Belfast Telegraph

Footballers' Lives: 'If my mum and dad hadn't been able to afford to pay for the surgery, I don't think that I would still be playing now'

Northern Ireland's Julie Nelson on injury that could have ended career, and passing 100 international caps

Going strong: Julie Nelson
Going strong: Julie Nelson

By Stuart McKinley

Q. How did you start playing football? A. My dad was a rugby coach and that would have been the first sport that I played in a team format. I lived beside Sandy Bay Playing Fields in Larne and I spent most of my childhood there.

It would have probably been hard not to get into playing football. My dad encouraged me to go and ask the teacher in primary school if I could join the football team, so as we were going back in after break time I waited behind and asked him. I was the only girl and thankfully he said yes. That was the first team I played in because there were no girls' teams at that time.

Q. Were there any barriers that you met in getting into teams?

A. The main barrier at that stage was that there was no girls' football visible to me. I didn't really know that girls played football in a team environment and there was nothing on television at that stage. I played because I enjoyed it, but there were no direct barriers in terms of people not allowing me to play.

Family affair: Julie with dad William and mum Eleanor
Family affair: Julie with dad William and mum Eleanor

Q. When did you move into playing in all-girls' teams?

A. A year later a girls' team started up in Larne, called Gilmour Gals. Myself and a couple of girls that lived in the street played with Helen McKenna, who played for Northern Ireland too. They went to the same school as her, and we were out playing one summer and James Campbell, who was the coach of the team, invited us to their training sessions and that was the first time I knew that there was a girls' team in the Larne area.

Q. How did things develop for you there?

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A. There were matches at Cherryvale every Saturday. We were the only girls' team in it and then we were able to get some more players in and progress to 11-a-side leagues. I was playing first-team senior football at 13 or 14-years-old. That was common back then. It's changed now, in the Women's Premiership now you have to be 16 to play and that's a good change. The Gilmour Gals team folded when I was 15. My team-mate Jamie Campbell, who was the coach's daughter, myself and Helen McKenna moved to what was Newtownabbey Strikers at the time before we amalgamated with Crusaders.

Q. Quite soon after that you were playing at international level as one of the first to play for a Northern Ireland Women's team in a number of years. What was that like?

A. There was no senior team in place from 1999 until 2004, which was when I made my senior debut. I was part of the team that took part in the first European Under-19 qualifiers, which was in Bulgaria in 2002. That was the first time Northern Ireland had entered a team at Under-19 level. I played at Under-19 level for two years and then made my senior debut in 2004 whenever we re-established the team and went to the Algarve Cup. It was a fantastic experience. There were a few who had played previously, but the majority of us were making international debuts.

Q. How exciting was it to play at international level?

A. It was all a bit surreal. There hadn't been a team and I came through at a good time as the international team got going again. It gave me something to aim for. I'd probably like to be about 12 now because it's a good time to be a women's footballer.

Q. How did things progress on the international stage after that?

On international duty with Northern Ireland
On international duty with Northern Ireland

A. I went on a scholarship to America, to Carson Newman University in Tennessee. I was only supposed to go for one season, but I stayed for three years because I loved it so much. The second year I flew home to play in the Algarve Cup again in 2005. We played Sweden in a friendly at Ballyclare before going out. That was on the Saturday night and we were due to fly out on the Monday, but I did my cruciate ligament in that game - in my fifth cap. I was home for the full two weeks anyway so I paid for my own flight to go out to Portugal to go and watch the games because I didn't want to be sitting in Larne while everyone was over there, even though I couldn't play. It was good to still be involved.

Q. How did you overcome such a major setback?

A. We weren't covered insurance wise when we played international football in those days. Thankfully my mum and dad had a wee bit of money and were able to pay for me to get the surgery done privately. I got a scan when I came home for the summer at the end of May and three weeks later I had the surgery. If my mum and dad hadn't been able to afford to pay for the surgery, I don't think that I would still be playing now.

Q. That's a real sign of the dedication involved in playing women's international football, isn't it, because you are all mainly amateurs?

A. I think it just comes from my background. My brother's a little bit older than me and he's still playing rugby and doesn't like to miss any training sessions or matches, and because my dad was big into sport, I think that just rubbed off on us because he would have been very professional in his approach as well. It has cost us all money at times, taking time off work and things like that. But for me it's worth it and there are so many people who would love to be in that position. I am happy to do it.

Q. You ended up playing in Iceland, how did that move come about?

Ton up: Julie Nelson wins her 100th cap
Ton up: Julie Nelson wins her 100th cap

A. Ashley Hutton and Sarah McFadden had gone over and we'd played Iceland in a qualifying game. The coach had seen me play, he was friends with the coach that Sarah had and he got in contact with me. I went out on trial in January 2011, which was rather cold - and dark. I went on a pre-season trip to Spain and then straight to Iceland. I was there for two seasons.

Q. How did you adapt to life in Iceland?

A. I lived in a place called the Westman Islands, which is off the mainland. There are only 4,000 people living there and it's an interesting place. It was difficult to get off the island because you had to get a ferry or fly, and it's a 90-minute drive from Reykjavik so you needed someone with a car because the buses weren't very regular. It was an interesting experience with the language and a different culture. I think it helped me as a player because the league was quite physical and competitive. The first season we finished second in the league, which was a massive achievement because we weren't one of the big clubs. The second season we finished third, so I'd a fairly successful time there.

