Article – Loughrey Sisters Living The Dream

Oh, the delightful exuberance of youth!  Two young sisters living their dream, viewing their world through a kaleidoscope of fun and laughter, adventure and achievement. Planning their future with giddy excitement, serious intent laced with just the precise measure of teenage abandon. 

Sligo Rovers’ Loughrey sisters, Keri and Jodie, are on the precipice of an odyssey of a lifetime – the chance to represent Ireland at the under-19 UEFA European Championships in Lithuania in July. The younger, 17 years old Jodie, has been an important member of the Irish squad which cruised through the qualifying series. She is now joined in a 27-player pre-tournament training camp by her older sister, 19 years old Keri. Fingers are tightly crossed that both will make the final squad. 

For Keri, there’s another consideration in a crowded calendar. This week, she will begin her Leaving Cert, hoping to accumulate enough points to earn her a college place to study PE Teaching or Occupational Therapy.  Jodie is a 5th year student at the same school, Scoil Mhuire, in their native Buncrana, Co. Donegal. 

But crammed in between the books, the study and the revision, the sisters somehow find the time, energy and commitment to play in the League of Ireland with Sligo Rovers and international football for Ireland. It’s a daunting schedule, made tougher by awkward mid-week commutes from their family farm at the tip of Donegal to the Showgrounds for two nights training every week. 

School days start at 8.50am and finish at 4.30. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Keri and Jodie barely have time to catch their breath before jumping into Keri’s car for the two- and-a- half hour trek to Sligo. By 9.30pm, they’ll be setting off on the return journey, arriving home as the clock ticks towards the last hour of the day.  There’s just about time for the required eight hours sleep before a new school day begins. 

“It’s hectic alright,” Keri confirms. “But we have each other’s company and good music in the car, so time passes quickly.” 

“Och, it’s grand,” Jodie agrees. “The teachers give us a wee bit of leeway, so it’s fine.” 

The girls have been playing football for as long as they can remember, initially kicking a ball around their parents’ farm, and later embarrassing the local boys with their natural ability. 

“We grew up playing football with boys. Maybe that was an advantage,” Keri recalls. “It would have been under-12s before we started playing with an organised girls’ team at our local club, Buncrana Hearts.” 

Young girls honing their skills against older boys is a common back-story for many of the women currently blazing an exciting new trail in the female game. The Loughreys’ skipper at Rovers’, Emma Hansberry, has a similar experience.  

She is Sligo’s most decorated footballer. Her bulging trophy cabinet includes three National Womens’ League titles and two FAI Cup winners’ medals; she’s played in a World Cup and Champions League, and represented her country at all under-age levels before winning senior caps, culminating in being named the under-19 FAI Player of the Year. 

Yet, her formative years were spent playing street football with neighbouring boys, simply because there were no girls to play with or against in those days. She was nearly 10 years old before she first played in an organised girls’ team.  

“I remember young lads calling to the door, my brother’s pals, but they weren’t looking for them, they were asking if I’d join them for a game of football. That’s how it all started for me,” Emma told me during an interview for the book, “Local Heroes: A Celebration of Sligo Sport.” 

The landscape has changed dramatically since then, of course. The recent success of the Katie McCabe inspired international team and the emergence of academies at League of Ireland clubs has given talented young girls a target to aim for, an opportunity to fulfil ambitions. 

And the Loughrey sisters have fuelled their dreams from that rich well. 

“It’s such a great feeling pulling on the Irish jersey,” Jodie exclaims. “It’s an unreal sense of pride. I’m inspired by people like Katie McCabe, I’d love to meet her some day and maybe even get the chance to play with her.” 

Keri, who ‘s represented Ireland from under-16s through to the 19s, is equally ambitious, but you get the sense she sees a world beyond football. 

“If ever an opportunity arose for full-time football, then obviously, you’d have to consider it. But I want to go to college, get my degree, and see if anything happens then. For the moment, I’m aiming to be a PE teacher or an Occupational Therapist. If football is still a possibility, well and good,” she says. 

Jodie is far more to the point, though. 

“One hundred per cent, I want to be a footballer. It’s all I’ve ever wanted. All I still want,” she beams. 

The sisters exchange a knowing glance and a hearty giggle. 

This is their second season with Rovers, having been signed by Steve Feeney after a series of trials. Despite the gruelling travelling schedule involved in match days and training, they’re loving every minute of it. 

“It was a big jump from the Donegal League, particularly from a physical point of view. But it’s such a great opportunity to play for a big club like Sligo Rovers, and hopefully we’re improving all the time,” Keri says. 

Jodie is equally happy with progress, and feels there is more to come from this Rovers’ team. 

“We started off really well with a 0-0 draw against Shels and then played well but lost narrowly against Galway, who are now top of the League, so it’s very competitive, and we’re not far off finding a winning run. We’ve had to adjust to a new playing style and structure under Tommy Hewitt, which takes a bit of time, but we’re getting there. Hopefully, we’ll have a good cup run,” she says. 

The girls are blessed with parents, Sean and Mary, who have been totally supportive every step of their football journey. 

“They travel all over the country to watch us,” Jodie relates. “I can’t remember a game they haven’t been at over the years.” 

Keri confirms: “They’re hugely supportive, but they’re not shy about a bit of criticism. I wouldn’t say they’re harsh, but they’d let you know if they thought you could have done better.” 

 Cue another combustion of riotous laughter. By now, their colleagues have begun arriving for the two-hour training session, so the sisters bounce off happily to the changing room. Ahead of them, a tough session and a long drive home, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. Three cheers for the contagious exuberance of youth!

By Jim Gray