Sarah McFadden still going strong for Durham and Northern Ireland

Sarah McFadden with her daughter Harper, ready to lead Northern Ireland out to face Norway in last year's Women's Euro Qualifier at Seaview, Belfast.
Photo by William Cherry/Presseye

Women's Euro 2021 qualifier Group C: Faroe Islands v Northern Ireland (Torshavn, 5pm BST)

MOST people would like to add a few years onto their birth certificate for reasons of vanity; for Sarah McFadden, being born later could have meant she'd be a full-time professional footballer.

Manchester City wanted her a decade ago, before they began to invest heavily in their women's side. Going to Sunderland instead, regular success on the pitch controversially wasn't rewarded with promotion to the top flight.

Now 33, Sarah Robson (after her marriage) is still going strong, in the English second tier (FA Women's Championship) with Durham WFC – and with Northern Ireland, who are in Torshavn this evening to take on the Faroe Islands in a European qualifier.

With a trip to Belarus scheduled next month, followed by home fixtures against those two nations, she's optimistic about making a play-off for Euro 2021 (postponed until 2022, still in England).

She has an easy-going, good-humoured nature, but there's an understandable sense of regret about the direction her football career went in a decade ago:

"I went to Man City before they were big, but I needed income, a job, it wasn't professional.

"Sunderland were in the division below the top, had been top level the year before it went [Women's] Super League, and you needed a franchise.

"We won it three years in a row – but you couldn't get promoted out of the Championship

"We had great times, a great team, such a shame we had to win it three times before we got a sniff. It's just the way it was…

"Our era missed out a bit because we had careers we didn't want to give up, you were going to be making the third of the money as a professional footballer. It wasn't worth it.

"If I'd been five or so years younger I'd have taken a professional contract and started building up, the way some other girls have done."

The Bellaghy girl always had a 'can-do' attitude.

Starting out with Moyola Park ladies, she moved on to Ballymena United Allstars: "I never got picked for Northern Ireland at first, just a country girl playing in the lowest division, it was only when I moved to Ballymena that I got recognised bit more."

She wasn't exactly a late starter, though, making her senior debut at 17, although admittedly that was enforced by circumstances:

"If you go way back, my under-19 team, there was no senior team, so we ended up being it – Julie [Nelson], Ashley [Hutton], and so on.

"We ended up paying for our kit and stuff. Women's football wasn't big, not getting much money from Uefa, but we've always been backed really well, looked after.

"Now there has been a massive push with the likes of [Electric Ireland's] Game Changers, sponsors want to be involved.

"That feeds on to kids and grassroots development, we're seeing benefits of that, the likes of Megan Bell, had proper coaching

"In the past you were taking unpaid leave and it just wasn't sustainable, some of the best players were missing. Now the IFA are good in helping us along.

"If the kids now don't take advantage they're just kidding themselves."

Sarah certainly took her opportunity, provided by Gail Macklin (now Redmond). Then the soccer coach at the University of Southern Mississippi, Gail is now the IFA Foundation Women's Development Manager, something she was effectively doing 15 years ago.

"I was playing netball internationally, with Caroline O'Hanlon in my age group, thinking: 'I wanna do sport, but I don't really want to stay at home and do it'.

"On my first senior NI camp in the Algarve, on that camp was Gail Macklin, who was a coach out there, said she had a scholarship left.

"I just said, 'Aye'. Just decided then and there, it all fell into place.

"I thought I'd do a year, defer entry into Jordanstown – but once I got there I thought 'Oh, this is too good'. You were given everything, compared to NI or even England."

Travelling long distances in her career was never going to be an issue either, as she recalls:

"We were in Hattiesburg, two hours from New Orleans, way down in the deep south. The first game I went to, we drove 13 hours on a bus to Texas to play A&M, a massive college, there were about 3,000 people at that game.

"Soccer wasn't as big in Mississippi as in New York or California. There were always 4-500 at our games, but not massive crowds."

Another slice of ill-fortune ended her time in the USA: "In my last year I tried out for Atlanta Beat, they'd an Irish guy managing, but he'd used his full quota of international players, so I needed a green card or residency. They were signing internationals like Kelly Smith, the best in the world."

Instead, she went to Iceland, first with Fylkir, then Grindavik, where fellow NI international Rachel Furness and goalkeeper Helen Alderson persuaded her to come to their native north-east of England and join Sunderland.

Life is good there, teaching sport full-time to teenagers in a technical college, still playing for club and country.

Sarah McFadden/ Robson, as ever, remains optimistic: "If we win our last four we should at least get a play-off [if Norway beat Wales twice], and then go from there."

That's always been her way.

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