Football star Sara on why her goal is to bring more NI women into the beautiful game... and meeting her own perfect match
Sara Booth, tournament director of the first UEFA women’s finals in Northern Ireland, says it’s her ambition to raise the profile of women’s football here, but the Lisburn woman tells Laure James she also has to find time to organise her wedding
Sara Booth takes the long way round. She guides me around the Irish FA’s sparkling new home at the national stadium beaming with pride, our route to the chief executive’s office an open-plan homage to what Michael O’Neill’s troops have achieved.
The new tournament director’s enthusiasm sweeps over her sleep-deprivation and persistent information processing. But this isn’t about the boys. Freshly tasked with staging the first ever women’s finals in Northern Ireland, Sara gestures encouragingly to share in her biggest vice — coffee.
“I am putting in some crazy hours at the moment, weekends and nights, and drinking way too much caffeine — but I do love it.”
The 40-year-old former footballer bristles excitedly as she rhymes off her checklist of preparations for the UEFA European Women’s Under-19 Championship, as if it’s the eve of the final, rather than something not happening until August next year.
She’s also busy making wedding preparations for her impending nuptials to partner, Victoria. The pair plan to tie the knot in Majorca soon, a week after Victoria turns 30. With a schedule that would make most people baulk, no wonder the women’s football aficionado is over her coffee quota.
Having played football for 25 years — at international level for 20 of those, Sara hung up her boots two years ago to focus more of her energy as an advocate of the women’s game.
Listing new world records, publicity stunts and top-end viewing figures among her objectives with the 2017 finals, her ambitious plans will certainly match the stunning new surroundings of the new stadium.
Yet it was not always so smooth-sounding for Sara, whose lofty hopes for women’s football in Northern Ireland used to fall on deaf ears, and resistance from the old guard left her banging her head off the archaic former walls of Windsor Avenue.
“When I first walked into the IFA as a young girl at 27, back in 2002, I was stuck in a corner and ignored.
“I think attitudes have changed and I think as an organisation, the IFA has changed. But there have been naysayers through the years, who didn’t pay any attention. There have been times I’ve just wanted to curl up into a ball and hide. Certainly I suffered from crises of confidence.
“It wasn’t necessarily just me either, I’ve spoken to Michael Boyd and it was exactly the same attitude then toward community relations and disability football. Unless it was the senior men’s team, nobody bothered.
“There were periods during my 13 years at the IFA when I nearly did throw it all in. I applied for other jobs. But when I didn’t get them, I saw that as a sign and told myself, ‘Sara, you have to stay here — you signed up to this’. I had hung my career on it and I had to hang on.
“We have grown so much over the last 13 years, especially in the past six years under IFA chief executive Patrick Nelson.”
The decision to ride out the frustration paid off. Booth is now strengthening the position women’s football holds within the IFA’s framework, and has been vindicated for the commitment she made to the game.
“For 13 years I was in football development which was an incredible experience for me and really was the foundation for my career," she adds. "But in the last couple of months, since taking on the tournament director's role, I've realised just what I can do to kick on.
"The FIFA Leadership Programme I was on also emphasised that for me, and showed I had a lot more to offer.
"We are quite well advanced with the plans and UEFA have told me to slow down because I am working so fast.
"They have to get these Women's U-19 finals out of the way in Slovakia first, before they even think about how we're going to host them."
Sara will travel to Slovakia after Northern Ireland's sojourn in France for Euro 2016 to shadow the tournament director, while Patrick Nelson is also keen to attend the final.
But it's all in aid of learning how to put Northern Ireland on the women's football map.
"It's a partly-televised competition, as the final and one semi-final are guaranteed to be on Eurosport, but we're going to be clever about it and host both semis at the National Stadium, so the broadcasters will more than likely want to take both semis.
"UTV are really keen to show some of the matches, too, and we're currently working with UEFA to see if that's possible.
"We've tracked the viewing figures and last year's final in Israel pulled in 1.5m and the year before in Norway was 1.8m. We see a minimum of 2m for ours.
"Only recently in Venezuela, there were 45,000 people at an U-17 women's match, which is totally unheard of.
"It's those kind of stats which just give me belief we can fill the stadium once over, whether that's for the final or the opening ceremony.
"We're talking to Translink to get reduced travel for those coming to the matches, and lots of other things.
"It's all part of building a legacy. We'll have a replica of the trophy and bring it around as many local schools as we can, and in doing that we're hoping to set a world record. But we want to go back to those schools and run events, after-school matches and everything else we need to not just capture attention for these finals, but to captivate and keep it."
While the men's team has been snapped in their new suits, on a flash new coach and the €8m scooped for qualifying for France has gone toward a sophisticated training base, Sara's promotions for next year's tournament have so far extended to a bit of polystyrene board.
"It cost me a tenner," she laughs, "but it's got the tournament logo on so I've taken it everywhere.
"I've had Michael O'Neill's players holding it, local personalities, MLAs, loads of people. I bet most are sick of the sight of it, but it is getting the message out."
Sara's respite comes through quality time with partner Victoria and their cat Parker, while days out with her seven-year-old nephew David are precious time away from the bureaucratic game.
She says: "I know these finals could make or break me, both professionally and as a human. I am lucky Victoria is very accommodating, and works equally long hours."
As she no longer plays, Sara says it was important for her to find a suitably challenging fitness regime to keep her on her toes.
"I train with a personal trainer three times a week, and come hell or high water, I make sure I am in that gym and mentally that helps me stay focused.
"I'm getting married in Majorca soon, and Victoria turns 30 a week before our wedding, so we have so much to organise.
"We've had to put the honeymoon off until next year, and definitely after this tournament."