Passion and persistence are two words that Sally uses when describing her career path in the football industry. Growing up in England as an avid Brighton and Hove Albion supporter, Sally always had a dream to work within the sport she loves. After being awarded an academic scholarship in 2007, to study a Masters in Business (Sport Management), Sally moved to Australia and embarked on her pursuit of a career in the football industry.
While she was in Australia, Sally’s application for a volunteer position at the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, resulted in a full-time paid role, and she was hired as the Protocol Manager for the prestigious event. After building up substantial experience in sport and football, Sally moved to Switzerland in 2018 for a role with UEFA.
In this Jobs in Football interview, Sally speaks with Sascha to share details of her unique career background, as well as discussing her love of football and her strong desire to assist the fight in achieving gender equality in the industry.
My story is a little different. I was living in Australia; I was in the country because I was awarded a scholarship to study a Masters in Business. My goal after finishing my Masters was to work within the sports industry, particularly football but I found it very difficult to get a foot in the door. I was even told by some employers that my Master’s meant I was too experienced and I was too expensive to hire. Despite the door being repeatedly closed, I didn’t want to give up on my dream, and I also wanted to stay in Australia.
I worked outside of sport for a few years but after much persistence, I ended up in a role in ice skating, as Business Manager for Ice Skating Queensland. While I was happy to finally be in the sports industry, football was always where I wanted to be and this gave me a stepping stone to progress. I eventually moved into a position at the University of Queensland, as the Business Development Manager within the university’s sports sector. While I was working there, Australia were hosting the 2015 AFC Asian Cup; if we compare this event to others within the sporting spectrum, it’s the equivalent of the UEFA Euro Championship. In 2014, I saw an advert for volunteers for the tournament, but I had just started my job at the university. However, it was a huge event, right on my doorstep and some of the matches were taking place where I was living in Brisbane. I applied to be a volunteer and put the idea to one side. It was while I was in Brazil for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I received an email to say I had been selected for an interview, but the date and time of the interview was just 2 hours after I would land back in Australia!
The travel between Brazil and Australia is extremely long but I was determined to go to the interview. On arrival at Brisbane airport, I went straight home, quickly got ready and arrived right on time after 40 hours of travelling! There were hundreds of people at the interview and we were put through many exercises. The last part of the assessment was a one-on-one discussion with a member of the panel. We had to join a queue for a five-minute talk with one of them about why we wanted to volunteer. Having just got back from one month in Brazil, I was on cloud nine and I didn’t stop talking about football, about how much I loved it and how great Brazil was. I got to the front of the queue, answered a few questions; spoke about my passion for football and my current role within marketing and communication and explained that, although this was where my interest was, I would be happy to volunteer in any area. The next day, I received a phone call and I found out the person I had spoken to was the Venue Manager for Brisbane. I guess I got lucky! She asked whether I would be interested in a paid position for the Asian Cup as Protocol Manager, rather than work as a volunteer.
At the time, I didn’t know what Protocol Manager meant; I asked her what it was and she explained it was VIP and VVIP management - looking after high-profile guests such as princes, princesses, local and national government representatives, and the players’ families. I still had to go through the application process, and I was conscious I had only recently started a comfortable, permanent position with the university. However, I put my application in, went through the interview process and was offered the role.
I barely slept the night I was told I was the successful candidate because I had a new, permanent position at the university and the Asian Cup role was going to last just 9 months. I ended up spending most of the night thinking about how I could ask the CEO of the university if I could go on a sabbatical and work at the Asian Cup. I knew the experience I would gain would be beneficial for the university too. I put together a presentation with very little sleep and went into work early the next morning. I asked the CEO if I could have five minutes but he said he was really busy and could I come back at 5pm. I went back to my desk and quickly realised I couldn’t sit there waiting, so I went back to his office and told him it was important. I got three slides into my presentation and he told me to, “Stop”. I panicked and thought it was going to be bad news but he said, “Sally, this is your dream, of course you can go. If I can help you fulfil your dream of working in football, for UEFA or FIFA and this acts as a stepping stone, you can go. We just need to work out who can do your work while you are away.”
Long story short, how I came to work in the football industry was because of luck! I applied for a volunteer role, was offered a permanent role instead, and was fortunate that I had a great boss who agreed for me to go on sabbatical from my full-time job to fulfil the position. I haven’t looked back since.
This is a timely question because I have recently written a blog about the reasons why I think football is loved by so many people across the world.
For me, my love for football started from a young age. I grew up in Brighton, in England and both my parents are football fans. My mum is originally from Scotland and my dad from London and they supported Glasgow Rangers and Arsenal. I grew up supporting Brighton, as we moved there from Edinburgh when I was 6 months old. I would watch most of Brighton’s home games and the Brighton players quickly became my heroes. I also used to play football in the garden with my two older brothers.
