the last number of years.

She had fast feet and a certain amount of power. You could see it in her. Generally goalies are born not made and then you just try and develop that inner goalkeeper in them.

“I think you can see from her performances that the bigger the crowd, the bigger she grew into it.

I was nervous as a kitten inside but you can’t show that because they’ll feed off that. We were totally confident because she’s very good at them. And the way she was playing, she was on such a roll. She wasn’t going to be beaten.

“I was chuffed and over the moon for her. It was unbelievable, it was a fitting end to the brilliant two weeks that she had.

Every goalkeeper knows that there’s a lot more bad days than there are good days so you take the good days when they come along. We don’t often get the chance to shine in the limelight and I was delighted for her.”

McFerran was well prepared for the possibility of the World Cup games going to penalty shootouts. Speaking on Second Captains during the week, she explained how team Ireland’s video analyst Mark Kavanagh provided her with footage of the key shooters in the opposition as they were going along.

She pored over the clips and acquainted herself with the attacking style of each player and what they were most likely to do in those eight seconds before pulling the trigger.

Henderson also points out that the Ireland team went through as many penalty shootout scenarios as possible in the build-up to the tournament.

“Most times when we would play an international in the lead-up to a tournament, we would do shootouts after every game,” he says.

Ayeisha McFerran celebrates McFerran holding her World Cup award. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“We’d do a shootout against the opposition because you need to be doing shootouts against opponents.

“You just get an idea of what players like to do, if they like to come close to you or bring the ball wide or take it early. And then you can prepare your strategy based on what they would normally do because they normally revert back to what they’re most comfortable at when they’re under the most pressure.

“We’d always try and make the striker wait as long as possible and take her time getting into the goal so you’re ready. The pressure is on them and the goalie has such a big advantage. If the goalie doesn’t commit early and stays as long as possible, the eight seconds can run out very quickly.”

When the shootouts materialised in the World Cup, Henderson knew she was ready.

In those few moments between the full-time hooter and the first penalties against India and Spain, Henderson knew that the Ireland number one would prepare herself in the right way for what was coming down the line.

“You’d pretty much leave her to it but you’d have your prep done. You’d have a strategy for the shootouts and that’d be all done. You’re just trying to keep her calm and keep her focused that hopefully her mind isn’t wandering and it wasn’t wandering at all.

“She was focused the whole way through it.”

Despite the natural admiration for her incredible individual achievement at the World Cup, McFerran has been eager to deflect the attention on to her other teammates, the substitute goalkeeper O’Flanagan, and of course, Henderson.

Ireland’s coach Shaw has also singled him out for praise.

Graham Shaw Graham Shaw Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“I have to pay credit to Nigel Henderson,” he told reporters after Ireland’s semi-final win over Spain.

“What a goalkeeping coach, not just with Ayeisha and other keepers in Ireland. We are incredibly lucky to have that man coaching our goalkeepers. He trains them not only to be a top goalkeeper but also to be mentally strong and composed in different situations.”

McFerran was the star of the tournament but O’Flanagan played an instrumental part in their journey too, coming on to make an important save against India which helped them secure a spot at the World Cup in the first place.

She was also introduced in the defeat to the Netherlands in the final after missing six months of action between 2015 and 2016 following a cancer diagnosis, which she has recently spoken about in an interview with the Irish Examiner.

“The goalkeepers are a team within a team and the support Grace gives Ayeisha is phenomenal and it’s a really hard role as a number two goalkeeper to sit on the bench and watch the other goalkeeper playing really well,” Henderson explains.

“But then in fairness when she got her 15 minutes of fame she took to it like a duck to water and that’s a real credit to her and I was delighted she got to play in the World Cup too.

“She came on and saved a penalty stroke against India and we went on to win that game 2-1 so she had a vital part to play in that too.”

63d7c580-78db-4e24-9c48-5a82dbb56427 The team within a team - Nigel Henderson with McFerran and Grace O'Flanagan.

The team was treated to a rousing reception when they returned to Dublin on Monday but amidst the celebrations and singing of Christmas songs on stage in front of a packed homecoming crowd, discussions quickly followed about funding and the need to improve resources for hockey.

The sacrifices that the Irish crew have made has also been a discussion point and Henderson is no exception. He works as a cabinet-maker and his employer allowed him to undertake a four-day working week to focus on his coaching duties in advance of the World Cup.

“It’s like everything, it’s a labour of love,” he says. “If you didn’t enjoy doing it and the work, you wouldn’t do it. It’s nice to put some knowledge back into the game.

“When I played for so long and had so much knowledge. And I’d encourage other players to do the same when they stop playing to put some of your knowledge back into the game because it does give you satisfaction to see a young goalie and you work on something at training.

“It might take a year or it might take 18 months but then you see that save happening in a big game and it does wonders for you.”

Qualifying for a first Olympics after narrowly missing out on securing a spot at Rio 2016 is the next major objective for this team.

The Ireland team celebrate on stage 6/8/2018 Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

Suggestions have been put forward by many as to how that can be achieved, and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross has announced a windfall €1.5 million in funding to go towards Olympic preparation with hockey due to receive a ‘significant amount of that.’

Henderson believes that implementing a system which allows the players to work and train more regularly is critical if they are to reach that goal.

Nothing eclipses the thrill of playing between the sticks, but the former Ireland international has found a new way to find joy in the sport as he continues to help his country capitalise on their historic success.

Goalkeeper Nigel Henderson raises the Irish Senior Cup Henderson holding the Irish Senior Cup in 2008. Morgan Treacy / INPHO Morgan Treacy / INPHO / INPHO

“ Nothing beats playing or standing between the goals and nothing beats that. It’s a poor substitute but it’s still great to be involved.

“To think when we started out two weeks ago that we were going to end up with a silver medal, it was unbelievable to be honest.”

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