Finding the balance – Down and Glentoran star Jessica Foy

From kicking the in garden to being inspired by the all-conquering Cork team, Jessica Foy has been sport on the brain. Being a late vocation to competitive soccer, she became the first profession player on the domestic scene and has led Glentoran to top of the pile. 

By Michael McMullan

THREE things strike you after chatting to Jessica Foy. The first stares you in the face. She was born for sport. Fanaticism dances off every word she uses to describe her career. If you were an impressionable youngster listening, you’d head out to the back garden and kick countless goals until dark.

Secondly, is her modesty. If she used the words “thankful” and “opportunity” once, she used them a dozen times during a conversation that jumps goes to and fro across her sporting landscape.

Finally, like anyone competing in elite sport, there has to be desire. Think of any high achiever and below everything, there is fire in the belly. Jessica Foy is no different.

Glentoran’s domestic dominance is one thing, but conquering in Europe comes next. Putting her shoulder to the Down ladies football wheel is another must. They need to be “pushing on” and Jessica doesn’t want to be at the back of the queue.

On the same day Offaly GAA hit the headlines for cutting four u-14 footballers loose for choosing a soccer game over one of their coaching sessions, Foy’s attitude is different, totally different.

Which does she prefer? She can’t choose. The words alone may point to diplomacy on her part, but the tone of her voice and body language across the video call suggest otherwise. She really can’t decide.

It’s about playing as many for sports for as long as you can, something all kids should aspire to.

She is more than happy to juggle both GAA and soccer. Just like Down manager Ronan McCartan has to manage Aoife Keown and Fionnuala Caldwell’s workload with the county’s camogie team. Give and take is the name of the game.

“I found playing Gaelic football helped my vision in terms of seeing the play in soccer,” Jess offers. “I am a full-back in soccer. I am playing with my head up to see the forward runs and switch the ball, I have taken that from playing Gaelic football as a centre half (forward).”

Next Wednesday, she’ll lead out Glentoran for their Premiership opener with Lisburn at Ashfield Boys’ School, but Jessica’s sporting footsteps began on the other side of Belfast.

As a youngster, her first memories are kicking a ball around in the back garden with her Father Sean and Granda Tommy. And everything spiralled from there.

“I was very lucky that my local club, Carryduff, started up a girls’ team when I was six or seven, so I had an opportunity to play sport from a very young age in terms of structured coaching,” outlines Jessica, the oldest of Sean and Maura’s four children.

EARLY YEARS…Jessica in action for Carryduff

Friday nights were spent honing the skills, a welcome addition to Gaelic football at St Joseph’s Primary School, tucked between the Ivanhoe Hotel and Carryduff’s club pitch.

“We went to Cherryvale to play in a mini blitz tournament,” she recalls of the schools’ blitzes under the auspices of Down GAA.

“We are talking about 15 or more years ago, but it was fantastic to have competitions running. We had loads of opportunities to play competitive sport which was fantastic.”

That was the first taste of measuring herself against the best and Carryduff’s annual trip to Croke Park to watch the All-Ireland Ladies’ finals ramped her growing interest even further.

Unable to pinpoint a specific sporting hero, the all-conquering Cork team were her inspiration.

“I think I was fortunate to have grown up in an era when that Cork ladies were just outstanding,” Foy said.

“Some of the football they played was incredible and weren’t just successful for one year, but they sustained it over a period of ten years when they were nearly untouchable. You wanted to be doing what Cork were doing and I suppose Dublin ladies are emulating that.”

Growing up, soccer was on the back-burner. There was a smidgeon of basketball and an odd call to fill out the camogie when numbers were scarce.

“I’d like to say I am a bit too soft for the camogie,” Jessica said with a smile. “It’s a different ball game altogether in terms of physicality.”

There was an All-Ireland winning career with the Alison Norney School of Irish Dancing with whom she competed until she turned 16.

“My younger sister Amy, she is a fantastic Irish dancer and is going on to be a dancing teacher. I left those reins to her and continued with the football and the Gaelic.”

Dancing brought a different type of fitness and skill to team sports. With it came flexibility and priming the body for a different stage.

After a studying for a degree in sport, a PGCE has led to a career in PE teaching. After a stint at her alma mater, Our Lady and St Patrick’s Knock, Jessica is in her first year at Dominican College Fortwilliam, off Belfast’s Antrim Road.

“It has always been something I have been really passionate about,” she points out. “I always wanted a career in sport. If it wasn’t going to be something that I was playing myself, I am now a PE teacher and it is something I have always wanted to pursue.”

