It’s been a long time coming, but Sligo Rovers’ senior Women’s National League team will play their first game, albeit a friendly, this Saturday afternoon at The Showgrounds against Mayo’s Conn Rangers.
It’s only a friendly, but for a side gearing up for their first season in the Women’s National League, it’s a big deal.
For manager Steve Feeney, it’s a chance to see how his players will fare on a matchday.
The WNL season gets underway early in March, and for manager Feeney, putting together a squad has been a slow process, but this boils down to the fact that this is the first year.
While the club has entered Under 17 and Under 19 sides in the Women’s National League previously, this is the first year that the club will see a senior women’s side line out against the country’s top teams.
It’s a different challenge, and it’s a move that has been a long time coming.
“We’re getting there,” Feeney told The Sligo Champion.
“There’s a lot of different aspects to it that we’re trying to get organised and sorted. It probably feels a lot slower than it would be if there was a team there already.
“It’s taking shape. I’m only in the role four weeks now, for the amount that the club and me and the back-room team have put in, we’re happy. We’re trying to push on now.”
Upon assembling the squad, Feeney was struck by the fact that there is no women’s senior league in Sligo.
It’s made his job somewhat trickier, but it’s obvious that the talent is here within the county.
When Castlebar Celtic were participants in the early stages of the Women’s National League, several players from Sligo joined their squad over a number of years.
There’s an appetite for women’s football here in the county, and it’s hoped that the development of a senior Rovers team, alongside the underage national league teams can help to grow the game further.
“That’s something that’s really jumped out at me since we’ve been talking and trying to get players involved.
“Hopefully the fact that Rovers have a team it might be the start of something that might take shape over the next few years, that there will be a women’s league here in Sligo.
“I definitely think that the open training that we’ve done and invited people into, there’s plenty of women around here who want to play. I think it would be brilliant if it did lead to there being a league in Sligo/Leitrim.”
This is all new. For the club, players and even Feeney himself.
The Sligo town native spent the last decade with Ballinamallard, as player and coach and has previously played for Rovers.
This is his first senior job as manager, and his first time managing a female team.
“All the football I’ve been really paying attention to is male, always on the lookout for a player who might be able to join the squad whereas the women’s games I’ve always more just about enjoying a game of football, see what teams are good and what players are good rather than ‘I wonder would there be a player there for you in the future’ kind of thing.
“In relation to players that have been at training with us, I can’t speak highly enough of them. Their attitude, their want to learn and improve is brilliant. I’ve definitely enjoyed that and I’m looking forward to getting more stuck into it over the coming weeks and months.”
The club last week announced local Emma Hansberry as the first signing for the side.
Hansberry is vastly experienced having played in Europe with Wexford, winning silverware domestically.
While her signature is a statement of intent for the club with the addition of a player of that calibre, Feeney is keen to also add quality players around her.
“Yeah it’s brilliant for Emma to get the chance to play for a Rovers team in the Women’s National League. She’s obviously played for Wexford and that and had great success there with trophies and playing in Europe so it’s big from Emma’s personal point of view.
“The big thing for us is it’s important now that we add players and to add to the team and the squad to make sure that we have good team and that we have good players around Emma that can help bring the best out of Emma and not put it all on Emma to perform and hope that the rest of us are OK.
“It’s important that we have a group that are all well able to play in the league and can back each other and make sure we have a good team performance rather than relying too much on Emma.
“As far as first signings go, she’s definitely up there with the players in the league that everyone would be looking forward to seeing.”
Hansberry was full of praise for her new manager when she was announced as signing last week.
“Steve’s knowledge is first class. He’s very enthusiastic which has come across in our first two sessions. It’ll be a tough job for him but it’s exciting as well. I was delighted to see Steve appointed. He’s from Sligo, he’s associated with Sligo Rovers and will wear his heart on his sleeve when it comes to this team. He has a pedigree to be a fantastic coach for any team and to have him as the first Sligo Rovers manager shows the level the club is aiming for.
“He also has a lovely way about him as a person. Managing a women’s team is quite different to a men’s team, you have to have certain characteristics, and Steve is a great fit. Any player here will appreciate him as a coach and manager. I think he’s going to be fantastic manager.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Hansberry said it’s ‘an honour’ to sign for the first Rovers WNL senior team.
“When I was growing up, there wasn’t the same opportunities. For girls to be able to play at such a high level and to have national league at senior and underage level, I don’t think the players know how lucky they are to have it. It’s so much more enjoyable to be a part of it.
“The standard is higher, there is bigger depth of clubs and there is a pathway. For our girls in Sligo they had to travel elsewhere for years to other clubs before the underage leagues came in.
“It’s changed now and it makes me very happy to see it and even more to part of it. You’re going to have girls wanting to come to Sligo Rovers in the next few years rather than wanting to leave.
“When I was playing in my early days I had to travel to Wexford for four hours each way on a matchday just to play a game. Now we will girls wanting to play in Sligo, move to Sligo, study in Sligo in the IT and play for Sligo Rovers.
“The interest is going to skyrocket in the next few years. The support we’ve had so far for the team from the club has been amazing.”
Hansberry joined Rovers last season as a coach, linking up with Aaron O’Connor to oversee the club’s Under 17 women’s side.
But this weekend, she gets the chance to play her first game as a player with the club.
Feeney is eager to see how his players fare on a match-day.
“Nothing beats games. While it’s good to see the players in training and people coming in on trial, realistically like get games under the belt and seeing how people are in games and the fitness aspect of it, getting a look at it on match-day. That will be the true reflection on players. We’re looking forward to getting some games in the next few weeks.”
For Rovers, it doesn’t get more difficult than facing Peamount United away in your first competitive outing.
Feeney said: “The way the league works, you have to play them at some stage.
“We’re very much focusing on the fact that it’s a long season with 27 games and that first game whether it goes well or not, it won’t define our season.
“It’s important that we build and reflect on our performances every week, see where we can improve and what’s worked well for us and build on that as well.
“Definitely looking forward to the challenge of Peamount on the first day of the season.”
The Bit O’Red take on Conn Rangers this Saturday at the Sean Fallon Centre, kick-off is 4pm.