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'It's frightening to think how far we actually have come'

It’s been a massive few weeks of positive off-field developments in Irish women’s football.

ON 4 APRIL 2017, fourteen Republic of Ireland women’s national team players took on the FAI. They stood together and fought for fairness at a ground-breaking press conference in Liberty Hall.

a-view-of-the-press-conference A general view of the press conference in Liberty Hall. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The unacceptable treatment of the side was laid bare, the extraordinarily low-quality working conditions they were expected to perform under outlined for everybody.

“The women’s team are fifth-class citizens, the dirt on the FAI’s shoe,” PFAI solicitor Stuart Gilhooly said that day, as shocking revelations about sharing tracksuits and changing in airport toilets were revealed.

“What we are fighting for here is equality,” legendary goalkeeper Emma Byrne noted. “We are fighting for the future of women’s football.”

While Byrne and other more senior players did the talking that day, a fresh-faced Katie McCabe stood in the back row. She now captains the team, taking the mantle from Byrne to lead the way on and off the pitch. Ruesha Littlejohn, her team-mate and partner, was there too.

A little over five years on, they’re both kitted out in Sky-branded FAI tracksuits in the Castleknock Hotel, welcoming a string of recent positive developments as a week-long international camp gets underway ahead of the 2023 World Cup qualifiers.

A recent ground-breaking deal means the Ireland men’s and women’s teams will receive equal pay on international duty, while Sky have also come on board as the side’s first-ever primary sponsor on a four-year deal.

“It’s massive,” as Arsenal star McCabe told The42 on Wednesday. “Where we were at a few years ago to where we’re at now speaks volumes on how quick the women’s game is developing and progressing.

“When equal pay was announced, I felt so proud. I was a young player coming into the the team when we had to do the strike, not knowing too much about it, with Emma Byrne leading the way back then.

“It’s not about money or anything like that, it’s just about parity for us. The equal pay is absolutely fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s more the message that it sends out to young girls and young boys growing up in Ireland.

“For me, it’s wanting to leave this squad in a better position for the next generation. I think we’re on the right track with that.”

Huge is the word Littlejohn uses over and over when reflecting on a massive few weeks off the pitch.

The Aston Villa midfielder admits that it’s all just hit home in recent days.

“I don’t actually think it’s actually settled in until you’ve come into camp and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually real. This is happening.’ It’s great the way women’s football is going in Ireland. There’s bigger nations and they’re not getting what we’ve got right now. It’s great to show that the country’s behind [us] and it’s really exciting.

“It’s frightening to think how far we actually have come, which is great. It’s really good. There’s such a big interest now in the team. I think it’s amazing there’s going to be even more coverage now.

“It’s just good for younger kids to see that they can make a career out of it. When I first started playing, you done it obviously just for the love of it, like everyone does, but it wasn’t your job. Now, it can be your job, you can have your your dream job playing football, which is amazing.”

Like McCabe and Littlejohn, US-born goalkeeper Courtney Brosnan says it’s about those coming behind. The Everton shot-stopper wasn’t part of the Girls in Green set-up in 2017, but she’s well aware of the impact those events have had on women’s football on these shores.

Recent positive announcements are ultimately the fruits of that group’s labour.

“It means the world to all of us,” Brosnan smiles.

“Obviously, we’ve been working and playing our whole lives, and it’s just amazing to see that outside attraction from the Sky deal, and the equal pay. It’s just sort of that validation that what you’re doing is moving in the right direction.

“It’s so important just to inspire that next generation and — Katie talks about it all the time — leave the game better than when we found it. I think these steps are amazing to keep progressing and keep improving it for everyone in the future.”

It’s about driving on on the pitch now as preparations for the 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign ramp up. Australia come to Tallaght Stadium for a glamour international friendly on Tuesday night [KO 7pm, live on RTÉ Two] off the back of their Olympic exploits. Ranked 11th in the world, the Matildas reached the semi-finals in Tokyo with Chelsea’s Sam Kerr one of the many superstars in their squad.

Vera Pauw’s side [33rd] are currently experiencing a seven match winless run; their World Cup qualifying opener against Group A minnows Georgia looking like it may arrest the slide.

vera-pauw Vera Pauw. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

But that was postponed, so they open their campaign against all-conquering Sweden, and then Finland, with Slovakia also in their way of a first major tournament.

“Whether we want to admit it or not, the pressure’s on,” Littlejohn nods. “There’s a lot of backing behind us now, which is great. I think it’s been long overdue, and it’s nice that we’re all in this together now and in the right direction, but now, we’ve got to start producing the results.

“As a nation, as a team, that’s what we want to do. We want to start qualifying for these tournaments. So we’re ready, and hopefully we can.”

Albeit enduring a difficult run of results, most of the defeats — narrow ones, at that — have been at the hands of higher-ranked sides, with improvements shown across the board by a group which boasts a lot of full-time footballers.

These are all positives, the players say.

“The way Vera sees it is you’ve got a play against top nations, which is true,” Littlejohn nods, “because we’ve got to get up to that level, we’ve got to be able to compete with them.

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“If you’ve want to be at these tournaments, you’re going to be playing against top nations. For us, it’s good to be testing ourselves against the best. Hopefully then the results will then start following.”

Brosnan echoes her team-mate’s words. The team feels that they are on an upward trajectory as they challenge themselves. “If you’re improving and playing well, then that’s when you start to see the results. So I think it’s really important for us going into qualification for the World Cup that we can get those results to make it there.”

“Every single camp, the level is raised,” she adds. “The players we’re bringing in, you can see improvements in them. It’s more time spent together, we’re gelling and things like that.

“I think you can see the improvements – maybe not in the results for the past few games, but we do feel like we’re making positive strides in the right direction. Hopefully the results will follow suit.”

ruesha-littlejohn-and-katie-mccabe-line-up-a-free-kick Ruesha Littlejohn (right) and McCabe line up a free kick. Source: Patrick Smets/INPHO

So, Australia is the next challenge. Another test against the best, with everyone involved excited and looking forward to it.

McCabe says they’re ready to show even more improvements as fans return to Tallaght, with Littlejohn pleased with the caliber of opponent:

“They’re a massive nation right now, they’re doing very well. All their players are playing in good leagues with good teams, so it’s going to be tough for us, but for us it’s good because it’s extra prep time before the qualifiers.

“We’ve got to just look at positives and go, ‘Well, we’ve got extra time to get organised and be ready for when the qualifiers start.’ So for us, it’s good.

“And it’s good to challenge yourself against a top nation.”

And in time, the hope is that Ireland will be one, and will qualify for that elusive major tournament.

“It’s something I want so bad,” McCabe deadpans. “I really want to get there. The key for us is the belief; to believe in ourselves. It’s a cliché I know, but that togetherness we have, you can’t buy that. It’s important going in that we believe that we can get there.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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