Sara Booth strides towards me with a wide smile, her caramel coloured hair flying around her shoulders, high heels clicking.
“It’s certainly a great place to work,” she says of the National Stadium, where I’ve met the recently appointed tournament director of a brand new event set to take place in Northern Ireland next year, the UEFA Women’s Under 19 Championship.
Having played women’s football at international level, the 40-year-old brunette knows all too well the feeling of stepping onto the pitch to represent your country.
But Sara, from north Belfast, seems just as comfortable in her stylish grey suit and new role at the helm of what’s set to be an exciting event for Northern Ireland, as she is in a pair of football shorts chasing a ball around a field.
“I absolutely love playing football, but I absolutely love not playing football,” she laughs as we take seats in one of the offices overlooking the terraces of the impressive stadium.
“I dedicated everything that I had to playing - every Sunday would have been training, as was every Wednesday, you had to watch what you ate, sleep properly, you couldn’t drink excessively, so everything I did was all with that in mind.
“I just love now having a bit more flexibility and being able to do things. I have a lot more time. I would never change what I did, I have no regrets, but I really enjoy now just getting up on a Sunday and going for brunch.”
It’s been just two years since Sara hung up her boots to dedicate more time to her role as an advocate of the ‘beautiful game’ for women in the Province.
Prior to that she had played the sport for 25 years - practically all her life - including 20 at international level. She was also the IFA’s Women’s Domestic Football Manager since September 2003, a role which saw her help to raise awareness of and promote ladies’ football throughout the Province.
It was something of a dream job for her, and the perfect career for this football mad girl from the Shore Road, who left university with a First Class degree, in spite of her teachers advising that she “would be better off learning a trade”, as opposed to doing anything academic.
Sara, who marked her milestone birthday on St Patrick’s Day, and was treated to a helicopter ride along the Co Down coast by her partner Victoria, now lives in Lisburn, but grew up in Merville Garden Village, and attended Whiteabbey Primary School and Hazelwood College.
“I failed my 11 Plus at Whiteabbey, and teachers told my mum I’d be better learning a trade, as I wouldn’t really do anything academic,” she recalls.
“I was kind of devastated because all my friends were going off to Belfast High, but in hindsight it was the best thing that ever happened to me.
“Hazelwood was a really informal setting, they just embraced me and my love of football, they loved that I was sporty, and I really did shine.”
Sara’s passion for the beautiful game is something she can’t even remember not having - her mum tells her she was born with a football in her hand.
“My earliest memory of playing football was in the school playground - the boys were struggling for a goalkeeper and they stuck me in nets. It was like I caught the bug that day. I don’t understand why I loved it, because my mum and dad weren’t sporty. But my uncle Mark was into football and apparently he used to play in the garden with me, and I think it was him who really pushed me and encouraged me.”
Sara’s parents were also “incredibly supportive” of her, and she remembers her mother going to her teachers and fighting on her behalf to ensure they allowed her to play her favourite sport.
“My whole family knew that I loved it and that I just wanted to eat, breathe and sleep football. I would have been out in the street playing until nine or 10 o’clock at night and mum would have been hollering to get me in.”
It wasn’t until she was 15 that she was approached by a woman who asked her to come and play for the Post Office Ladies, and from that moment on, she was “hooked” on the sport. However, as a Manchester United fan growing up in a time when female footballers were few and far between her idol was Mark Hughes.
“There were no women in the sport - my role model was a male,” she laughs.
Determined that her future career would revolve around soccer, Sara did work experience at the MS Society as a physiotherapist, but to her disappointment she did not enjoy it.
“I wanted to go straight into sports physio and didn’t realise you had to work in hospitals, and with older people and so on first, and I just wasn’t that person. The people who do it are remarkable, and I just knew it wasn’t for me.”
However all was not lost. Sara ended up securing a place to shadow some Sports Studies undergraduate students at the University of Ulster, and knew instantly that this was what she wanted to do. Despite a slight hitch when it came to her A levels - she had to re-sit her Biology - she got in, and because she was technically a year ahead of her peers, she felt even more settled and mature and ready to focus on what lay ahead of her. She ended up graduating with a First Class degree, following a total of five years of studies which included a two and a half year placement in the USA, where she enjoyed the “incredible experience” of playing soccer at St Joseph’s College in Indiana.
After graduating in July 2001, Sara did “a load of part time work”, from coaching football in clubs and schools, to taking fitness classes and cleaning windows - everything and anything she could do to keep busy and make a living.
“It was probably the richest I’ve ever been in my life!” she laughs. “Then I got a job with Craigavon Borough Council as Girls’ Soccer Development Officer, which was the first type of role ever in the country.”
A year and a half later, the role at the IFA came up, and Sara was overjoyed to be given it, going on to spend more than a decade raising the profile of the sport for women, originating and delivering initiatives such as the IFA Female Football Leaders Programme, and the SCORE Pilot Project, which received the UEFA HatTrick Award for ‘Best Women’s Football Development Project’ in 2013.
Earlier this year, she was seconded to her current role for a 20-month period - tournament director for the UEFA Women’s U19 Championship, which will be held in Northern Ireland between August 8 and 21, 2017. The role is multifaceted and will involve Sara collaborating across all the departments of the Irish Football Association and liaising with local government, UEFA and other key stakeholders.
In her former post as Women’s Domestic Football Manager, she was busy, but the flexibility of the role also enabled her to continue playing ladies’ football at club and national level, allowing her to travel the world, and literally fulfil her dream of eating, breathing and sleeping the game.
She’s also seen so many changes in terms of how ‘seriously’ football is taken as a women’s sport, and is pleased to note that more and more girls are coming forward to try it, and be selected for teams, at a variety of age levels.
And from a personal level, she adored playing for her country.
“I loved playing for Northern Ireland, and the pride of putting on the green and white shirt, and we weren’t particularly good in the 90s and used to get beaten all the time, but it was all about the effort, the endeavour, the team work and that feeling of just playing as one.
“It got better when we started to win in the 2000s, and it’s been lovely to see where the team has come from to where it is today. I’m really proud of having been part of that process.”