Nina Wilson’s promising goalkeeping career appeared to be over almost before it had begun.
When I spoke to her in the summer, the 15-year-old had just been given the news that the Sussex Under-18 League that her team, Lewes, were about to move into had been scrapped because of a lack of interest (only four sides were prepared to take part).
The club would instead take two steps up and enter the county’s women’s division, for which the minimum playing age is 16.
That meant there would be no place for Nina, an integral part of the team’s considerable success over the previous two seasons, at under-16 level, and two others who also would not reach their 16th birthdays before the end of the new season.
Reluctantly – but inevitably – Nina was about to be jettisoned because of her age.
The news came as a shock to the Dorothy Stringer School GCSE pupil, who not only looked set to miss out on competitive football at a crucial stage of her young career but would have to say goodbye to team-mates who had become close friends at a club who regard themselves as one big family.
“I was gutted because I was really looking forward to the season,” she told me. “It means quite a lot to me, playing matches. I’ve done it for so long.”
The bombshell, on the eve of the season, left the young goalkeeper in a quandary: find another club playing at under-16 level (and there weren’t many more of those than there had been under-18 teams) or…
Well, there were not too many options for the girl who had grown to enjoy the weekly routine of training and playing, sharing the company of team-mates she regarded as close friends in-between.
It was lucky that Brighton needed me. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done – Nina Wilson
Her one other hope lay close to her Brighton home – was she good enough for Brighton & Hove Albion’s centre of excellence, and their under-17 team?
Turns out she was. The club offered Nina a trial, and she must have done something right, as she has now signed a contract with them.
Three months ago, the teenager was agonising over what she should do – if, indeed, there was even a choice to make – and fretting over leaving the promising Lewes set-up, where the youngsters now train with the seniors and all goalkeepers are coached by a specialist.
She needn’t have worried. Brighton, of course, boast top-notch facilities, with their own team of specialists and the opportunity to train alongside Brighton’s own Premier League players.
It’s a far cry from those dark days on the eve of the new season.
Then Nina was ruing the thought of having to leave behind friends she had played with since the days of under-10s football at Patcham.
She was worried that there might not be a vacancy back at the club she loved once she had reached the qualifying age for adult football – and that even if there was, would she be considered good enough to fill it?
Now her career path has taken a sharp turn – and it looks like a positive one.
Nina Wilson feared she was on the scrapheap a few months ago. Now she is loving life, training three times a week, playing on a Saturday, and – crucially for an ambitious young footballer – is improving every week.
“It feels like I have made a lot of progress since I joined,” she enthused when Sent Her Forward caught up with her. “Even after a few weeks I could see the improvement. The coaching is amazing, and the facilities…”
One area where she believes she has made immense progress is in her kicking. “I did a lot of outfield drills in the first weeks. It had probably been a bit of a weakness because previously (as a Lewes youth player) there hadn’t beeen much of a focus on footwork.
“But when I came to Brighton I was told it wasn’t just about catching balls. At Brighton – my team and the first team – there is a big focus on playing from the back, so I’m really involved in the matches.”
Shock and disappointment
A measure of what a transformation the summer’s events have engineered can be drawn from Nina’s demeanour during our two chats.
Ever polite, intelligent and modest, Nina’s voice in our first interview, just days after being told she would not be able to play for Lewes, reflected the shock and disappointment she was feeling.
Mercifully, while so many other players throw in the towel at just Nina’s age, she was determined to continue. She just didn’t know where or when. And she wasn’t sure what a step back in age group might do to her career path.
A few months down the line, she was bright, buoyant and enthusiastic. There was a sparkle in her voice – and it wasn’t just the impending Christmas celebrations.
“I’m really enjoying it because it is such a good standard,” she told me. “I’m not regretting [the move]. It was for the better. It has turned out really well.”
So the 15-year-old’s enthusiasm and relish for the game have helped her steer through a tricky few months and emerge already a better player.
But she does understand why so many girls in their late teens fall by the wayside, denuding clubs of a key age group as they bid to expand or create feeder sides for their senior teams.
“Especially girls, they want to go out to parties. It’s more about going out with your friends and stuff now, whereas when you’re younger you don’t really have as much to do.”
Not that that was ever going to pose a serious threat to Nina’s future in the game. “Football is one of the main things in my life,” she said. “I’d rather give up a lot of other things so that I could still do this.”
The irony that her determination to carry on playing when her contemporaries might be considering throwing in the towel was not lost on someone who at the time she spoke appeared lost to the game through no fault of her own, other than that she was not born a few months earlier.
Now life has moved on. She still keeps in touch with those long-term friends from Lewes, but she is a member of an ambitious club with a magnificent set-up.
“I miss the social aspect [of Lewes], but it is fun at Brighton. I love all the girls at Brighton. I was expecting it to be a bit more serious and no fun. But in a way it is similar.
“It was lucky that Brighton needed me. If they hadn’t, I don’t know what I would have done.”