Rovers' first signing started her WNL career in Mayo
Emma Hansberry has become the first official signing for the Sligo Rovers team set to begin their debut season in the Women’s National League.
The Sligo native – a former Republic of Ireland international and a leading figure for women’s sport in the county – will proudly wear the Bit o’ Red for the 2022 season as manager Steve Feeney begins to assemble his squad.
The announcement was made as the club confirmed that all supporters who have purchased a season ticket for the men’s team will also receive entry to WNL games in The Showgrounds for free.
The move is with a view that both sides are under the same umbrella and receive the support of the dedicated Rovers fanbase.
Hansberry played in the inaugural Women’s National League for Castlebar Celtic in 2011 and later went on to play for Wexford as she represented the Republic of Ireland.
During her time in Mayo, she featured in the WNL Team of the Season and was awarded the Young Player of the Year award.
In the 2013 FAI Women’s Cup final at the Aviva Stadium, Hansberry played well for the underdogs Castlebar Celtic in a narrow defeat to Raheny United.
At Wexford, she went one better and won the FAI Women's Cup and also captured the league three times as well as competing in the Champions League.
Now, at 27, and with the Bit o’ Red taking steps in senior football, the midfielder will play for her hometown club.
She said: “It’s an honour to get the chance to play for Sligo Rovers. I knew one day Sligo Rovers would have a team in the WNL but I didn’t think it would come around this quickly. It’s going to be a pleasure to line out for Sligo Rovers this season and credit to everyone for making it happen
“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.”
On her time in Wexford, Hansberry said: “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 have 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. They are all pushing for total professionalism. We train on the club’s training pitch, we play on the main pitch and we receive everything we need. Everything is to the highest standard possible and if that is happening from day one then it is actually very exciting. It shows that this is going to be a team and club of the highest calibre and the intention in the long-term is to be one of the best in the country.”
More signings will be confirmed this week by the club and academy teams will be utilised as players join the squad, meaning Hansberry will be a senior player in the group.
She is happy to take on the role while admitting that the progression of the skillset players have will also help bring the best out of her.
“At 27 I’ll probably be one of the oldest girls. No matter what age you are, every single player will bring different qualities. Everyone contributes in a different way. I’ve played in the league previously for a few years. I hope I can bring some experience to the younger girls – especially to those stepping up from the Under 17s or Under 19s – because I do know myself how daunting it can be playing against or with players who are so much older than you.
“I’ll try my hardest to help them along the way. On the flipside, I will learn a lot from them because they are so technical and skillful. Their fitness levels are through the roof. They’ll benefit me as much as I benefit them.
“It will take time to find our feet. We’ll never go into a game with a negative mindset. It will be positive all the way and there will be tough games I’m sure. It’s important we build the basics by being hard-working, tough to beat and being very solid defensively. They are things we need to bring.
“We’ll have plenty of games that are tough or don’t go our way. There’ll be defeats, and painful defeat, because we are starting off. We will have to take those, but also know we can win games as well. We’ll be trying to hold our own and win, knowing that this is the start and not something we can achieve overnight.”
Rovers have trained twice so far with a view to assessing players and forming the group. Manager Steve Feeney will shortly confirm his backroom team.
Hansberry has been impressed by the first sessions under the manager, but not surprised given what she knew about the Rovers boss.
She said: “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.”