When football dealt Sara Hilton a knockout blow through injury at the age of 18, the chances of her bouncing back to pursue a career in the sport she loves appeared to be somewhere between nought and zero.
‘I started playing at three. There were no girls’ teams in the area so I always played in boys’ teams,’ Sara explains.
For Sara, and other girls forced to play in boys’ teams, it wasn’t about challenging cultural assumptions, it was simply a matter of having the opportunity to play the sport she loves. Her passion and focus finally paid off as she moved up to play for Tranmere Rovers, Manchester United and finally to captain the Welsh U19s side.
‘I went on to win a scholarship in 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 any more. ‘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. It was a healing process of getting over the fact I couldn’t play any more and, at 20, I was finally ready.’
Finding a new career
Sara 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 Glyndŵr 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.’
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. Coaching the Senior Wales Women’s team is a dream job for me, 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.’