Q. You then went to Everton. It must have been exciting to join such a famous club.

A. I finished in Iceland in 2012 and I went over on trial with Simone Magill - who is still there. When I was growing up there wasn't anything like that and getting to that level wasn't an aspiration for me because it wasn't possible. To get a move to a club like Everton was fantastic, but off the pitch it was difficult. I was 25 or 26 when I went to Everton and I was on my own a lot, and the club was training in the evenings at that time because the girls had jobs. They all had things on during the day and there was no extra training put on for us. It was another step up from the level I had played at before. That improved me as a player and to play against some of the best players in England was a good challenge for me.

Q. It wasn't as attractive as it sounds then?

A. No. It was difficult for me and that's why I only stayed for a short period, because of the off-field stuff more than anything.

Q. You went to Glasgow City after that. Was that different?

A. Yes. I'd played for Crusaders when we hosted the Champions League and we played Glasgow City. The coach, Eddie Black, had known of me and I had a friend who played there at the time too. I moved there and met Denise O'Sullivan, who was a Republic of Ireland international and is now playing full-time in America. We shared a flat that the club had and that really helped because there was the two of us in the same situation. She is a bit younger than me, but that didn't matter, we got on well and I still keep in touch with her. All the girls welcomed us into that environment. Nearly all of the Glasgow City squad were senior internationals at that time and the standard was high. The first year we got to the last-16 and the second season we made it to the quarter-finals, which was massive. I won five trophies there as well, two Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cups.

Q. There is a lot of talk about the inequality between men's and women's football, particularly in terms of wages. What's your experience of that?

A. I got paid at Everton, but it was just enough to live off. They paid for my accommodation so I didn't have to pay rent. I got paid at Glasgow too, but again it was just enough to keep me ticking over. The best money I would have earned was when I was in Iceland. I was able to save a bit from then to put towards the deposit for my house that I just bought last year, so that was worthwhile from a financial point of view. If I played football for the money I would have given it up a long time ago.

Q. How does it feel to be alongside Pat Jennings, Steven Davis, Aaron Hughes - and now Ashley Hutton - on the list of Northern Ireland players who have over 100 caps?

A. Even to be mentioned in the same sentence as those players is an honour for me. When I was growing up I never even thought it was possible to play for Northern Ireland let alone do it for 15 years and 104 times now - and hopefully a few more.

Q. What are your memories of the night that you won your 100th cap against Slovakia?

A. It was all good apart from that we lost the game. We lost 1-0 and I hit the post. I hit a free-kick from 30 yards and the goalkeeper just managed to get her fingertips to it. The night itself was fantastic and the Irish FA did a great job. There was a guard of honour for me walking out, which was a bit embarrassing. It was a great occasion and quite a few of my family were there too.

Q. How much has family support meant to you during your career?

A. My parents are crucial to what I've done. My mum and dad still come to the games. They've been to watch 90 per cent of the matches this season and they come to all the Northern Ireland games. They've been a fantastic support and I wouldn't still be playing if it wasn't for them, let alone everything that they have done outside of that.

Q. As well as over 100 caps as an international footballer you were a pretty accomplished hockey player too, weren't you?

A. Hockey would have been my first sport at a time. I went to Larne Grammar School and football wasn't an option. I played hockey from when I was P6 in school and was captain of the team at Moyle Primary School. We won the Schools' Cup at Larne Grammar - the only time the school has ever won it. I played for Ulster and Ireland at Under-16 level and for Ulster at Under-18 and Under-21 as well. I only really switched properly to playing international football as my No.1 sport when I went to America when I was 19 or 20. When I came home from America I still played hockey in the winter and football in the summer.

Q. How have you seen things progress at international level during your time playing?

A. It's completely unrecognisable to what it was like at the start. The first time we went to the Algarve Cup we paid £250 each to go and the second year we had to buy our own training kit. Now we're getting all the same gear as the men have and in the last two games we have had our names on the back of our shirts for the first time ever in 15 years and the match details on the front. I have a collection of Northern Ireland shirts, but have no idea what games they are from. It seems like something really small, but it's nice to have that. It's come on so much.

Q. How long do you see yourself going on for?

A. People ask me that question and I don't really have an age where I think I need to stop. If you look at Steven Davis, he's still going at 34 and was man of the match for Rangers last weekend, In the women's game, Carli Lloyd - although I'm nowhere near her standard - she's one of the best female players in the world and she's still trying to be better. As long as I don't feel it's taking me too long to recover and I can't keep up with the pace of the game, I'm planning to play for as long as I can. You're a long time retired is what people keep telling me, so I'll keep playing as long as my legs hold out.

Q. Have you any funny stories from your career?

A. There are a lot of funny stories. All the girls say that I should write a book because I have quite a good memory and I remember pretty much all the games. If you ask me a score of a game from 10 years ago I'll remember it. One that springs to mind is when we were in Sweden our bus driver got arrested because he had worked over his hours. We had to take all the gear off the bus and walk to training. Incidents like that seem to follow us.

Snapshot

Date of birth: June 4, 1985

Place of birth: Larne

Previous clubs: IBV (Iceland), Everton, Glasgow City, Durham Women, Crusaders Strikers

Northern Ireland appearances: 104

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