🇮🇪 Hockey Ireland : Lizzie Holden calls time on her International career
Photo Credit : Hockey Ireland

Lizzie Holden (née Colvin) has confirmed her retirement from international hockey following a history-making 13-year career that brought World Cup silver, an Olympic appearance and 206 caps.

The 31-year-old steps away having made her debut as a teenager, fresh out of Portadown College at a hail-stoning Garryduff at June 2008’s Celtic Cup, finishing off in the searing Tokyo heat this summer.

The effervescent midfielder has run the gamut of emotions from qualifier heartbreakers to those glorious 2018 summer days in London and everything in between, seemingly always bringing out the widest of smiles.

“I always felt the Olympics was going to be my last dance,” she said of her decision to step back. “I had gone back and forth in my head for a long time but I think it is the right time for me to step away”

“We were so intense as a team for so long and we would spend weeks together on tour. Im just sad that I don’t get to see my friends every day now.”

“I feel that I have finished my career on a high and having spent the time thinking about this decision, I’ve had an opportunity to reminisce about so many good memories over the years with current and past players and I’ve made life-long friends. I’ve been very lucky to travel around the world and share such unique experiences with a great group of people.”

Her earliest beginnings came at Armagh Hockey Club, playing her part in their incredible rise with several successive promotions to reach the top tier of Ulster and Irish hockey.

From those early years, she played alongside a wealth of future internationals like Alex Speers, Emma and Amy Stewart, Hannah Bowe and Rachel Mulligan with Niall McCool and Mick McKinnon leading the coaching team.

“This announcement is mainly about saying thank you to everyone who has been part of my hockey journey, both on and off the hockey pitch. I want to make a special mention to Armagh Hockey Club, all the parents, coaches and volunteers who helped me through and had such a profound impact on me, particularly the late George Compston – he was my first coach.

“Then when I moved down to Dublin, everyone in Loreto was so kind and supportive of me and allowed my confidence to grow as a player. Then when I moved back up North to play for Belfast Harlequins, they made me feel so welcome and as one of their own. All three of clubs have been such important influences to me at different stages of my career. ”

“At Armagh, we used to train so hard and you’d never question it. I think back on those days; after you’ve done a full hour and a half session on the pitch and you would go straight on to the football pitch and do shuttles back in forth, usually in the rain! I think that’s where i developed my hard work ethic and a really, really gritty determination.”

It also opened her eyes to a different world. Armagh went on trips to the Netherlands, taking on Den Bosch in their youth, while McKinnon – who was Ireland’s assistant coach in Tokyo – organised for national coach Gene Muller to drop into the club for a session.

“To have that exposure at such a young age, you did not really appreciate it. We were turning up to training and having the craic with all the girls, but actually we had fantastic exposure to some really top quality coaches and players.”

When Muller got in touch, though, it took a long time for him to get an answer to her first international call.

“I was laughing about this with my Dad there the other day. Back in the day, you wouldn’t have email on your phone and I remember just logging in to my emails one night, and there had been this one email sitting in my inbox for a couple of days, Gene Muller asking if I wanted to play in some uncapped games against South Africa in Dublin!

“You’d never sit on that for as long as i did! I remember being terrified going down to Dublin but I was so lucky there were so many of the girls from the Armagh team in the squad. I remember Gene saying to me you’ll be doing well if you trap the ball and a make a pass on your first cap.”

That came at that Celtic Cup a month after she finished school, a 1-0 win against France during a drenched weekend. A picture remains of everyone cramming into the dugout for one rain delay.

College brought her to Dublin at Trinity to study law; she linked up with a Loreto side going through a golden era of sorts with Nikki Symmons, Cathy McKean, Niamh Small, Louisa Healy and Clodagh Grealy taking her under their wing.

Internationally, she shone at the Champions Challenge II in Kazan in 2009, scoring in her first two tournament games, but it was that year’s European Championships that stuck in the mind.

“We lost 7-0 to Germany. I really enjoyed the game even though we lost because of the quality of it but I remember vividly one of the german players being interviewed afterwards, saying ‘well, you know, they weren’t very good’.

“I remember thinking that I’d love to beat them some day. It took nearly 10 years to really start to compete against Germany but, we drew against them [in the 2019 Euros] and beat them in Germany. I wanted to compete against the best in the world.”

Like many others of that time, a highlight was the December 2011 tour to Argentina, particularly the tie deep on the country’s interior on the banks of the Parana river.

“I know everyone talks about it, but it really was a stand-out memory; we were playing high quality games against the number two in the world and it was just such a fantastic atmosphere.

“They had obtained an old pitch which had been rolled up and transported down to the club we were playing at and the club members laid the pitch. And I remember some the other teams giving off about the quality of the pitch and how the ball skipped.

“But I just remember thinking this is just so cool and special. During the anthems, the PA went off and the Argentian team had to sing acapella and the whole stadium just erupted with singing. You could feel the passion and excitment in that stadium and we certainly thrived on that during the match.”

