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To hell and back: You can’t keep a good girl down

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Sara Hilton 1

  • Former professional footballer and Wales under-19 captain.
  • Attributes her success as a player to having played in boys’ teams.
  • Now happy helping other girls achieve their dreams as a regional and performance centre coach.
  • Statistics show there are nine times as many qualified male coaches than female coaches in England and nine times as many grass-roots boys’ football teams as girls’. 

When football dealt Sara Hilton a knockout blow at the ridiculously young age of 18, the chances of her bouncing back off the floor to pursue a career in the sport she loves appeared to be somewhere between nought and zero. 

She admitted as much herself. Coaching wasn’t for her. If she could never play competitive football again, she would choose another career altogether. And so she became an air hostess. 

But plans can change and, sometimes, spectacularly so. 

In the week that sports coach UK (now UK Coaching) launched its Reach campaign – aimed at attracting and developing more women into sports coaching – Sara’s story is one of triumph over adversity.

And it should serve as an inspiration to females young and old to take the plunge and don their boots, or stop procrastinating and take those first steps towards coaching.


Enormous talent, mixed with passion, drive and ambition, Sara had the lot, captaining Wales at under-15, under-16, under-17 and under-19 level, while playing professional club football with Manchester United. 

She was riding on the crest of a wave.  A long and successful career lay ahead of her. Until a double dose of bad luck changed the course of her life. 

Anterior cruciate ligament: three words that strike fear into every footballer. 

Not once but twice she ruptured this ligament in a 12-month period, and all those incredible highs were suddenly eclipsed by an excruciating low. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we arrive at how her dream turned into a nightmare, of her renaissance and the happy ending, we must go back to the beginning, gaining some insight into her early football education to discover how an international football captain was born. 

Scary statistics 

‘I started playing at three. There were no girls’ teams in the area so I always played in boys’ teams,’ Sara explains. 

‘I went from playing in local boys’ teams to playing for Manchester United at 10 years old, which was the first girls’ team I’d ever played for.’ 

It is a route that will be familiar to many women professionals. 

There are thousands of girls and boys playing alongside each other, such is the dearth of girls’ football teams in large parts of the United Kingdom. The number of teams is on the rise but the latest Football Association (FA) participation report, published this year, shows there are more than nine times as many grass-roots (under-18s) boys’ teams as girls’: 

  • 64,728 (estimated) registered girl players in England
  • 3596 registered girls’ teams
  • 601,488 (estimated) registered boy players in England
  • 33,416 registered boys’ teams. 

For Sara, and other girls forced to play in boys’ teams, it wasn’t about challenging cultural assumptions that girls aren’t fit enough or skilful enough to go toe to toe with the guys, it was simply a matter of having the opportunity to play the sport she loves. 

Indeed, she wouldn’t have had it any other way, and attributes her ultimate success to being brought up on a diet of boys-only football. 

‘I kept on playing alongside boys until I was 15,’ adds Sara. ‘I always say that if there are no girls’ teams in their area, to play alongside boys for as long as you can – I would highly recommend it.

‘If there are girls’ teams in your area, support those teams, but that’s not always the case.

‘Even at the performance centre I now run, we play against local boys’ academies. Our girls will play two age groups below them, so our under-16s will play against the under-14 boys. It challenges them, and they play faster.

‘I wouldn’t have been half the player I was had I not played alongside boys. I know that for a fact.’

The American dream 

There were no performance centres in place in Wales when Sara was growing up so, after being talent-spotted, she went straight on to regional level.

‘I was captain of the North Wales regional girls’ team and went on to captain the national team at under-15, under-16, under-17 and under-19 level.’ 

She was also making swift progress on the club front, signing for Manchester United girls, having also played for Tranmere Rovers.  

‘Then I won a scholarship to America to play over there but it was the year before I went, when I was 17, that I tore my anterior cruciate ligament. I had the operation and went over to America but then, almost a year to the day, did the same thing again when I was over there but tore my cartilage this time as well. 

‘I did all my rehab in America but my knee just couldn’t physically take it so I ended up coming home, and that was the end of my playing career.’ 

Still reeling from the bombshell news, she tried to move on with her life. It was easier said than done. 