My first job was also football related; it was at Brighton’s old ground, the Goldstone Ground. At the age of 14, I was working at every home game serving hotdogs and burgers to thousands of often disgruntled Brighton supporters!
Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to play football at school. I wanted to, but at the time, my PE teacher told me football was for boys and I could only play netball or hockey. Not being able to play football at school, whilst having such a passion for the sport, made me more determined to find a way to be a part of the beautiful game.
The passion grew into my adulthood and at the age of 23, I met some ladies in a bar in Norwich, who were recruiting players for a new football team. They heard me screaming at the television in the bar – England were playing – and they approached me to see if I would be interested in joining their team. I had watched a lot of football but never really played, but they assured me it was okay. The coach was excellent, and while I didn’t have any experience in playing, my experience in playing netball and hockey helped, especially hockey as the formation can be similar to football. I got better as the weeks went on and it was great to be a part of a fun, hardworking team; I’ve made friends for life. We got better with each season and my passion for football got stronger. I have been playing football for almost 20 years now and it’s only because of the pandemic that I haven’t played recently; in fact, this last year has been the lengthiest period for a long time that I haven’t been playing regular football.
So why is football such a big part of my life? I absolutely love the game; it is universal. There are few topics that can bring conversation wherever you go in the world and football is one of them. Football unites; I saw the true power that football can bring when I travelled to UEFA Euro 2004 in Portugal. It was my first international competition where I saw so many people come together from all corners of the world - for one purpose - to celebrate and enjoy watching football.
I also love the game because it is unpredictable. Just look at the saying of, ‘the magic of the cup.’ The gap between some of the teams playing a one-off match can be huge, yet upsets still happen; it draws us into watching. The fairy-tale has us glued to the television or intensely watching in a stadium and incites debate too. It’s easy to discuss among friends whether a move in the game was right or wrong, whether the shape should change and so on. Even when a team has 80% possession or are 2-0 up at 90 minutes, the result is not a foregone conclusion. That unpredictability is something I love.
I am happy that has been announced but it also made me upset – I wish that support had been around when I was younger. I’m not saying I would have been a professional player but it would have been nice to have the backing and clear pathway to try, rather than being pushed into other sports.
When I was in Australia playing 11-a-side – and this isn’t that long ago – we would often have to wait to use the changing rooms because the men were in there. Summer in Australia is extremely hot - imagine a day where it is 36 degrees, a midday kick-off and we would be standing outside in the boiling sun or changing in our cars. It was ridiculous! To top it off, we would change into an oversized men’s kit that was 3 years old because there were no female kits available. Sadly, it often feels like women are second best, and as much as the broadcast deal is a great step in the right direction, there are also everyday stories in 2021 which show that gender equality isn’t anywhere close to being achieved.
I moved from Australia to Switzerland in November 2018. I had been working in sport in Australia and had a taste of working in football too, firstly through the Asian Cup and then as the Head of Fan Engagement at Melbourne City – who are part of the City Football Group - and also Wellington Phoenix Football Club, as well as Football Federation Australia.
I had been in Australia for 11 and a half years and it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to be closer to my family in England. I had always kept an eye on vacancies at UEFA and I saw one for Online Promotion Manager for Euro 2020 pop up. It was getting close to the start of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which meant my workdays were extremely long, with little time available to apply for jobs. However, despite the crazy hours, I found some time to quickly apply.
A few months passed and I didn’t hear anything, so straight after the Commonwealth Games, I took a role as Head of Marketing in the education sector in Australia. Within 3 months of starting this position, I found out I had been shortlisted for the role at UEFA and after a lengthy recruitment process, I was offered the position, which was a dream come true!
As Online Promotion Manager, I am responsible for the management of the worldwide promotion of tickets for UEFA EURO 2020, UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and UEFA Nations League. The objective is to increase reach, engagement and revenue on a global level. I am responsible for the design, implementation and reporting of marketing and communication elements including online and offline marketing, social media campaigns, media releases, website copy and fan emails.
Pre-coronavirus, when I arrived in 2018, EURO 2020 was set to be the biggest EURO ever, with more fans than ever before and 3 million tickets available across 12 countries.
For the first year and a half, I was busy shaping the ticket strategy and planning both the promotion and sale of tickets. Then the pandemic hit and the project went into hibernation.
Like so many of us, I didn’t know what was going to happen with my job. However, after a period of consultation, I was informed I would be working part-time - 3 days a week from November 2020 until March 2021, and then back to full-time in April 2021. Even though I was told I would have a break in between my employment and I would be working part-time, I felt grateful to have the opportunity to stay with UEFA, as the pandemic had created so many job losses worldwide.
I also got lucky as an opportunity arose with the UEFA Foundation for Children, where I am currently working as Communication Manager. A member of the team went on maternity leave and my boss asked if he could put me forward to cover the role. I jumped at the chance!
Starting this role meant I didn’t have a break in employment with UEFA and I worked for the Foundation full-time throughout the summer of 2020.