Her first Olympic cycle ended with a 4-1 final qualifier defeat to Belgium in Beerschot. She took a while to process that situation, taking time out to take stock. Only a few weeks after accepting an invitation back into the panel from Darren Smith, she suffered an ACL injury, putting her back on the sidelines for another year.

Despite the setbacks, with the “incredible” medical supports she received, she returned stronger than ever and, in Smith, had a coach to help elevate her game and the Irish team to be greater contenders.

“Darren really did give me a lot of confidence to accept the type of player that I am and what skill I could bring. He made everyone feel like they had a role.

“He really lifted us and gave us the confidence to have a go and compete against the top teams teams in the world. I think we showed that hunger and desire in Valencia [at the 2016 Olympic qualifiers] and ultimately we played above our ranking and topped the pool. We then had to deal with the heartbreak of the China game. I don’t think I’ve ever watched the back!

“After that, I didn’t know if I would go back to play. I was just heartbroken; I had to finish off my exams and go back to work and I was living away from home and away from my boyfriend and just thought I don’t want to do this.

“But after taking a bit of time off, I knew that I had unfinished business with my hockey career. I was very lucky that the team welcomed me back and gave me the chance to play again. I definitely felt there was a shift in the mindset of the team since the Rio qualifiers and there was a quiet determination to make it to the World Cup.

“We had come along way as team and our style has developed over the years. It was attacking. It was aggressive. And it’s just really fast and really exciting.”

Not that it was not fraught, qualifying for London by “the skin of our teeth”, Holden hitting the winner against India that ultimately got them over the line in a 2-1 win over India.

Having spent a decade to reach the elite stage, she says the pressure was off when they rocked up to London and defied all expectations.

“We were just having the time of our lives. There was a lot of confidence, but also we were all comfortable and relaxed. That really played into it, because we knew that there wasn’t an expectation.

“The weather was amazing; we were staying in a nice hotel in the middle of London. We were enjoying the experience and I think it showed on our faces in that first game against America, winning against a very top quality side. From there, the momentum just kept going and going.”

“The standout moment was when we lined up for the anthem and we saw our family and friends that had travelled over, it was a celebration about how far we had come.”

It brought the Olympics into focus like never before, ratcheting up a notch on two more rain-drenched nights in Donnybrook, getting by the challenge of Canada in a shoot-out after two intense 0-0 draws.

The 2020 vision became 2021, pushing back the Tokyo dream 12 months and bringing in doubts about what next?

“I’m not gonna lie; there was a couple of months where it was really difficult because we couldn’t travel abroad and get match practice.”

“That first trip to Spain we went on in January [this year] felt like we were going to the World Cup again because we were so excited. Just to get out to a different country and play; it was really, really good fun.

“I was just so grateful to have that opportunity to keep playing. The preparations for this past summer were extremely tough but I tried to enjoy every moment and savour the experience.”

“Sean [Dancer] gave me the opportunity to represent Ireland at the Olympics and I look back and know that I’ve been part of such a special group of people who have faced so many challenges of the years. There have been so many highs and lows but I ‘ve always tried to give my best, to battle hard and never give up. It has been such a privilege to be part of the green army team and I hope that I’ve left the jersey in a better place.”

As for the Olympic reflections, it is a mixed bag – a once in a lifetime experience but one tinged with frustration as Ireland missed out on the quarter-final spots.

“It took me a couple weeks to process; it’s very hard to realise what you’re going through at the time. There’s a reason why it is the most competitive tournament in the hockey calendar or in any sport in the world; it is just unbelievably tough.

“You have to get everything right at the right time and try not to be overwhelmed by the experience of just being at the Olympics, surrounded by so many incredible athletes. I have a newfound respect for any athlete that is able to get on the podium because it is just so, so tough.

“It was a life long dream for me and I will never forget walking down that street in the Olympic village with all the flags and up to the Olympic rings.

“The first night when we played against South Africa, it was hard that there weren’t any fans there but at the same time it was just so emotional for us to say that we have finally arrived after so many years of hard work.

“There is frustration that we didn’t progress further but I definitely believe that there’s a hunger and desire in the team to push as far as they can go. Its a really exciting stage for the green army and I can’t wait to see the girls put their stamp on the upcoming tournaments.”

“I think we’re in safe hands. So yeah, I’m just really sad it’s over for me and I don’t get to do it again.”

She jokes it is back to “normal life” with her husband Matthew and her parents, Peter and Rosie who she is forever grateful too – along with her employers, DWF solicitors – for their patience and understanding as she pursued her dreams.

“I could not have played hockey as long as I have without the support of my family, friends and my husband, Matt. I can never thank him enough for all the sacrifices he has had to make for me. Now that I’ve retired, we’ve never spent this much time together but I’m excited for the next chapter in our lives, whatever that will be!”

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