When Julie Nelson started playing, Northern Ireland didn’t even have a women's team. Now, they are competing at the UEFA Women’s EURO, their first major international tournament – and the experienced defender is loving every minute.
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At 37, Julie Nelson is one of Northern Ireland’s most experienced players. Having made her international debut in 2004, she surpassed the 100-cap mark in September 2018, and went on to earn a British Empire Medal (BEM) for her services to the game in 2021.
During her club career, the well-travelled defender has worn the colours of Crusaders Newtonabbey Strikers, Knattspyrnufélag Vestmannaeyja in Iceland, Glasgow City in Scotland and English sides Everton and Durham Women. In 2016, she returned to her formative club, maintaining a full-time job alongside her playing career, and now coaches in Northern Ireland's Regional Excellence Programme.
But when she embarked on her own journey as a talented youngster, being part of Northern Ireland’s first appearance at a UEFA Women’s EURO seemed an unlikely prospect…
Julie Nelson on… overcoming early obstacles
When I was growing up, I wasn’t really aware that there were girls, or other girls, playing football. And I definitely wasn’t aware that there was a Northern Ireland team, so there was no visibility of football when I was growing up.
The only female athlete that I really remember from my younger days was Steffi Graf, the tennis player, because Wimbledon was on the TV in the summer, so I didn’t really have any female role models in sport. That was an initial barrier.
As I was coming through my teenage years, I started to play for a club, but there wasn’t actually a Northern Ireland senior team from 1999 to 2004. Thankfully, I was 18 when I got my first chance to play for the Under-19s – they had just formed and went to play in the European Qualifiers – and then I made my senior debut when I was 18 as well, and that was kind of the rebirth of Northern Ireland women’s football.
Julie Nelson on… balancing commitments
Through the years I have had to sacrifice a lot to play for Northern Ireland - giving up a lot of time, missing out on time spent with friends and family, taking time off work or using leave to represent my country.
It is busy and you kind of feel like a hamster on a wheel and you’re just constantly on the go. You’re rushing home from work and you’re trying to get something to eat before you head off to training.
You don’t really have a whole lot of time that you would deem as your own. It’s a massive commitment in terms of time, but we love doing it, and that’s why we do it.
Julie Nelson on… learning from experience
When I was 19, I ruptured my cruciate ligament. Obviously now it’s quite a common injury and you hear a lot about it, but at that stage we didn’t really know a whole lot about it and that was a massive obstacle for me to overcome.
I try to look at that injury as a positive, at the time it was a massive disappointment for me, but whenever I look back, I’m glad that I took the positive mindset to get over it. I believe that things happen for a reason and the hard work that I put in then has paid dividends now.
Julie Nelson on… sources of support
My family were a massive support. My parents went above and beyond, and still do to this day. They paid for my surgery to help me get back on the pitch quicker, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be in this position now. I’m so thankful that I had the support mechanisms to be able to come back from that and to still be playing to this day.
They have supported me throughout my whole career, and they still come to my club games now, all the home international matches, and they are looking forward to going to [Women's EURO] as well, as are my brother and his family. They have been a massive support, and my inspiration.
It helps whenever they’re in the stadium. If we’re lining up and I know where they’re standing, I’ll look out for them, and I suppose it’s a bit of a comfort to know that they’re there with you and with the team on the journey.
Julie Nelson on…what it means to play for her country
It’s a massive passion of mine. I absolutely love representing Northern Ireland and that’s why I keep pushing my body to do it and I will continue to play for as long as I feel I can reach those levels and obviously I’m selected to do so.
I absolutely love playing with this bunch of girls and representing Northern Ireland, there’s no bigger achievement in your footballing career.
Julie Nelson on… playing in a first major international tournament
I’m incredibly excited, as are the team, to go and put our country on the map and to show what Northern Ireland is about. We’re a tight group and we’re looking forward to it. I’m excited to see Southampton (venue for all three of Northern Ireland's group games) filled up with the Green and White army. I was fortunate to be in France in 2016 when the men were at EURO 2016 - that was an incredible occasion and hopefully, we can have the same sort of effect.
Of the 16 teams that are in the tournament, 15 of them are in the top 16 teams in Europe and little outsiders, Northern Ireland, went from number 32 in Europe to qualify and I think that just shows how massive the achievement is. We haven’t come close before and to win that play-off and get to the Women's EURO is a massive feat for Northern Ireland women’s football.
Julie Nelson on… the future of Northern Irish women's football
Going forward this has to be the benchmark that we build from, and it can’t be a one-off for women’s football in Northern Ireland just to qualify for Women's EURO 2022 and that be the end of it.
It’s fantastic to see the growth in the women’s game and so many young girls now coming to watch us play and to hear that you have fans. It’s surreal for us experienced players in the team to hear that.
I coach in the Regional Excellence Programme and it’s fantastic to see the standard of the players that are now coming through. Hopefully, us qualifying for EURO 2022 paves the way for those younger generations coming through in the future. Hopefully they’ll go on to wear the green shirt and represent Northern Ireland in the finals in years to come.