‘I tried a few different careers,’ she says. ‘I had a stint as an air hostess but it cut me up pretty bad that I couldn’t play anymore. 

‘Then about four years ago, I thought, “Now is the time to get into coaching.”

‘I had never wanted to be a coach before, I just wanted to play. But I guess I just needed to go through the healing process and get over the fact I couldn’t play anymore. Once I had come to terms with that, at 20, I changed my mind and was finally ready to begin a coaching career.’ 

Shocking statistics 

You will not be surprised to hear male football coaches far outnumber female coaches. According to the FA participation statistics, the ratio of male to female qualified coaches in England is 9:1, mirroring the chasm that exists in participation comparisons: 

  • 285,025 qualified male coaches
  • 31,135 qualified women coaches. 

Number of qualified football coaches since 1998 (as at 31 March 2015) 

The further you progress up the coaching ladder, the higher this ratio becomes. 

UEFA B licence (Level 3) qualified male coaches number 9419 compared to 323 women, a 29:1 ratio. And for UEFA A badge holders, the figures are 1308 to 25 (52:1). In Wales in 2014, there were just two women UEFA A licence holders, compared with 217 men (a staggering 108:1 ratio). 

The odds were stacked against Sara then as she started out as a coach, but that didn’t deter her, and she has risen quickly to become the director of the North East Wales Girls Performance Centre. She also coaches the North Wales regional squads. 

'As an ex-national player, I knew a lot of people in the game so I got in touch with them to ask for their advice, and it has progressed from there. Now, I've got my UEFA B licence and hope to get my UEFA A youth next year. I am also starting my final year of a sports and exercise science degree at Glyndwr University this year. 

‘I can honestly say I absolutely love coaching. Never, ever did I think I would be a coach when I was a player, but I find it so rewarding. 

‘I am also a Level 1 coach educator and am starting my Level 2 training in November. That too is so rewarding and, being involved at various levels, I’ve got players with me who I’ve been involved with since I started coaching and they are now at the regional squads, and I know that, all being well, they will go on to represent Wales. 

‘I don’t ever need any recognition because it’s there in front of me, what I’ve done.’ 

Coaching highlights 

Sara’s North East Wales Performance Centre is one of the latest to be set up in the country and began life as one of the smallest. But she has had more players transition from performance level to regional level at her centre than any of the others, something she is rightfully proud of. 

‘That is a really big achievement in my eyes as a coach,’ she says.

And as for her other highlight: ‘I went to the National Coaching Conference earlier this year with the Welsh Football Trust, and the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Wales manager Chris Coleman were there.

'Some of my players from the performance centre who have represented Wales were there to collect their caps from the likes of Henry and Craig Bellamy, and it was a really proud moment for me to see players who I have had an influence on and coached for the last couple of years go from strength to strength as players and achieve their dreams. 

‘As I said, in May next year, I finish my degree, and next year, I also hope to go on my UEFA A course. I always plan to be involved in coaching, and I really enjoy sports psychology too. I think I’ll end up doing some kind of teaching in the future, whether it’s coach education or teaching in higher education.’ 

With such an old head on young shoulders, the possibilities seem endless, and I ask her sincerely if she believes she can rise to the very top and one day coach the senior Wales women’s team. 

‘It’s a dream job, and I’m only 24 so that could potentially happen one day,’ she says. ‘I’d certainly never turn it down, but it’s a big responsibility to have, and I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.’

Sara’s top tips

  1. Be consistent with your information and terminology
  2. Always ask the players questions off the field as well as on the field to ensure their understanding.
  3. Every minute counts! Prepare your session the best that you can with regards to equipment – don't waste vital minutes having to change things time and time again.
  4. Coach for every learning style –Explain, Demonstrate and allow them to do it.
  5. Start a session with key points from the previous session to evaluate the retention of the information.
  6. Always evaluate yourself as a coach as well as the players. If they don't understand, you may need to change your approach.
  7. Variety is the spice of life. Keep a consistent philosophy but vary the way in which you communicate it.


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Comments (2)


Congratulations to Sara Hilton who on the weekend was named FAW Trust Performance Coach of the Year. More info about her award and the other winners here http://www.welshfootballtrust.org.uk/news/WFT105303.ink

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Massive achievement, Sara ... good job! ;-)

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