Twins Rio and Steffi Hardy have just finished their first season in senior football with Icelandic top flight side Grindavík. On a personal level, it was a season of success for the pair who have come a long way from their Workington roots over recent years. Back then it was five hour car journeys just to make training sessions. This year it was just a few minutes walk down the road.
The 22-year-olds have a lot to thank their parents for. Their commitment has led to experiences in America and Iceland so far already in their blossoming careers.
“We started out playing for local boys teams before moving onto the Cumbria Centre of Excellence when it opened up ataround under-14 level,” says Rio, a striker.
“Unfortunately, it was shut down due to funding cuts after a few years so we went to Blackburn Rovers as this was the next closest Centre of Excellence and had to travel down three times a week while in year eleven.
“We were very lucky to have such supportive and committed parents as the drive was two-and-a-half hours each way.”
During their time with the youth team at Blackburn, the talented sisters helped their side reach the FA Youth Cup final before losing out to Arsenal.
Even more sacrifices had to be made to reach this level though. Their school had helped accommodate their late nights after training by adjusting their morning lessons but after finishing school, their commitment to the cause rose even further.
“Once we had finished school, we moved to live in Burnley so we could attend Accrington and Rossendale College. This was a big decision to move away from home as 16-year-olds but we were committed to playing football and knew Blackburn was the best place for us at the time,” says Rio.
“We lived in a hotel and went to college where we trained every day with them and had games once a week while still going to Blackburn training twice a week and playing games on Saturdays.”
The pair then advanced onto the first team at Blackburn playing in the Women’s Premier League, the third tier of women’s football in England.
Having already come to terms with living away from home at such a young age, the sisters then set their sights on moving even further away. For defender Steffi, it was an opportunity they couldn’t refuse.
Steffi, it was an opportunity they couldn’t refuse.
“I think that the chance to continue playing football every day was the biggest thing for me wanting to move to USA,” says the defender.
“The team we went to, South Alabama, also had a lot of English girls who we knew from college and Blackburn and the coach was English too so that made things easier. [I went] to get a degree a long the way as well. Had I stayed in the UK, I don’t think I would have wanted to go to university.”
Of course the location of Alabama, just an hours drive from Florida, appealed as well but with commitments to play for the football team and also study for their degrees, would they have time to fit it all in? The answer was a resounding yes.
“For me it was really easy to combine studying and playing because I’m organised and like to get things done as soon as I get them so I’m not rushing around,” says Steffi. “Sometimes when you miss a lot of classes for football it could be hard but you get used to it and for the most part, teachers are very helpful and everything is done for you.”
“They have so many people in place to help you out with whatever you need; tutors if you are struggling with some work and need help catching up, advisors to keep you on track to graduate on time and study halls open everyday with computers, printing and anything else you need,” adds Rio.
Their studies were important but the real reason they had travelled across the Atlantic was for the football and even though the pair had played at a decent level back home, their facilities available to them at the University of South Alabama were on a whole other level.
“It is as close to professional as it gets,” says Rio. “The facilities are amazing, the best I’ve been around in my life. Everything is possibly done is to make the athletes lives easier so we can perform on the pitch. Away trips would mean leaving a couple of days before the game either on the bus or flying, then training and staying over in hotels.”
“The universities treat you as professionals because you have the work load of a professional,” adds Steffi. “Training six days a week, and two of those days are games. You are there to play football and and go to school, everything is done to an incredibly high standard.”
Their time in America was very successful. As well as picking up their degrees, Physical Education for Rio and Exercise Science for Steffi, the pair were part of the South Alabama Jaguars team who won the league and conference title all four years of their stay as well as numerous personal honours. Rio finished with 56 goals in four years.
Although treated as professionals whilst at university, they could still not be counted as fully fledged professional footballers yet but it would not take long until that changed.
“We had good offers and interest from other places, but at the time and after speaking with our agent, we decided that Iceland was the best fit for us as they were starting their season as soon as we had graduated in America,” says Rio. “They offered us everything that we needed and it was something we couldn’t turn down, the timing couldn’t have been better.”
“We had two Icelandic players on our team at South Alabama so we talked with them closely and they said only good things about the high level of football,” adds Steffi.
The team the side would join were Grindavík, a side who had come seventh in the ten team top flight the previous year and also had a team in the men’s top flight, who former Manchester United midfielder Sam Hewson played for at the time. The Icelandic season starting in May meant the pair would go straight into their first season as a professional and it wouldn’t take long for them to settle.
“We had our own apartment from the first day we got to Iceland. I think we settled in pretty quick because we were training and seeing our new teammates every day, also all the girls spoke brilliant English, which helped massively,” says Steffi.
Rio agrees with her sister’s opinion on their integration, “The transition was easier than expected as all the girls, coaches and everyone involved with the club spoke English fluently and made sure that we felt completely at home.”
With an apartment just minutes away from their home ground, the five hour round trip to training the sisters had juggled when younger seems a world away. In fact, it’d take less than double that time to travel across the width of the whole of Iceland.
The Úrvalsdeild kvenna, the women’s top flight in Iceland, is full of teams with male equivalents and so they share stadiums, meaning the twins from Workington would get to play at some of the finest stadia the country had to offer. It is not all down to capacity in Iceland, some of the most breathtaking grounds are set in spectacular surroundings. ÍBV’s is particularly impressive.
With a year of senior football in England and four years of college soccer under their belts already, the Hardys had already experienced different styles of play but on their arrival in Iceland, they quickly realised they would have to adjust to another.
“The US is a lot more direct in the style of play,” says Steffi. “They rely on pace and athleticism more, whereas in Iceland it’s more possession based and working through the thirds.
“I would also say that the Icelandic league is very physical and you have to be strong to play there to win challenges.”
Rio echoes her sister’s thoughts, “I would say that you have less time on the ball in Iceland and have to make quicker decisions than the college game. There are lots of experienced players in the league so it was good to test myself against established internationals. American football is definitely more athletic than Icelandic.”
In ended up being a tricky season for Grindavík who finished the campaign in second bottom and were relegated but it was not without the English sisters best efforts to keep them up, with Rio scoring ten goals in 15 games and Steffi putting in commanding performances at the back. In the end though, it was not enough to prevent the fate which the club had narrowly avoided the previous season.
The forward ended the season with awards for Player of the Season (Hewson won the men’s award) and the club’s top scorer and the pair now have their eye on the future.
“I don’t really have a specific country I want to play in,” says Steffi. “I’m just enjoying wherever the game takes me. I think eventually though I do want to play back in England in the top division. I think it’s everyone’s dream to play professionally for the senior national team, that’s my ambition!”
“My main ambition is to represent England at senior level. It’s something you dream about as a kid and I was lucky enough to get a taste of international football when I played with the England Colleges under-19 team,” adds Rio.
“That experience made me even more determined to play for the full national team.”
With the twins both firmly focussed on achieving their goal of becoming full internationals, the 22-year-olds could both be representing their country together in the not too distant future.