On the playing front, sport began to get serious for Jessica in her mid-teens when she made her senior debut for Down. That taste was enough to leave her longing for Ulster and All-Ireland glory.

The soccer was a whirlwind. Having only sampled it in any organised fashion at the age of 15, her journey was rapid through Glentoran’s first team and international appearances at u-17 and u-19 level.

MY LEFT FOOT…Jessica in action for Glentoran

“From something I was just playing as a pastime, by the game of 18 I had made my full senior debut for the (Northern Ireland) international team.

”I have been very fortunate with the opportunities I have been presented with. It was the age of 16 when things started to hit the next level and you make that move up from underage to senior level in both sports.”

As the years ticked by, Carryduff’s underage ranks began to look up to a senior team moving from junior to intermediate and a first season at senior that coincided with Jessica’s step up to adult football.

“Those couple of years, we were very successful in winning league titles, we always seemed to get to the championship final and never quite get there,” remembers Jessica, who has been joined on the team by her 16 year-old sister Katie.

In 2017, helped by three Jessica Foy goals in a rampant 10-minute spell, Carryduff overcome Bryansford at the final hurdle and clinched their first and only senior title, but the presence of local rivals Bredagh has held them off top spot since.

Lunchtime soccer with the boys at primary school was her first taste of a game that would open doors for Jessica. It was small-sided competitions when she moved to Knock school that progresses to the full 11-a-side game.

“I was a big supporter of soccer and my Dad and Granda supported Man United, so I loved watching them,” she explained of her early inspiration.

While playing for the school team, she attracted attention of the Irish FA staff going around signing up girls for local clubs to grow the game.

Glentoran was the closest team. Phone numbers were exchanged, an approach was made and Jessica joined the club she has captained to a plethora of domestic titles over the last three seasons.

“Nowadays there is more of a pathway to get girls involved at a younger age. There are more school-club links than there was 10 years ago,” Jessica said of how the things began.

“I am very grateful they pushed me towards it, because it is something I didn’t realise I’d love as much as what I am doing now.”

Some 18 months after signing, Jessica scored all four goals in Knock’s 4-3 extra-time NI Schools’ Cup final win, in front of the watching Glentoran coaches, cementing the qualities that originally caught their eye.

It was around the team that Alfie Wylie handed her the first of “almost 30” senior international caps.

“It was incredible, and now, looking back on it, I don’t think I realised how big of an achievement it was,” Jess admits.

“It snowballed so quickly from one competition to the next and it’s something I am very proud of and grateful for.”

The next milestone arrive early this year when Jessica became the first domestic professional player after signing a deal with Glentoran. While saying it as a “massive honour” she admitted it was a direction the club were heading in recent years, but didn’t expect the professional status to arrive just yet.

“We have been working towards it with access to facilities and strength and conditioning coaches, so this was the next logical step for us, was to finalise the professional side of it,” she said.

“It is the addition of payment for players that has been the greatest increase. I think it is fantastic for women’s sport in general, that sport has become professionalised for female athletes, and it is a great time to be involved in it.”

Jessica still teaches full time, with Glentoran training four times a week on top of her strength the conditioning in the club gym.

The professional status hasn’t increased the workload “too much”, but if Northern Ireland follow the Scottish model and how Glasgow City have professionalised the sport they could be at that level “five years” down the line.

The Glentoran venture has been a fruitful one. Three cups, two leagues and last season the Antrim Cup rounded it up to a treble.

“It is hard task to maintain and achieve that again,” Jessica replied when quizzed on her 2022 wish list. The club’s status and chemistry demand it.

They also return to the Champions League to go better than their qualifying group were a defeat and win wasn’t enough to see them progress.

“We need to start pushing on in Europe. We have started to professionalise the structures here, so we need to start challenging when we are playing teams in Europe and try to get out of that mini group and into the knock-out stages,” Jessica said.

On the international stage, she has stepped away from Kenny Shiels’ squad that will compete in the European Championships. From the outside, she is happy with her lot and how team have progressed. Their progress is doing wonders for the game and the style of play filtering back to the club scene is further enhancing local football.

“It was trying to balance it all up; making training and have a full time job, it was very difficult for me personally.

“When the opportunity is there, I will go in and train with Kenny and the squad, but at the minute it is not the right time.”

As we spoke, mixing Down’s preparation for a May Ulster Intermediate final showdown with Tyrone and getting Glentoran’s title defence off the ground seems an “every night of the week” operation. But Jessica wouldn’t have it any other way.

It’s exactly what she signed up for, literally. When her Glentoran contract on the table, she insisted on a clause that would allow her to spin both plates.

