The university side coached by Matt Taylor are one positive result away from a breakthrough Top 6 place, reports Rod Gilmour of The Hockey Paper
It was during one lunchtime break on the pitch when a coach spotted Mila Welch doing some cartwheels and splits and her hockey career blossomed.
“I was just messing around with one of my friends as I was quite agile and flexible due to also playing netball and gymnastics,” she recalls as a then 11-year-old.
Over a decade on and Welch, 22, is now an established goalkeeper with plenty of Premier Division experience already, while currently on the GB EDP programme.
This weekend, she will be in goal for University of Nottingham against Wimbledon with a Top 6 place at stake. Currently fifth, UoN will head into Saturday’s Vitality Women’s Premier Division matches in fine fettle following a 4-1 win over University of Birmingham which kept them top of the BUCS league.
“With our second season in the Premier Division I think we have done the best any university side has done, which we will take as a great achievement in itself,” says Welch.
“We had certain aims at the start of the season, Top 6 in Premier Division and top of BUCS league and so far we are ticking the boxes. Our performance against Birmingham has given us momentum going into the weekend. It will be a tough game against Wimbledon, our biggest of the season and we are not putting ourselves under any pressure.”
Welch joined UoN in 2019 and is into her final year, which has included a year abroad. She split her year after going part-time following participation with England at the last Junior World Cup and European Junior Championships. As a modern languages and business student (she studies Russian and Spanish), Welch was also in Moscow before the outbreak of war in Ukraine and had to make a swift exit back to the UK.
She joined Marlow aged 11 before moving to Reading for her under-16 season. “I wanted to play a higher level of hockey,” she says, “I was pushing England under-16 level but the Reading ‘keeper had an injury and I ended up playing in the Premier Division a month after my 15th birthday.”
She subsequently played two seasons with Reading before a move to Slough in her last year of A Levels. UoN is now her fourth club, meaning that she has had a wealth of experience following her first experience in the sport on a Year 7 camp with her hockey-playing friends.
“My coach at the time, Mike Irving, noticed my cartwheels and asked me whether I would try out in goal. My outfield career was three weeks max and I fell in love with being in goal. I loved the pressure and saving the team and that it’s an individual sport in a team sport.”
UoN are captained by third-year student Maddie Axford, who will play for England at the upcoming Junior World Cup in Chile, and she relishes the captaincy role.
“It’s a bit more work than being a player, sorting out admin and it’s been great to look after the younger players in the team and set a good example.”
Axford has led a team which has 15 points from their 10 games, eight more than this stage last season.
“We have improved in the season, especially with the injuries we’ve had,” she added. “Some of the players from the 2s have stepped up and we’ve learned how to play with each other.”
Meanwhile, Welch adds that she can’t fault the students’ programme under coach Matt Taylor.
“He has got the perfect balance of how many sessions we have alongside our academic life,” she says. “We’re close as a squad and it puts us in a great place when it comes to the weekend.
“He values individual skill and we do a lot of technical skill at the beginning of sessions and a lot of shooting and gameplay. As a keeper I get what I need from him. When we get the basics right in matches, it all comes from what we do in training. We don’t do overly complex drills.”
Welch says she idolised Maddie Hinch from the outside when she first played in goal, the former GB great conducting some sessions at Marlow when Welch was in Year 7 and 8. “My first OBO kit was from her, a hand me down type thing,” Welch recalls.
“For me, she’s an easy one to pick as Maddie is probably the best women’s goalkeeper of all time. There are so many talented international keepers out there now. And when you watch Pro League or training games there are always things you can learn, to inspire you to achieve and reach that top level.”
Saturday: University of Nottingham v Wimbledon, 2pm