‘Sligo Rovers is very special to me, it’s my home club’

Emma Hansberry is thrilled to captain her local club as they begin the National League

Emma Hansberry chuckles when asked to compare her commute from her days playing with Wexford Youths to the one she now has to undertake with Sligo Rovers.

“On a Friday I’d work from eight ’til one, then jump in the car and drive down the road for 4½, five hours for training with Wexford. We’d usually have a match on the Saturday night, and after it I’d drive home, getting in around two or three in the morning.”

Your current commute?

“I hop the back fence in my garden and I’m in The Showgrounds – so, about 20 seconds,” she laughs.

Hansberry is, then, effectively working from home thanks to Sligo Rovers’ application to join the women’s National League being accepted back in December.

When they take to the field at Greenogue on Saturday to play Peamount United, she will, she says, be “bursting with pride”. Frustrated, mind, she’ll only be a spectator, a hamstring tear picked up in pre-season ruling her out of the game.

She admits she never saw the day coming, certainly not in the course of her playing career, when her hometown would have a team in the women’s National League.

“Growing up, going to the Showgrounds, supporting Rovers, it really never entered my head that one day the club would have a senior women’s team. And even as the years rolled by and more League of Ireland clubs were developing their women’s sides, I still didn’t think it would happen in my time.”

"Back then, if you were from Sligo, or anywhere in the north-west – Donegal, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim – you just accepted that if you wanted to play at a high level, you couldn't do it in your own county, you had to hit the road. So, I started out with Castlebar Celtic in Mayo, and then on to Wexford. The travelling was draining, but you had to do it, there was no other way.

Rovers jersey

“It’s funny, the only time I ever thought I’d wear a Rovers jersey would be as a supporter of the men’s team. I never thought I’d get to wear one as a Rovers player. So when I get to lead the team out at The Showgrounds, it’ll be an incredibly proud moment. An emotional one, too. The last time I played football in Sligo was at the age of 16, for Strand Celtic – I’m 27 now.”

Hansberry enjoyed no little success in her footballing time away from Sligo, not least at Wexford where she won three league titles, an FAI Cup, experienced Champions League football and got called up to the senior Irish squad.

She won two caps in 2016, having come up through the under-17 and under-19 ranks, the bulk of the current senior Irish squad team-mates along the way. She was the FAI’s under-19 International Player of the Year in 2012, beating the likes of Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan to the award.

But come 2019, she headed to university in Newcastle and put football on the back-burner for much of her three years there.

“I can’t say that I missed it, I got to a stage where I had played so much football for the 20 years previous that it felt like I needed a break. All that travelling from Sligo to Wexford had really taken it out of me, mentally and physically, so I was ready to start enjoying other things.

“When I came home last summer, I decided not to join a National League team, I couldn’t face that travelling again, but I was asked to coach the Rovers under-17s girls’ team and help out with the under-19s, and then I started coaching the IT Sligo women’s team too.

“I found a real passion for coaching, it just reignited my love for the game. And next thing Rovers were admitted to the League and started forming a team . . . well, how could I not get involved?”

Hansberry was Sligo manager Steve Feeney’s first signing back in January and was appointed team captain, since then more than 20 players added to the squad.

Among them are five IT Sligo players who Hansberry coaches.

“I’m coaching them one minute and playing alongside them the next, but it’s fine, we haven’t fallen out yet,” she laughs.

There’s a sizeable Donegal contingent in the squad too, including former Irish youth international Gemma McGuinness, who spent the last two years living in Vietnam, and Irish under-19 international Emma Doherty.

Biggest signing

"For me, the biggest signing we've made is Emma, she's just an exceptional talent and I know she's going to have a flier of a season, there's no doubting that. She travels down from Buncrana, right at the top of Donegal, so her commitment is huge. There are a good few Donegal girls in the squad and they all travel together, it's a long journey for them, but before this they would either have had to play in Northern Ireland or travel even further to play National League football.

“And some of those girls, and others we have in the squad, play Gaelic football for their counties, so that’s another challenge we’ll have to face. This side of the country, Gaelic football is everything, it has a massive pull on people.

“Even if these girls were excellent at soccer, until now there was no senior team for them to play for, so if they wanted to play sport at an elite level, then Gaelic was their only outlet.

“It was the same for Rovers’ under-17 and under-19 girls’ teams, there was literally nowhere for them to go in this region once they reached senior level, so having this opportunity now is just brilliant. That’s what got the club thinking, they knew girls wanted to play for Sligo, so that’s why they’ve taken this step.

“They’ve teamed up with IT Sligo who are offering sports scholarships to girls who want to play for us, like they did before with male players, and that just opens up fantastic opportunities for young players who want to combine their studies with football.”

But it is, she admits, a journey in to the unknown for them all, despite working hard in pre-season to gel as a team, and she has no doubt that their National League baptism will be a trial. The fixtures-computer could have been kinder, giving them an away game for their opener against Peamount, the 2019 and 2020 champions, the risk of a throttling for the newcomers hardly remote.

“Yes, we’re going in to the unknown, but there’s no pressure on us from the club, we’re a brand new team, I’m sure there will be really hard days for us, Peamount this weekend will be a massive test. But we’re still going to go out and be competitive, after a few weeks and some games under our belt, we’ll find our feet. We’re realistic, we know there’ll be hard days, but I think there’ll be plenty of wins from us this season too.

“Sligo Rovers is very special to me, it’s my home club. The buzz about the place for the women’s team is just class, the excitement has been never-ending the last few weeks. It’ll be tough, we know that, but we’ll get there. We’ll do this club proud.”

And with that, she’s off to training, her commute a hop over the back fence. At last, working from home.

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