In normal times, I would have been able to travel to some of the projects but with coronavirus, it has been impossible. However, in the short space of time I have been working for them, I have seen that, although the pandemic has created so much heartache, the adversity has also brought about opportunity; I think the awareness and interest for this type of work has substantially increased. The emotive Marcus Rashford story concerning his fantastic work to ensure children in England don’t go hungry, is one that demonstrates this perfectly.
I am responsible for promoting and communicating their work worldwide through website stories, media releases and social media. I have also written a new 5-year communication strategy for the Foundation, covering from 2021 until 2026.
We recently announced Ivan Rakitic, the former Croatian international and current player at Sevilla FC, as the UEFA Foundation’s first official ambassador.
I was responsible for the planning and communication around the announcement. The first official role we gave him, was linked to our International Women’s Day message. We arranged for Ivan to be on a video call with a number of female football coaches who are working on projects across the world, including Argentina, Jordan and Spain. It was important for us to have an International Women’s Day message that wasn’t tokenistic. Ivan was fantastic and asked the women about the challenges they have faced in the industry. The content, some of which can be seen on our social media channels, is very powerful.
The UEFA Foundation is incredibly important because it gives children opportunities that they may not ordinarily have access to; a chance to be a part of something very special. Football is in a privileged position and I believe we have a responsibility to help children living in challenging and difficult circumstances.
Yes. At the UEFA Super Cup, we helped make a dream come true for a young girl called Hanya, who is a football loving refugee from Iran, now living in Budapest in Hungary. Hanya had never been to a football match before so we arranged for her to be one of the lucky few to attend the 2020 UEFA Super Cup final in the brand-new Ferenc Puskas Arena. I interviewed Hanya after the match and her story almost brought me to tears as she described what it was like to witness a live match for the very first time.
I share your emotion with that. I had bittersweet emotions with International Women’s Day. In the morning, it was everywhere; across all of the social media platforms. However, as the day went on, I started to feel frustrated as I saw more tokenistic gestures and also the, ‘Oh, we’ve forgotten about it so let’s just post Happy International Women’s Day’. I took a step back and thought, ‘Why are people wishing me Happy International Women’s Day as if it’s my birthday?’ We as women, shouldn’t need a designated day, we should always have a voice and we should be championed all year round.
I studied psychology from 1998-2001 and I think it’s said that you retain around 5% of what you learn in your degree. I would love to say that everything I learned in those 3 years has been put into practice but I don’t think that’s true. I love psychology and my degree covered areas such as emotional psychology and sport psychology. There was a time where I thought about studying a Masters in sports psychology rather than sport management, but the reason I opted not to was because it narrowed my options and I wasn’t 100% sure whether that was where my interest was long-term.
Subconsciously, I think studying psychology has perhaps shaped my career path but I cannot say, ‘I learned X, Y and Z and I have used it here, here and here.’ However, I do have a huge interest and passion for fan engagement and ensuring fans are viewed as a critical stakeholder in football, so perhaps my knowledge and interest in psychology plays a part in that too.
I don’t write as much as I used to because I am working full time. However, I do write occasional pieces for a magazine called Play On, an Australian football magazine that is written for fans, by football fans.
The writing initially came about by chance; my brother sent me a link to a website looking for writers and he suggested I write about being a Brighton fan living on the other side of the world. I had time on my hands, and I love writing, so I gave it a go and it went from there. I was fortunate that my first piece was well received and I was offered a paid, freelance writing role shortly after. I’ve had over 50 pieces published on a range of topics including the Premier League, the Champions League, fan engagement and marketing.
I love writing, especially first-person pieces, because I write from the heart as though I am having a coffee and a conversation with a friend. I will always continue to write – it is escapism for me - it’s there for me like a diary, so I can look back on it in years to come.
Persistence is key. It’s hard not to feel demoralised when we are rejected; we all feel that way at times. It’s a natural emotion and we should accept it, but we also have to get up the next morning and go again. I knocked on many doors in professional football in Australia and was told no countless times. I was also told, ‘no’ by UEFA a couple of times before eventually obtaining the role I am in now. Perseverance, passion and determination are important.
Also, utilise networks – don’t be scared to send a message on LinkedIn or pick up the phone - and grab every opportunity that comes your way. If you have the right work ethic and are surrounded by the right people, eventually your chance will come.
It is not easy though. I’ve kept a folder of the 100+ rejection letters I received from jobs I applied for after graduating in 2001. It’s there as a memory and to remind me that you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take!
I have enjoyed working for the UEFA Foundation for Children and I hope to continue to utilise my expertise in marketing and communication in various areas of football content, including ticket promotion, football for social good, fan engagement and gender equality. I am extremely passionate about gender equality and this is an area that will undoubtedly gain more attention in the next few years.
I will also always dream big. I would like to secure a senior role where I have the power to drive change and address the vast gender inequality that we see in sport today.
Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown
Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.