For a footballer who means so much to a club, Gemma Hillier’s retirement from Portsmouth, the team she has represented for more than 17 years, was a rather ill-fitting anti-climax.
Pompey’s joint-record goalscorer was due to play her final game today against Lewes, according to the club’s official website in its announcement of her departure on Friday – and a pre-match interview with manager Jay Sadler.
But Hillier had already played her last game nearly a month ago and says she had told the Pompey boss last Sunday she would not be involved in today’s game.
Nothing could hide her pride, though, after it was revealed, shortly after the final whistle was blown at her farewell-that-never-was, that she is to become the first female footballer to be inducted into Portsmouth Football Club’s Hall of Fame – more than consolation for those who might have ventured to today’s game in the hope of seeing her in a Pompey shirt for the last time.
Great result for the girls, sorry to all of those that said they came to watch my last game, the article was very miss-leading, lovely too see so many friendly faces and hear so many kind words and well wishes x
Hardest decision of my life, but the right one I believe. Thanks to everyone I have ever met playing for the club I have supported since the age of 6 – Hillier’s tweet to Pompey fans today
It’s an unprecedented honour, but there is no more fitting recipient than the diminutive Gosport girl who became a Portsmouth giant with a big reputation.
Hillier has been with Pompey through thick and thin since she made her debut at the age of 13, and she bows out a multiple trophy winner. But her Hall of Fame inclusion, at the club she has supported for as long as she can remember, will surely top the lot.
Now 30, Hillier was still a regular in the new-look Portsmouth side this season – a wise old head on shoulders broad enough to help carry the new generation of Pompey Ladies into what should surely be a bright future.
She even picked up the Portsmouth player-of-the-match award in what turned out to be her final game, against Coventry United, last month.
But she has called it a day because her love of the game has been eclipsed by her enjoyment of its sandy cousin – beach soccer.
Hillier has been an England regular at the sport, under the guidance of her former Portsmouth manager, Perry Northeast, for several years.
But as her success in the sport has grown, so has her love for it.
“I agree I have played some of my best football this season, but I do not enjoy playing as much as I used to, and for something that takes so much time and commitment, you have to really enjoy doing it,” she told Sent Her Forward.
“When you have experienced the beach soccer tours I have this year, it is hard to live up to.”
Hillier’s involvement in beach soccer has taken her all over the world – often, as the title would suggest, to some of the most exotic resorts on the globe.
Most recently, she starred at a tournament in Tobago, top-scoring with 17 goals in six games and earning the Most Valuable Player accolade.
With her former Portsmouth team-mate (now at Lewes), Sarah Kempson, being voted women’s player of the year at the Beach Soccer Stars awards, having led an England side featuring Kempson and several other Portsmouth-based players to glory at the Euro Beach Soccer Cup, a whole new career in a fast-growing sport beckons.
But it’s for her achievements at Portsmouth that she is – currently, at least – best known.
Debut at 13, women’s domestic football’s top tier at 25, a champion at 28. An injury-time goal away from the Super League.
Serial Hampshire Cup winner – many as captain.
Ninety-two goals in 282 appearances, according to that same club website article.
Retirement at 30.
The stats and achievements give an inkling of what Gemma Hillier has brought to the game, and to Portsmouth Ladies in particular.
But to gauge her true value you have to watch her play.
Despite her size, she can look after herself and has rarely come off second-best when I have seen her.
Even at 30, she’s quick. At her peak she was dynamic – a defender’s nightmare.
But what I loved about her was her willingness and ability to bring others into the game. Far from the selfish player you’d expect of such a prolific goalscorer, Hillier has one of the best football brains around, instinctively knowing where to play the ball or how best to fox an opponent – and with the technical ability to execute it.
“I was 13 when I made my debut,” she recalled. “I have no idea who it was against, I just remember feeling completely out of my depth in terms of physique, and knew I just had to use my speed to impress.”
Fantastic lady… brilliant role model… great leadership qualities. It’s a shame to be losing a player of her ilk – Jay Sadler, Portsmouth manager (club interview)
After playing for both Southampton’s and Fulham’s centres of excellence (Portsmouth did not have one), Hillier joined Pompey from Gosport Borough, her hometown club.
“When I moved to Pompey, (then manager) Vanessa Raynbird believed in me from day one, making my first-team debut and Hampshire seniors debut shortly after joining.”
During best part of two decades at the club, there were many highlights, but one of them was certainly leading the team out at Fratton Park – from where she had often watched her beloved Portsmouth FC – for the ladies’ side’s historic first match at the stadium, against Spurs in 2013 – an occasion she described at the time as “the proudest moment of my life”.
She’s scored goals, made goals and lifted trophies. Gemma Hillier is a winner, and her motivational talents set her apart from many of her rivals – Sent Her Forward’s citation after selecting Gemma Hillier as its first Premier League player of the season in 2014
Of course, that injury-time defeat to Sheffield FC in the Premier League championship play-off two years later denied her the opportunity to play with her team in the Super League (although she had represented them at what was then the highest level, in the National Division of the Premier League in 2012).
But it was not her only opportunity to play at that level.
Hillier revealed: “I am really happy with what I have achieved in my football career. Like many players, I have had offers to join other teams, some in higher leagues. But I have supported Portsmouth all my life, so if I was ever going to play [in the] Super League, it was only going to be with them.”
She added: “I am glad I have stayed at Pompey, as now being inducted as the first female to get into the Portsmouth FC Hall of Fame is an incredible achievement, for me and my family.”
Now the Super League is looking a distant dream for Pompey, Hillier, a school teacher, is turning her attention to the shorter, sunnier version.
“Beach soccer has changed my life,” she told Sent Her Forward. “[For] the opportunities Perry Northeast has given me I will for ever be in debt.
“I have got to travel to so many beautiful countries and have got to represent my country – again an incredible achievement.
“Up to now only a small amount of females in England have experienced beach soccer, but with us winning the European Championships, and Sarah Kempson winning world female player of the year, I hope we will get more funding, creating more opportunities, so hopefully encouraging more females to play.”
If those players, whether on the sand or the more conventional grass or plastic, are a fraction as good – and as dedicated – as Gemma Hillier, it’s not just women’s beach soccer that has a sunny future.