Whether it’s kicking a pair of balled-up socks between the sofas or scoring goals for her primary school team, Keri Halliday has been in love with the beautiful game since she was five years old.
Keri (16) from Ballymoney started playing with her dad Noel in the back garden – and these days she says she runs rings around him.
Now the talented teenager plays in an attacking position for Northern Ireland’s under-17 squad and hopes to follow in the footsteps of the current women’s team, who are on their way to the Euros next year.
In the meantime, she’s racked up an impressive list of achievements, including being awarded Woman of the Match when her NI team played Scotland in 2019, and captaining Ballymoney United Girls as they won both the Foyle Cup and South Belfast League in 2019.
During the Covid lockdowns the determined youngster kept up her training in her back garden, running to improve her fitness and practising shooting.
Now she’s hoping to make the U19 team selection next year.
Keri says: “My ambitions are always to be the best version of myself and to work continuously hard. It’s not going to be easy as the level of talent is so high, but I’m willing to put in the hard work, sacrifices and determination to help me get there.
“Ultimately, I’d like to play for the U19 Northern Ireland squad next year, then the NI seniors, and hopefully have a career in football.
“It would be nice to one day see equality in pay between the men’s teams and women’s teams too. I’d love to represent my country in some big tournaments and make a living doing it.”
Keri is delighted to see an increasing interest in female sport in recent years.
“I’m always encouraging girls to get involved in football — or any sport — as it’s so helpful for mind and body. Interest in female support is definitely going up and that’s amazing,” she explains.
“For me I’ve made some brilliant friendships, but my favourite part of it is definitely scoring goals.”
One of four girls, Keri and her younger sister Abi (15) are both keen footballers and Keri supports her dad’s beloved Liverpool FC.
Noel (52) says: “I’m very proud of her; she’s been football mad since day one. Even in the house, she’d be kicking a pair of balled-up socks or shooting between the two settees.”
Keri is one of 10 athletes who have been awarded a bursary of £500 this year from Hughes Insurance in partnership with the Mary Peters Trust.
Also shooting for the stars is Amy Hunter (16) from Belfast, who became the youngest cricketer to score a century in a One Day International match on her 16th birthday, when Ireland played Zimbabwe in October.
Amy first got into cricket as a child, following in the footsteps of her big brother Jamie (19) who played for the Instonians U11 team.
“He went to cricket practice every Friday night and I had nothing to do, so one night my dad took me along with them,” she says.
“When I started playing, I was the only girl on an all-boys team, but I’d known most of them since nursery and they were very accepting of me, especially when I started getting good at it.”
Amy now plays alongside other women on the Irish senior women’s team and says her strengths are as a batswoman and wicketkeeper.
For now, she has her sights set on her GCSEs and A-levels, but she would love to make a career out of playing cricket when she’s older and is hopeful that the current interest in women’s sport keeps growing.
But Amy is also quick to point out that playing sport can benefit everyone — at any level.
“I’d love to see more girls and young women getting into sport,” she adds.
“You make brilliant friendships with like-minded people and friends for life.
“There’s something for everyone in sport — whether you want to be really competitive or just want to have fun and enjoy being active and the social aspect.
“It’s an outlet and you learn so many things about yourself too.”
Also being supported with a bursary is keen rower Rachel Bradley (18) from Garvagh. She started her rowing career six years ago at Coleraine Grammar School and has travelled all over Ireland taking part in regattas and trials.
This summer she represented Ireland at the Junior World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria, picking up a bronze medal in the Women’s Double Scull event, and also won silver medals in the J18 Single Scull and J19 Double Scull events at the Irish Rowing Championships in August.
The bursary helped her when she spent some time training at the National Rowing Centre in Cork.
Rachel has now started her first year at Newcastle University, which she chose in part because it has one of the leading British University Rowing Programmes.
Rachel says: “I’ve had a really good year and I’m delighted that not being able to train on the water during most of Covid hasn’t affected my strength.
“I love competing and I’m really excited for the high-level regattas to come. Travelling to events is one of the best things about my sport because you get to meet so many like-minded people from all over the world.
“It’s a really special feeling to be representing Northern Ireland.”
Rachel hopes to have the opportunity to represent her country in the U23 level and beyond and says the bursary has been really helpful.
“It gave me encouragement, knowing the selection panel believed in my potential to achieve and go further in my sport,” she adds.
“It also came at a really useful time as I relocated to the National Rowing Centre in Cork for the summer and helped pay for my accommodation and travel.”
Lady Mary Peters hopes that Keri, Rachel and Amy — and other young athletes like them — have a bright future ahead.
“Northern Ireland is home to so many young sporting talents,” she says. “The teenage years are very important and can often determine a pre-elite athlete’s success.”