“I went to an East training camp and someone said: “The England goalkeeper’s here to work with us.” and I said “What, David Seaman?” “No. Simon Mason.” I was a bit disappointed to be honest!”
George Pinner, the England and Great Britain goalkeeper laughs as he tells me that story but actually aside from being a funny anecdote, it’s also a window into how different things could have been for the man approaching 200 international caps.
“I’m not from a hockey family so I didn’t watch much hockey growing up.” says Pinner.
“It wasn’t the same as football where you see say, Peter Schmeichel and think “I want to be him.” It wasn’t like that with hockey.”
Pinner admits football and Ipswich Town were his first loves growing up. For many years (probably still now) he dreamed he would be pulling the strings out on the hallowed turf of Portman Road. However the course of his sporting career was changed forever by complete chance:
“I was about ten years old and I was ill one day. I really wanted to go into school because we only had two sport afternoons a week. The idea of missing one was unthinkable. My mum said I could go in but I had to play in goal if I went.”
That day, he put on the pads for the first time and although the 33-year-old says he wasn’t “good”, being “quite a big guy” he was able to be quite effective in the position. From there, he played county hockey a year later, then onto regional level before junior England honours soon followed. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Pinner rose quickly and in 2007, aged just 20 he made his full international debut for Great Britain against the Netherlands. Despite his meteoric rise, Pinner says he found the transition from club to international level to be a difficult one.
“I’d had my best season for Beeston. We’d got into the EHL for the first time and I was hoping to really push James Fair but it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t produce the same form I had for my club. I missed out on the Europeans for 2009 and from then on I really struggled to transfer my club performances to the international stage.”
“I don’t know if it was confidence or because there’s a big step up from league to international hockey. I was quite successful as a junior international and in the league but I had to almost re-learn my game and adapt at senior international level.”
The Old Georgians goalkeeper says the pressure to perform and “take your chance” when you’re the number two goalkeeper may also have contributed to his early struggles.
“You think to yourself I have got to play well today. Because if I don’t, I don’t know when my next chance is coming.”
“It becomes far bigger than it needs to be. Every shot, instead of the chance to show what you can do and how good you are becomes “I’ve got to make this. I have to make this save”
“It’s why when you see second choice keepers given a chance they can make silly mistakes. I just think it’s a lot of pressure. I’m a lot older now. We work with psychologists, too so I’m a lot better equipped to handle it. Back then I’m not sure I was able to deal with it.”
Despite these rude beginnings in international hockey, Pinner established himself as the first choice in the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics. He has gone on to have an outstanding international career. He has captained his country, competed at the Olympics, the World Cup, Commonwealth Games, European Championships and every other major tournament going. He’s collected a decent haul of medals, too.
Pinner still has much he wants to achieve before he stops playing. He says he’s always been determined to “be the best he can be” and one day hopes to be considered the best goalkeeper not just in England or GB but in the world.
That level of determination is one of the driving factors in what Pinner has achieved to date. Think how different it could have been if he hadn’t been ill that day….
George was speaking as part of an interview on my podcast. You can listen to the full episode here.
George is a Mercian Sponsored athlete and so most certainly knows who Simon Mason is now. He is currently using the Mercian Elite Range. For more information on the excellent products available visit the Mercian website.