Earlier this month Julie Nelson joined an exclusive group of footballers which includes Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.
Portadown’s Shamrock Park was the venue as the 33-year-old from Larne joined the ‘100 club’ by amassing a century of international caps, the first woman to do so for Northern Ireland.
Not a bad achievement for a young lady who started out as a goalkeeper in a boys’ team.
Julie – who also captains her country – said: “I actually started playing rugby long before football. My dad (William) coached and played at Larne so I was at mini rugby from the age of about four or five.
“I never wanted to sit still. I wanted to be involved in everything.
“When I was in primary six I asked to join the school football team (at Moyle Primary School). Thankfully the teacher allowed me to play, because I was the only girl at that stage.
“I never really experienced any objections to me playing in the boys’ team. I was the goalkeeper so maybe that helped. They saw that I wasn’t any worse than them so they were happy enough to have me in the team.”
After starting Larne Grammar School, Julie’s hockey career began to blossom.
She said: “I played hockey up to Ulster Under 21 level and I played for the Irish under 16s in the European Championships.
“I still would have played Premier League hockey for Ballymoney during the football off season up until three years ago. Unfortunately I don’t have time to fit them both in now with my work and everything else.”
Her footballing exploits as a teenager saw her switch from goalkeeper to right wing and move from Gilmour Gals to Newtownabbey Strikers (now Crusaders).
She went on to play in Iceland for two years with IBV and was on the books of Everton. Julie also played for Glasgow City and Durham Women before returning to Crusaders.
But it is as a Northern Ireland international that Julie has truly shone.
She said: “I was 18 when I made my debut for Northern Ireland in 2004. There hadn’t been an opportunity to make a debut earlier than that because there wasn’t a team between 1999 and 2004.
“It took me eight years to get 50 caps, obviously when I got towards 90 I started thinking 100 caps could be a possibility, but it’s never guaranteed. You could be struck down by injury at any point or someone could come along and take your place.
“The 100th cap stands out and my 50th cap as well. Fortunately they were both at home.
“For my 100th cap there was about 12 of my family came, although unfortunately we lost. We won on my 50th so that really stands out.
“Our best result ever would be our 3-1 win against Norway, who at that point (2013) were ranked the second best team in Europe.”
Julie said: “I wouldn’t classify myself as the best technical footballer. I would be a good all rounds sports person.
“I’ve good fitness levels and my strengths would be in the understanding of the game. I’ve been fortunate to have got some good quality coaching throughout my career. I’m still learning as a player.
“I haven’t set myself a target for caps. I feel fine after games. It doesn’t take me that long to recover. I’d aim to be playing for at least another couple of years.”
Kristine Lilly is the most capped football player in the history of the game.
She won her 354 cap for the USA in November 2010.
The most capped male player is Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan with 184 caps.
Only three player have more caps for Northern Ireland than Julie.
They are Pat Jennings (119), Aaron Hughes (112) and Steven Davis (103).
Commenting on the differences between men’s and women’s football, she said: “There will always be a disparity between the men’s and women’s game. Especially in wages.
“The women’s game has improved rapidly with players going professional in all the top leagues.
“Players are getting faster, stronger, technically better.”
Julie, who is a Woman’s Football Ambassador for the IFA, said starting a family was not in her immediate plans, but said it is something she would like to do if she meets the right person.
Asked of the impact a baby could have on a female footballer’s career, Julie said: “One of the girls in the national team, she had a baby a year ago, and she was back playing for Northern Ireland nine weeks after she gave birth.
“Obviously she was out for a long time while she was pregnant. It is a factor in the women’s game, if you start a family you will be out of the game for a long period. There’s no way round it.”
Julie said: “I’ve two wee nephews, one is nearly two and the other is just 13 weeks old. I spend a good bit of time with them and with my friends and family.
“I’m studying for a post-graduate diploma in sports nutrition so I spend a good bit of time studying.
“I don’t have that much free time outside that, I’d sometimes go to the cinema or out for food with my friends – nothing too exciting. I try to squeeze in a couple of holidays a year.”