- Lifestyle & Sports
- 17 Jul 23
Heather Payne is one of the brightest stars in the Irish camp. Here, she talks about her preferred position, what it’s like to work with Vera Pauw, Ireland’s hopes in what has been described as “the group of death” and how she got her nickname “Windows”...
You’re a striker and you’re playing in what is potentially the most important match in the history of Irish women’s football. You get injured and are taken off. Your replacement comes on and scores the winner. All hell breaks loose. The team qualifies for the World Cup for the first time.
How exactly did Heather Payne feel?
“I was going nuts on the sideline,” she laughs. “Grace Moloney (substitute keeper) was telling me to shut up because I was screaming my head off! When we started the campaign, I had written down that we were going to qualify. So when Amber scored and then we had to hold out for the last 20 minutes or so, I couldn’t stop screaming and shouting! I wanted us to win so badly, I was losing my voice with the emotion.
“It was unfortunate that I injured my ankle, but some things happen for a reason. Even before we played Scotland last October, the feeling around camp was positive. Everyone had a really good feeling about the game. Then, during the match, at half time, we learned that other results were going our way – so, once we scored late on, there was no way we were going to concede. Courtney (Brosnan) saving the penalty in the first half – that gave us belief that things were going our way as well. It was in the stars!”
TECHNICALLY FROM ROSCOMMON
Position-wise, Heather Payne has moved around a bit. Under Vera Pauw, she has played up front, mainly, and right wing back. And she has played centre half for her club team, Florida State University (FSU ‘Seminoles’).
“Growing up, I played with the boys and they put me on the right wing or left wing,” she says.
“I’d never played centre back until I was thrown in there at FSU to cover for an injured player. Later, they moved me to the wing and, in my senior year, I was played at right back. Really, I’ve aways been a winger, whether at right back or right wing back.
“When Vera came in, she started playing me up front,” she adds. “I think she saw us as a counter-attacking team, defensively sound, with five at the back. I think she saw me as countering, with my pace, but I’d never been a striker. It was a new role and I had to develop into it. More recently, Vera and I talked about my best position and she knew that I always liked being a winger or right wing back. When we were in camp ahead of the US matches, she played me at right wing back. I’m happiest out there. It’s nice to have that defensive role but get into attack, too.
“The camp ahead of the US games in April was a great step for the team – I think we’ve developed a lot, even from February to May. And those games against the US were great, considering they are the No.1 side in the world. We kept possession, created chances – we were all quite pleased with how we did.”
The games ended in one-nil and two-nil defeats. As with Ireland’s 3-2 victory over Australia in September 2021, the results bore out Vera Pauw’s strategy of playing higher-ranked teams as a way to get Ireland clicking as a unit.
“In the World Cup,” Heather says, “we’re playing great teams, so it’s good preparation to play higher level teams in advance. You don’t want to be playing teams you know you can beat easily. You need to be challenging yourself.”
You’ve over 30 Ireland caps now. Do you have a favourite game you’ve played in?
“Of course, qualifying against Scotland was a great game,” she says, “But those recent games against the US were so enjoyable. I was playing in my favourite position at right wing back and I got more of the ball than I would if I was upfront. The team clicked and that is why they were so enjoyable.”
There seems to be a great spirit in the Irish camp?
“Ya, when we come into camp, everyone likes being around each other. We’ve a lot of funny people in the squad, so the Irish humour comes back. And now that we have qualified together, which is a huge achievement, it’s a really good environment – the level of unity is massive and, especially for the older players who have been in the team for years and are finally going to a World Cup, it is really, really special.”
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Even the players born abroad, like Lily Agg, seem to be passionate about playing for Ireland.
“Lily has the most English accent ever, but she is Irish and really enjoys being in camp,” she says. “The feedback when players are new in camp is so positive it makes them want to stay even more.”
Where did you get the nickname ‘Window’ from?!
“Niamh Fahey, one of the senior Ireland players, is from Galway, like me, and she just came up with it one day. It’s because of my second name: Payne! Window Payne! She’s a big personality in the camp, and everyone just caught on to it! It stuck.”
You say you are from Galway and not Roscommon?
“I switch them around, at times!” she laughs. “I get a slagging from Niamh Fahey about one minute saying I’m from Galway and the next minute Roscommon! I am technically from Roscommon, and have played for Roscommon. It’s tough being on the border between the two counties. I went to school in Galway and lived in Roscommon!”
The local geography is confusing...