“It was something that was so important to me and I didn’t want to lose out on,” she explained. “You play Gaelic football because you love it. There is no other reward other than the love for the sport and playing for your county.”

At 26 she counts herself as young, but knows there will be a limit on the times she can pull on her beloved red and black jersey. Playing for Down is special to her and it’s about “pushing on”. Success is close, she feels.

“We are definitely looking towards and Ulster and an All-Ireland within the next three or four years and it is something I want to be a part of,” said Jessica, who would’ve placed Gaelic football as the number one sport in her younger says.

“At the minute, I don’t think I could decide between the two sports, so to be able to do both of them was very important to be honest.”

It takes commitment on her part, but Down manager Ronan McCartan – an Antrim GAA coach by day – is understanding to an approach to keeping this three dual players (soccer and camogie) fresh for when it matters.

“It is getting the balance right and when the key games are coming up, you are available and can give it your all for the county so we can push on and start winning some silverware,” Jessica stresses of the planning required.

“We are so close to the teams around us, it is trying to get that extra margin to make sure we are pushing on.”

KICKING ON…Jessica hopes Down can go to the next level. Photo: Brendan Monaghan

With the conversation now 100 per cent Gaelic football at this point, Jessica’s words, and how she says them, lift the lid on the inner workings of a competitor. There is a belief that success is within reach, but persistence is a must.

“Ronan coming in is fantastic,” she said and acknowledges time is required to bed in a new style of play.

A set of tight league results and including an opening day win over eventual winners Roscommon suggests they are not a million miles away. It’s ironing out the creases from their 4-12 to 3-7 semi-final defeat to Wexford that will sit at the top of their pre-championship agenda.

Having being managed by Tyrone manager Sean O’Kane at club level in Carryduff, she knows the Red Hands will be well-prepared; have only recently dropped down from senior and will be buoyed by a relegation play-off win over Clare to stay in Division Two.

“We knew that wasn’t going to happen overnight,” Jessica is keen to stress. “We are patient with it, we are trying to improve and get the county through to an intermediate All-Ireland title because we think that’s where we should be.”

As we spoke, Armagh and Donegal were preparing for National League final they came close to winning. It’s a scenario Down can take “inspiration” from, especially Armagh who, in Jessica’s opinion, were in a similar spot to Down “five or six” years ago.

“We would’ve been playing them in the league and in the Ulster Championship. They have really pushed on and it is fantastic to see how successful they have become and they are now really challenging the top senior teams.

“We are not too far off, but we really need to start pushing on. We can’t continue to be a team that is content to be in Division Three and intermediate football. You have to look at the teams around you if you want to really challenge yourself.”

As much as Dublin have been the team to beat in recent season, there is learning in how Meath were able to club to the top of the tree and currently hold the league and championship titles.

At the tail end of 2020, the Royals led Down 0-8 to 0-0 in an intermediate group game in Dunleer before a 1-5 tally from Foy turned the game on its head and Meath escaped by a whisker. With one minute of normal time, a point separated the teams before substitute Bridgetta Lynch popped over to give Meath some essential breathing space. It was the close anyone came to beating them on that intermediate run.

“Meath have shown over the last two years that if a group of girls get together and the backing of the county board and a management team, it is possible to be successful at intermediate and to be able to sustain that when you push on into senior football,” Jessica said.

She believes there is not the same gulf between the grades there once was, from junior to intermediate and from intermediate to senior.

“There is a greater range of teams around now that can challenge the big teams, so it is definitely something we have to look and aim towards,” she continued and puts it down to a number of factors.

Media coverage and broadcasting has lifted the profile of ladies football. The backing of the LGFA has continually grown and with it comes an increasing access to strength the conditioning.

No longer is the bar set at intermediate level in Down. Last year their running and fitness testing results were being compared to teams at the business end of the senior grade.

“That’s what we have to strive towards,” Jessica insists. It’s about lifting the levels all around them. Food is provided after training. There is a plan for how the body recovers to meet the demands of the next session.

“You have to look at the coaching as well, it has improved a lot,” Foy added. “Some managers that had maybe wanted to be involved in men’s football are now getting involved in women’s football as well. It is a combination of a lot of things that is pushing the sport on.”

So, what will a successful 2022 look like for Jessica Foy?

Defending three titles in the green of Glentoran and aiming to bring the glory days to Down, or at least keep them climbing up that mountain far enough to look down on where they came from.

It sounds simple, but that’s how sports people roll. Jessica Foy’s fire, lit by Cork ladies and those Carryduff trips to Croke Park, is still well and truly burning. Sport rules the world and the more the better.

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