Olympian and 2018 World Cup silver medalist Hannah Matthews has confirmed her retirement from international hockey having been a crucial figure in the Green Army’s rise over the past seven years and 157 caps.
Since making her debut in 2014, the Loreto woman has been one of the first names on the team sheet, being an ever-present at each major tournament during that time.
“It’s 150 more caps than I thought I would ever get,” she said in the wake of her decision. “There was a long period where I wasn’t involved but once I got in, it was a case of grabbing the opportunity and I have enjoyed every second of it.
Matthews is something of a rarity as a “one-club” player, lining out for Loreto since she was eight-years-old, combining club life with her successful school days at Loreto Beaufort. With them, she scored the winning goal in the Leinster Schoolgirls Senior Cup final in 2008 in a 2-1 success against Alexandra College. The likes of Mary Barnwell, Paula O’Donoghue and Eimear Campion proved the best of mentors during those years.
Scoring big goals became a habit in those early years. While still a teenager – under the tutelage of future Irish coach Graham Shaw – she won the inaugural Women’s Irish Hockey League title in 2009 and, a year later, took the Irish Senior Cup final win against Railway Union; Matthews was raised and carried aloft by her team mates when she scored the winning penalty stroke.
They are the kind of early career highlights that often lead to instant Irish call-ups but the now 30-year-old had to bide her time, a difficult situation but one, in hindsight, widened her horizons.
“I don’t know what other people thought but I did have that expectation. I played Under-16, Under-18, Under-21 and I saw other people getting called in and you do start to think ‘this is not going to happen for me’. I worked on what I could work on and when the opportunity came, I was very much ready for it at 23. I had my college years, had a social life and so it worked out pretty well and I was lucky!
“I was playing away with Loreto and that was such a big thing for me, lining out in such a competitive team who wanted to play at a high standard.
“One year, I just sucked it up and worked on my fitness and got a call-up. I almost didn’t go to the trial weekend because it was in the middle of my teaching practice but I went and haven’t looked back since.”
That call came from coach Darren Smith who she reckons wans’t “a huge fan of mine at the start but he kept an open mind and called me in. I owe so much to him”.
From her debut In the idyllic vineyard setting in Mori, she describes it as a “whirlwind” from the devastation of missing out on the Rio Olympics to winning the EuroHockey Championship II a couple of weeks later.
“Darren wanted me to get in there, make my debut, get my cap as quickly as possible. He set a tone of a professional squad. Everyone took it so seriously, it was such a self-driven team which he ran from above. It was a great environment to come into. Obviously, it is everyone’s dream to play in an Olympics so that next summer was really tough to take but it did drive us.”
That drive propelled Matthews and the side through the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign and ultimately becoming part of Irish sporting legend with the silver medal.
“You still look back and think it was almost like a holiday compared to Tokyo! We were having the time of our lives. It was so close to heartbreak all over again when you look back [at the qualifiers in South Africa].
“Grace [O’Flanagan] came off the bench, made that incredible save against India and it was such a game-changer, something we have in the memory bank that whatever happens, we can come through it. The road that got us there was definitely important and I would not change it.”
She became a softly-spoken but powerful voice within the team, notably speaking up about the side’s search for a sponsor in the months before the London madness that summer.
“It is hard to boil it down to money but it makes such a difference. Like if we hadn’t had them, we would have been booted out of our hotel in the World Cup because we overstayed our welcome! Little things like that don’t even cross your mind.
“SoftCo and Park Developments allowed us go part-time and train professionally. If we are going to compete against the best, we have to have the resources and facilities to do so. We have to players who can commit to it, staff who can commit to it. It was so difficult when we just came together on a Sunday and then training regionally during the week.”
During that time, she was able to jobshare her teaching role at the Holy Trinity National School in Leopardstown. She is forever grateful for the school and her colleagues to allow her to do so, a healthy situation she knows was an option not afforded to a number of her team mates.
She did not think she would be in that position for quite so long, though, once Olympic qualification for Tokyo was in the bank.
“Of all the things you try to envision, you could never forsee a global pandemic. You just start thinking this might not happen for us. Up until Christmas, I kept checking any social media or news to see what was happening.
“It was worth the wait. For me, it certainly put things in perspective. I always knew I was going to retire after the Olympics. It was almost like another bite of the cherry for preparation and I went into the year wanting to enjoy every second of it, whether I got picked or not.
“I wanted to walk off and say I played my best hockey and enjoyed it. That was very freeing and I do think I played some of my best stuff in an Irish jersey compared to the year before.”
Having given her all in Japan, she is content to step back despite current Irish coach Sean Dancer keeping the door open for a comeback if she is keen
“100% – it was a decision I took a while to make. I didn’t take it lightly and I was honest with Sean. He was brilliant that I could have that honest conversation and it didn’t affect my selection for the Olympics or personal issues.
“It’s lovely to still be wanted but it is the right time in my life. There’s things I have put on hold and people who have put their lives on hold for me so it is time to grow up!
“It certainly hasn’t been easy but we have had great moments and great highlights over the years. Stepping away from it, I am just so grateful for every bit of it – the people I have met along the way, the people who have supported me who have been incredible.
“Now it’s time for teaching and enjoying club hockey! I’m really looking forward to this club season and a nice normal life, maybe slowing down a little bit!”