It will be a strange feeling for the Football Ferns when they fly out to Dallas for their opening international of 2012 against the reigning Olympic Women’s Football gold medallists, the USA.
Where in the past the majority of those chosen have been New Zealand-based, with so many Football Ferns now plying their trade abroad there will be very few of our foremost female footballers boarding the plane at Jean Batten International.
Indeed, there will almost be as many members of staff as there are players heading north for a match which takes place at 10am on Sunday, 12 February, NZ time, with just six home-based internationals chosen for the trip, two of whom are hoping to make their full debuts in this clash against a traditional powerhouse of the women’s game.
Erin Nayler, an unused ‘keeper at the FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals in Germany, and Holly Patterson, Claudelands Rovers’ jet-heeled flank operator who was a late replacement for the injured Emma Kete, are the duo who would relish the chance to grace the same pitch as the likes of Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd every bit as much as a player for whom this match could mark a significant career milestone.
Amber Hearn is poised to become the thirteenth Football Fern to make her fiftieth appearance for her country if she takes the field at the FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, although as is typical of our number nine, she’s making no assumptions..
“We will see when I'm in the States if I‘m chosen”, said the striker of her prospects of representing her country as she prepared to fly across the Atlantic from her current location in Jena, Germany, where she plays for Frauen Bundesliga club USV Jena.
Having graced the colours of Arsenal and Doncaster Rovers Belles in the mid-2000s, and Ottawa Fury at the tail end of the last decade, playing in one of the world’s foremost women’s leagues has proven to be an interesting and challenging experience for Hearn, as she explains.
“When you're playing the top teams - Turbine Potsdam, Duisburg and FFC Frankfurt are the leading teams in Germany - it's like playing an international game, which is always good. But the first half of the season was the hardest, without question”, says Jena’s post-World Cup signing.
“It took me at least four to five months to settle in, given I was coming into a new squad, coping with the communication barrier and having to visually know what I was doing and what was going on in training.
“Things are different now though. I went home for Christmas and New Year and came back to Jena refreshed. It’s a different feeling for the second half of the season, for sure.
“I know the girls, I'm happy, I understand most of the conversations on and off the field”, she laughs, “but most of all I'm enjoying my football. I’ve definitely come back myself”.
Which is great news for both club and country, with the Frauen Bundesliga set to resume a week after the Football Ferns take on a team which recently qualified for the Olympics by taking out the CONCACAF title in convincing fashion.
The USA match marks New Zealand’s first step on the road to London 2012, and a tougher assignment surely couldn’t be possible. It’s one Amber and her team-mates will relish, though, keen as they are to make a solid start to their own Olympics campaign.
“It is important to make a solid start to any campaign
Amber in action during her 49th appearance for the Football Ferns, against Mexico in Germany
In action for USV Jena
Spoils of war. The OFC 2010 Women's Nations Cup Golden Boot winner proudly shows off another addition to her trophy cabinet
we're involved in”, declares a player with over 200 goals in senior women’s football to her name. “The majority of the Football Ferns are now based outside New Zealand, so we will all be coming together for the first time since the World Cup.
“The most exciting thing will be to see the change in individual performances and how much that can take us further”.
There have, of course, been a number of changes behind the scenes since that World Cup campaign, with then coach John Herdman now in charge of the Canadian national team, where he has been joined by a few of the Football Ferns staff.
Tony Readings has stuck with the ship, however, and the USA encounter will mark his debut in the hot-seat, having stepped up from the assistant coaching role which is now the domain of another new appointment in Gordon Forrest.
Amber is adamant that the changes will prove positive ones for Oceania’s champions. “The most important thing is that we are still a team.
“There have been a lot of changes in the staff particularly, but all the girls that are based in New Zealand still show up to every training. It just shows the dedication this team has. We know this year is an important year and we will continue to progress on the field”.
At the same time, the former Lynn-Avon United markswoman is keen to acknowledge the contribution made by the coaching staff, both the current combination and their predecessors.
“They’ve certainly made the biggest impact on the game since I made my debut in 2004, that’s for sure. I think that's the first time I have ever been in the NZ team and had the same coach for years instead of months!
“Seriously, though, they’ve changed everything, not only in our squad but throughout the entire NZ football development system. The hard work we all put in to make our training sessions effective nearly every morning and night is just one example of their influence in this regard”.
Amber has greatly benefited from their input, particularly given the fact she wasn’t involved at all at national level during the first eighteen months of Herdman’s reign. When she did force her way into contention, her impact was instant - the match-winning goal against Argentina at the 2008 Peace Queen Cup was followed by a goal against Japan at the Beijing Olympics later that year.
There have been other memorable strikes since then, of course, including winning goals against Holland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, while her most recent goal for the Football Ferns, again against Japan, earned Amber the notoriety of being the only New Zealander to score in both the Olympics and a World Cup Finals.
“Along with a whole host of memories, being part of the squads at both the Olympics and the World Cup is one of the highlights of my career to date”, declares the 27-year-old, who has another milestone in her sights - eclipsing 29-goal Wendy Sharpe as the Football Ferns’ all-time leading goalscorer, a tally Amber is just six goals shy of equalling.
Before then, however, this proud young Kiwi will don the silver fern-badged number nine jersey she has made her own for the fiftieth time in a full international. It’s probably too much to hope Amber Hearn will mark the milestone with another winning goal, but then who expected to see a cat appear on a football pitch this week?