“When you come out of Ballinasloe,” Heather explains, “there’s a roundabout just off the motorway and when you go a bit further there’s a sign saying, ‘Welcome to Roscommon’. If you live on the outskirts of Ballinasloe, you’re in Roscommon but, when you make your way into the town, it’s Galway!”
Windows played for Salthill Devon as a youngster. In 2016, she moved to one of Ireland’s most successful women’s clubs, Peamount United in Dublin, before crossing the water to Bristol City, in England, in 2018. She then took up a football scholarship from Florida State University (‘the Seminoles’, or FSU) in 2019, studying for a Bachelors degree in Dietetics, which she completed in May 2023.
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“To be a qualified Dietician and, to practice as one, you have to do your Masters degree and another exam, which I want to complete at some point,” she reveals, “but I’m happy with having my undergrad degree. When I finished it, I trained with Denise O’Sullivan’s North Carolina Courage until the Ireland squad assembled in June ahead of the recent pre-World Cup warm-ups.”
As a top soccer player, and student, you lead a disciplined lifestyle. Did you enjoy the US experience?
“Yes, of course, but Florida State is a very professional environment, so my time there was just soccer and college. We’d two games a week. The Conference league goes up along the east coast, so we’d be travelling to North Carolina, South Carolina, New York and along the coast, so you don’t get a lot of time to leave Tallahassee. I did get the chance to go to the south of Florida at Spring break. Florida is just so big – even to go to the south takes seven hours in a car – and coming from Ireland, we’re not used to that!”
Are there a lot of nationalities in the FSU team you played in?
“It’s about 50:50, US players and international players. I’ve really enjoyed my time at FSU and it’s cool to have friends from China, the US, Nigeria, Sweden, Portugal, and all the other countries.”
Has there been any World Cup slagging going on?
“My roommate’s Nigerian and there’s been a bit of slagging going on alright! We’ve been watching the NWSL games here in the US and Irish players like Denise O’Sullivan and, now, Sinead Farrelly, too, are playing in that and my Nigerian teammate would be watching them and I’d be watching the Nigerian players and we’d be scouting them when they are playing against each other.
“I have another teammate who’s Jamaican, and we’ve a bit going on with her, too, but they are not in our World Cup group, so it’s not as competitive. It’s exciting for us all to be going to Australia and New Zealand, especially when we will be lining up against each other.”
Is Ireland coach, Vera Pauw, a disciplinarian?
“She has a certain way of doing things”, she says. “We’ve been with her a while now, and we’ve adjusted to how she works. She’s also getting used to Irish humour and banter. When you come into camp, you have to be disciplined. You have to be ‘on it’ from the beginning.”
Those camps must be very intense experiences...
“There’s a set schedule and every day we’d have an itinerary. We have our meetings as well. It can be a bit mentally draining as well as physically, but I guess that’ s why the camps are only 10 days. But you’re competing for your national team, so it’s very exciting.”
MORE EXCITED THAN AFRAID
Do you have a pre-match ritual in terms of keeping calm?
“I seem to get really nervous, no matter what the occasion is. Then, on the bus, I listen to music. I tend not to think too much about the game until I’m there because I don’t want to overthink things. And in the stadium, I have things to do, to get ready, so I’m busy before we go out for a warm up and then that’s when I get really focused and tune-in.
“I like a good warm-up so I can take it into the game. Of course, the opening World Cup game is going to be different, with over 80,000 people there, so I’ll have to block that out a little bit. But it’s all part of the game and makes it more exciting being able to play in front of all those people.”
Do you have any pre-match music favourites you listen to, a particular playlist?
“I think it depends on what I’m listening to at the time,” she confesses. “Of course, new songs come along all the time and if it makes me happy then I’ve a good mindset going into the game. It could be Hip Hop or something like that. I know a lot of players have songs that they listen to before a game as part of a set routine, but I play whatever I’m in the mood for at that time. Post-match, I just chill and think about the game.”
Australia, Canada, Nigeria. Which team in our group makes you most fearful?
“Each team is very different. Their style of play is also going to be completely different and going into each game will have a different feeling. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of any of our opponents, but – as Olympic Champions – Canada are going to be good. Realistically, I’m more excited than afraid of the three of them. We need to focus on our own game.”
Are you hopeful Ireland will get out of the group, at least?
“That obviously is the goal.”
And so say all of us!
Read the full World Cup special in the new issue of Hot Press, out now.
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