Women’s Euros: Sara Booth and the turning point of the revival of Northern Ireland
It was a trip that really couldn’t have been much worse at the time. But it would be a watershed moment in the rebirth of a Northern Ireland women’s team that would go down in history 20 years later.
Manager Kenny Shiels and his players will soon board a plane bound for England to compete in the Euros in what will be the first time Northern Ireland have taken part in a women’s grand final.
Before that, Sara Booth – a former Northern Ireland captain who is synonymous with women’s football in the country – turned to a whole different kind of journey.
It was “around the millennium” and she and her international teammates had sailed from Larne to Stranraer to play Scotland in an international friendly.
“[The Irish FA] decided to get rid of the women’s national team,” the current head of Fifa’s women’s competitions explained in this week’s episode of Sportsound meetsbroadcast on BBC Radio Ulster at 3.00pm BST on Saturday July 2.
“Back then we played one friendly a year and this time we were going to Scotland, having probably trained for the game the week before.
“Scotland beat us 9-0. We played against Julie Fleeting, one of the best players in the Scottish national team who was in her prime. She scored six and I was scoring her, while I was on the boat back thinking I was horrible and should retire from football at an early age.
“We got off the boat in Larne and the IFA administrator at the time said ‘look, basically we’re getting rid of the senior women’s national team and we’re going to invest in the international youth team’ .
“We all understood that they were getting rid of us because we were so bad. You can imagine the devastation. I was only in my twenties at the time.”
“Callaghan and co had nowhere to graduate”
While the senior women’s national team was essentially disbanded by then, Booth, who retired from football in 2014, explained that the Irish FA had formed an international under-19 team.
“In 2001-02, this team did very well – they actually made it through the first round of the Under-19 Championships,” says Booth.
“It was players like Sarah McFadden, Julie Nelson, some of the older players now – I think Ashley [Hutton] had just come to the end of this. Marissa Callaghan was there for sure.
“So we had all these talented players who are now part of the current team, and there was no way out for them. They were going to end up at the Under-19s and there was no team. national for them.”
“Losing them to the Republic was a concern”
Back in 2002, Booth was working for the IFA and she, along with the late Maura Muldoon, used an interesting tactic to pressure the governing body to reform the women’s national team.
“I think Maura was on the Sports Council at the time but was chair of the Northern Ireland Women’s Football Association. She and I identified a fund that we could use and put together a bid for a pocket of money,” she continued.
“Along with that, we did two other things, the first being to identify a competition we could play in – the Algarve Cup.
“The third thing we did was write an article saying these players were going down south to [play for] the Republic of Ireland because where could they go? Their careers couldn’t stop after finishing at 18 or 19.
“There was a precedent [of players switching] and that was a concern. So Maura brought it to the board.
“She was able to convince them that night to give us money to go and play in the Algarve Cup. It was 2004 and it was the resurrection of the Northern Ireland national team .”
“Your heart is with this team”
Northern Ireland finished 12th out of 12 at this tournament in Portugal, but that is not the question. As the players wrote to local businesses to help raise the £250 needed for each of them to go on the trip, it looked like a spirit and momentum had returned to the senior women’s international team.
Fast forward to today and Callaghan, Nelson, Hutton and McFadden are the bedrock of Shiels’ historic side who will face Norway, Austria and England in their Euro 2022 group matches at Southampton.
Booth will be on the pitch at each of these games as a fan – she requested annual leave for these dates from Fifa a long time ago – and feels that, given the trials and tribulations faced by the sport in Northern Ireland North over the years, many former players, coaches and officials will feel an attachment to the 23 women selected by Shiels.
“Oh yes. Your heart is with this team,” she said when asked if she felt she was part of the current team.
“It’s almost like they’ve done it for the past 20 or 30 years of missing out on opportunities for the rest of the women’s football community. It’s remarkable.”
“We all remember those tough times and the struggles we had to go through to get to where we are now. You recognize how far you’ve come and it makes you stronger.
“I can definitely see that when I look at Rachel Furness, when I look at Sarah, Julie, Ashley and Marissa, even Demi [Vance] and Nadene [Caldwell] although they were coming more into a golden period, I guess.
“You can tell how much it means because they’ve worked so hard to get to where they are today, and they realize how hard it was when they started. I think that’s important for all of us to remember that as well.”
The importance of remembering the journey. Even this horrible in Scotland.