Islay teens make 400 mile round trip in bid for Edinburgh glory
“This week is an away game, but they are all away games, I suppose,” Lauren MacDonald laughs.
For thousands of youngsters across the country, first light of the weekend passes by in a blaze of tangled goal nets, saturated pitches and overzealous coaches.
But for Lauren and sister Sophie, their grassroots football journey begins more than 24 hours before kick-off as they start a near 400-mile round trip from Islay.
The talented teenagers joined the set-up at Hutchison Vale Girls last summer after former Scotland international Michael Stewart scouted Sophie during a soccer skills camp in their home town of Port Ellen.
The sisters, 13, were initially invited to a training session with the club, responsible for producing a string of Scottish internationals.
However, they impressed coaches so much that they were invited back for a regular place in the squad and dedicated dad Donnie, 41, has since driven the pair and brother Dylan, seven, on the 200-mile trek to the Capital every week.
The Arsenal-mad youngsters have now established themselves as two of the city’s brightest footballing prospects and will represent the Club at the Barcelona Girls Cup in June.
Lauren said: “I was really nervous going into training at first because I didn’t know anyone, but a lot of us are now really close friends and we have a brilliant connection on the pitch.
“It is obviously really unusual to come from so far away, but we love it and we want to win every time we play.”
A typical weekend trip for the family begins with the short drive to the Port Ellen ferry terminal, before a two-hour trip across the water to Kennacraig on Friday evening.
From there it is another three hours in the car to reach Glasgow, where a family friend puts them up overnight on Saturday.
They continue on to the game on Sunday morning, before doing the full route back immediately after the final whistle.
Donnie, who works at the renowned Bowmore distillery, revealed the “welcoming atmosphere” they found at the club convinced him and wife AJ to commit to the weekly journey, adding it was a “huge opportunity” for the girls to live their dreams.
He said: “Opportunities like this are so limited on Islay, so when it was put in front of us, we just had to go for it.
“As soon as we got there, everyone just made us feel so welcome. Hutchie were fantastic with all of us as a family and that really made us want to keep going back.”
Donnie added: “It is a huge commitment for us, but we do it for them because they love it. I don’t think we would move to another team now.”
Sophie was initially scouted in August 2018 when former Hearts and Hibs midfielder Stewart ran a series of training sessions at the home of the girls’ Islay team, Port Ellen Juniors, inviting dozens of youngsters to take part.
Lauren missed out on the initial camp due to a prior commitment, but Stewart was convinced he had unearthed a couple of gems and passed the names of both girls on to coaches at the club.
Stewart, who won the League Cup with Hibs in 2007, told the Evening News: “There are some talented footballers out on the islands.
“Sophie obviously has something special so we were pleased to get her into Hutchie Vale and it’s great that her and Lauren are doing so well.”
Sophie added: “It was a bit unusual to be invited over, but an amazing experience.
“It is very different to playing on Islay. The pitch in Port Ellen is full of rabbit holes and we pretty much play the same teams every week.
“At Saughton it is really different, there is an astroturf pitch, the facilities are much better and the standard is much higher.”
Both are determined to keep their feet on the ground, but admit it would be “a dream” to follow in the footsteps of Scotland stars Lisa Evans and Kim Little by pulling on the Arsenal jersey.
“We’ll be watching the World Cup in France this summer while we’re in Barcelona. The women’s team have been really inspiring for us because the men’s team have been rubbish,” said Lauren.
Sophie continued: “Playing for Arsenal would be the dream, hopefully we can both get there one day.”