By: Caroline Bowler
Paul Carpenter, or PC to his friends, lives a life many would envy. Happily married to the accomplished and beautiful Mirelle, he’s lived and travelled all over the world, keeps presidents and politicians on speed-dial and spends his weekends dictating terms to 60 sweaty, athletic young women as coach to the Singapore Gaelic Lions (SGL) ladies team. EX met with PC to hear his thoughts on the sport, and to find out how he got to live the life of his dreams – all told in an accent so thick it must be a disguise.
You have another nickname, “Expat Paul”; how did you get this snazzy title?
My dad was a civil engineer, so growing up we went all over the world. I lived in South Africa until I was three, then we moved to Sri Lanka, Bahrain, and finally the UK when I was 17. I went to university in Sheffield. I’ve been a volleyball coach in Tanzania, I almost made the Finnish rugby team and I’ve spent some time wandering through Thailand and Taiwan. (No, with all that travel, I can’t explain my accent either!)
It was the children at UWCSEA’s East Campus, where I teach Gaelic football to Grade 9 classes, who first called me Expat Paul and, I have to admit, it’s a pretty accurate nickname. Despite all the travel, I’ve lived in Singapore the longest of all. Even my parents refer to Singapore now as my home.
How did you end up in Singapore?
Back in 2000, I was working for a Finnish construction company and they asked me to get involved in a local project here; I jumped at the chance. Apart from a few short stints overseas, I didn’t leave Singapore until 2009 when I headed to Zimbabwe. My role with a telecom network construction company moved me to South Africa, where I remained until my return to these shores in 2013.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), and Gaelic football itself, are likely to be unknown to many of our readers. A quick Wikipedia search tells us that the organisation is Irish, amateur and over 130 years old. How did a man from Stafford in England end up an ambassador for such an esoteric sport?
I was introduced to the GAA through a good pal of mine, Neil Stefferson. I was sniffing around for something that combined fitness with fun and he convinced me to come along for a session. The combination of craic and community made it hugely appealing and I found myself sticking around for the atmosphere around the sport.
I took part in my first Asian Gaelic Games in Shanghai in 2006. The tournament is held over two days, with GAA teams coming from as far afield as the Middle East and Korea, and all places in between. The weekend culminates in a massive celebration, and the combination of great friendships, great sport and great times means you’re hooked. That said, I must be one of the few players to go down in history for getting injured during the warm-up!
My club likes to call itself the Hotel California of sports clubs. Our slogan is “Once a Lion, Always a Lion!” The game of Gaelic football itself is a combination of soccer, rugby and a bit of basketball thrown in. It’s a fast, vigorous game, and if that doesn’t work to reel you in, the club has a huge social side to keep you busy. Some of the best times and best friendships from around the world started with that club.
You were involved with setting up GAA in South Africa back in 2010. What have been the highlights of this to date?
It had long been a dream of mine to bring a team from South Africa to the home of GAA: Ireland. We were really lucky to achieve that dream in 2014 when we took the SA Gaels on a six-day tour of both the Republic and Northern Ireland. I think it was important that the young people, who grew up in a divided country, got a chance to see another environment that had undergone its own divisions and were working past them.
Sport is a great medium to unite people and we were overwhelmed with the generosity and momentum the trip achieved. The squad were treated like rock stars wherever they went. One of the highlights was a visit to the Northern Ireland Assembly, Stormont Buildings, where the team met Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, and learnt about the reconciliation process. We met the Deputy Prime Minister or Tánaiste, of the Republic of Ireland, along with other government ministers. However, being invited to a formal reception with the President of the Republic of Ireland will stay with myself and the team as an unforgettable experience. We all enjoyed ourselves so much that we went back again in March to do it all over again!
There are many who would baulk at the idea of trying to face down 60 pumped-up, determined women every weekend, but it seems to be your idea of fun. What’s it like having so many ladies jump at your every whistle?
I very much doubt they see it that way! The point is that women listen, and they’re willing students. I have been exceptionally lucky to have great captains and great squad leadership. Having momentum and keeping things upbeat has really empowered the squad to lead and support each other.
On the con side, the politics can be a nightmare at times. That said, I think I’ve learnt a few tricks along the way: stand back and let them talk when they want to talk; keep smiling and nodding through the fear; if in doubt, keep them running!
For all that, with women’s football, I feel I can make a real difference. What I think is key is that you’re not coaching football, you’re coaching people. What I have learnt is to not whip the players up too much before a match; too much frenzy and it all falls apart.
On the flip-side of that, one of the best moments was in 2014, playing against Darwin in the Asian Gaelic Games. They’re an excellent team and it was one of the toughest battles we’ve ever faced, but the SGL squad, players and supporters dug in with such a level of passion and effort. It was an amazing experience and it said everything that we came off that pitch as the victors.
The hardest part of this gig, without a doubt, is when it comes down to team selection. Having to make the best, sustainable decision for the squad and the team doesn’t always come down to ranking players from one to 100. It can be hard to disappoint people you care about.
You’ve been involved with the SGL for nearly ten years. What keeps you coming back for more?
Now I’m older, I feel it’s more about the giving than the taking. When I first came to Singapore it was all about the craic, having fun, and doing things that other people organised and ran. Yes, I organised a few things, but generally it was other people’s gigs. These days, I genuinely don’t feel bothered by the pressure of leadership and putting in time. I don’t feel like it detracts – it doesn’t feel like a chore at all.
In fact, quite the opposite. I genuinely care about the girls. I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt that way ten years ago, but now with age, it’s different. People need support structures when they travel, and SGL is an amazing support structure for anyone who needs it, and asks for it. Being a coach gives me something to care for, alongside my wife and family.
- Picture credit: Stefan Luke Hey and Emily Cornelius
- To find out more about the club and its men’s or women’s team, click here.