“Girls, they just didn’t play football, and when I did eventually get to play, I was the only girl doing so” – Sarah Robson
Well it’s certainly been a journey for footballer, Sarah Robson, a journey, and a rollercoaster, both at home, and most certainly, abroad.
The Northern Ireland international, who’ll be heading to the Euros this coming summer, against the odds, with her country, also plays in the north-east of England, for Durham Women, in the FA Women’s Championship.
All of this though, is a far cry from where it all began, in the small, Londonderry town of Magherafelt, in the latter stages of the 1980s; but, having overcome, eventually, issues of being ‘that girl’ who wanted to play football, her progression in the beautiful game soon took on a life of its own.
The journey though, it has been one that has witnessed her playing both football, and netball, in her homeland, before taking on a scholarship in the United States, and the University of Southern Mississippi, before a spell playing professional football in Iceland, and settling in Northern England.
“It’s easier for me to be able to look back now, but I’ve also been really lucky to get the opportunities that I’ve had,” began Sarah.
“The education in which I’ve gained along the way, has certainly helped me because, when I started out, I didn’t know anything about it, about girls not being ‘allowed’ to play football, and I was soon turned away because of my being a girl.
“Girls, they just didn’t play football, and when I did eventually get to play, I was the only girl doing so.
“Then, the barriers, they slowly started breaking down; there wasn’t really any girls playing that were older than me though, and I only got picked for my country because of the changes that were happening at the age I was.”
Sarah’s early years of playing the beautiful game would see her turning out for Moyola Park (Castledawson), and Ballymena United All Stars (County Antrim), whilst also finding herself playing netball to a very high standard, at the same time.
However, with two, sporting passions in the crosshairs, Sarah was coming across difficulties in both her chosen sports, and to her, accepting the scholarship stateside, when she did, was the right thing to do.
“”Yes, I played netball at a high level,” continued Sarah.
“However, the funding opportunities were really difficult to ascertain.
“Football then got funding, and that helped to sway my decision.
“When the opportunity arose to go to America, it was certainly one I was going to take.
“When I did leave University though, there wasn’t much around for me, until I found out that clubs in Iceland were offering professional contracts.
“A friend of mine persuaded me to go there and play, and I ended up befriending Rachel Furness (a fellow NI international, born in Sunderland, plays for Liverpool Women), whilst also finding myself working in a fish factory.”
Whilst she was in Iceland, Sarah would pull on the jerseys of Fylbir, and Grindavik, before finally heading to England (there was a brief spell back in Iceland during that time, at the FH club, in 2012).
Continuing her education though, whilst at Sunderland, was key to keeping her here, and increasing her own knowledge of the sporting world; gaining a degree in Physical Education and Health, Sarah would then go on to add a Masters in Sports Coaching, whilst at Northumbria University.
“At Sunderland, I hardly played the first year, then it was injury and injury, although there was a good season where I managed a number of games,” explained Sarah.
“But, as you can guess, I picked up another injury; I had a lovely time there though, and I made some really good friends, but, women’s football on the whole, was still of an amateur standing.”
A move to Durham Women however revitalised Sarah, and reignited her career, probably more than she could have imagined.
Throughout her time at Durham, and with the ongoing progression at the club, it has coincided with Sarah playing more of a part for the national team.
That presence has seen then, against sizable odds, reach this years (2022) European Championships, in England, with Sarah and her teammates set to be based on the South Coast.
Set to face Norway (7 July), Austria (10 July), and the host nation, England (15 July), at St. Mary’s, home of Southampton FC, Sarah and co., are well aware of the challenge that lies ahead of them.
It’s a challenge akin to that which they overcame to reach the finals, one which saw them finish as runners-up, to Norway, in a group consisting of Wales, Belarus, and Faroe Islands, but were fourth favourites, at best, before overcoming Ukraine in the play-offs.
Challenges like that with NI, and along with those in club football, with Durham, are what continues to spur Sarah, as well as the current, and the next generation, on.
“We started the qualifiers as fourth favourites in the group, and went on to beat Ukraine in the play-offs, against the odds,” beamed a proud Sarah.
“Facing England, Austria, and Norway, we know it’ll be a massive ask of us.
“But, anything is possible, and hopefully, it’s looking like we’ll have thousands of of supporters coming over to cheer us on.
“For me though, even after I left Sunderland (for Durham), I was heading towards retirement, both for club, and country, but the success that we continue to have, it’s keeping me going.”
As for the beautiful game itself, and the increasing popularity boom it currently witnesses, and enjoys, in regards female participation, it’s one which should never have really taken as long at happen – Sarah though, is perhaps well-placed to have witnessed what has been accomplished, achieved, over the past few decades.
“When I was at Sunderland, and they were at the top, the region as a whole thrived on that, and now, here, at Durham, you can see how the focus, again, has increased, but we still need more in order to progress further.
“The game itself though, it has changed a lot over the past decade, and, right now, it’s at a point where it’s going to be taking off even more.
“It will only progress though with continuous, financial support, investment, something that the whole game needs to stand any sort of chance of even attempting to level with the men’s game.”
As for that next generation, those in the early stages of their careers within either the beautiful game, or other sporting endeavours , those youngsters wanting to be like their idols, to play, and to enjoy sports, Sarah says – “Just go out there and enjoy it, you have to.
“That, and take the opportunities when they present themselves, no matter where in the world they are.
“I will also say that, when you’re young, you do need to get yourself out there, and explore, play, and develop yourself, as a person, and an athlete.”