Julie-Ann Russell earned over 50 caps for Ireland before moving to Australia. Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

The Irish international who emigrated to Australia

Julie-Ann Russell, Player of the Year in 2014, on putting her Ireland career on hold for a new life abroad.

IN AN INTERVIEW with The42 last year, former Irish youngster Joe Hanrahan memorably recalled: “I told Fergie to shove his Manchester United contract and he told me to get out of his office.”

It’s important to note the context. That was the 1980s, when football was a far different game. While most top elite-level players now are virtually set for life provided they spend their money wisely, back then, wages in the game were decent but rarely extraordinary. 

It might seem inconceivable that a promising Irish player would effectively reject the opportunity to play at a top-tier English club now, except that it is still happening in one sense.

While in men’s football, a lengthy career at a club like Manchester United will make you a millionaire, in the women’s game, it is different. Aside from an exceptional few at Champions League-winning clubs like Lyon, wages are seldom spectacular. Consequently, even extremely talented footballers are faced with a dilemma over whether to put football or their career first.

In recent times, a number of key players have left the Irish panel. Despite winning 100 caps for her country, Aine O’Gorman retired from international football last year at the relatively young age of 29. Not long after that announcement, Karen Duggan, voted senior international player of the year in 2016, also stepped away from the Irish team even younger at 27. 

Julie-Ann Russell is another highly talented player no longer available for Irish squads. Now 28, she earned over 50 caps for her country, but in 2017, emigrated to Australia, knowing she would have to put her international career on hold while doing so. She carefully points out though that she has not “officially retired”.

In the men’s game, it seems inconceivable that such important players would retire from international duty at the peak of their footballing abilities. And in all the instances in question, there is no doubt that the players’ careers outside of football had a big influence on the respective decisions.

One of the first tasks facing Colin Bell’s successor as Ireland boss will surely be attempting to coax at least one of these experienced footballers out of retirement. O’Gorman, in a recent interview with Off the Ball, hinted that she would consider a return, but it seems improbable that Russell will be doing likewise in the near future.

I wouldn’t rule it out,” she tells The42. “I don’t know what I’m doing next week. I’m going back to get married next year, and then we’ll see what the story is. 

“I miss all the girls on the Irish team and playing for Ireland. Especially seeing the World Cup on at the moment, I’d love to be back playing with Ireland.”

Yet Russell has created a new life for herself in Australia. She has made new friends, while her sister’s family is living there too, as is her fiancée. The “amazing” weather is in stark contrast to the dreary and seemingly endless Irish rain, while she enjoys balancing her job at Microsoft with lining out for Sydney University.

John Russell Russell's brother, John, plays for Sligo. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Since the Galway native was a child, all she wanted to do was play football. She seemed always to have a ball at her feet. Her older brother John, who is currently on the books at Sligo Rovers, was a source of encouragement. He minded her while their parents were at work, inviting the impressionable youngster to play football with his friends.

With no girls’ teams nearby, Russell opted to play with boys at underage level. Later on, she feels, the experience stood to her.

Boys are naturally quicker and physically stronger, so I definitely think that benefited my decision-making. Everything is much faster. I played with the boys in all sports — soccer, Gaelic and hurling. I definitely think that did help.”

Russell was a talented GAA player too, lining out for Galway in the Ladies’ National Football League and Connacht at interprovincial level, combining the different sports until around Leaving Cert time, when everything became too hectic and she felt compelled to focus on soccer.

“I think it was my brother, seeing him go and get the opportunities with the Ireland team, getting to travel around the world really appealed to me,” she adds.

It helped that Russell was clearly immensely talented at the sport. Aged 16, she was part of a 2007 FAI Cup-winning Galway side that also included future Ireland player and current Liverpool star Niamh Fahey, and another accomplished international, Méabh De Búrca.

Russell started her career playing for Salthill Devon in the Galway Ladies League. She was part of a strong team, though they were vastly superior to the majority of sides they came up against.

“We’d win every game 8, 10 or 14-0,” she recalls. “Our only challenge was in the FAI Cup, when we came up against the Dublin teams.” 

In 2011, the Women’s National League was formed and Salthill opted not to enter a team. Russell felt she had little choice but to leave. Peamount United were in the Champions League at the time and were allowed to use a ‘guest’ player. Their manager, Eileen Gleeson, gave Russell a call. 

“I was thrilled and honoured that they wanted me to go, so it all started from there,” she remembers.

Stephanie Roche celebrates scoring the first goal of the game Russell played alongside Stephanie Roche at Peamount. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Playing alongside other top players who would go on to achieve great things, such as Louise Quinn, Sara Lawlor, Sue Byrne, Aine O’Gorman, Karen Duggan and Stephanie Roche, Russell was by no means out of place in this company. In three years at Peamount, she helped the club win the league title and two WNL Cups. She made the WNL Team of the Season twice, and was named Player of the Year in the 2013-14 campaign, while getting the nod for Senior International Player of the Year just a few months later.

“I think we rose the standards for the people around us,” she says of her Peamount stint. 

“I suppose when you’re doing well, you don’t want to give up. So it’s probably one of the reasons I stuck at it.”

These feats were made all the more remarkable given the fact that Russell’s spell at Peamount coincided with her undertaking a degree in Business and Marketing at the University of Limerick.

Many hours were spent travelling to and from Dublin for training and matches, with fellow Irish international and UL student Duggan accompanying her on the ride most of the time.

“One of the main reasons I went to Limerick was the sports facilities,” Russell explains. “I lived about five minutes from the college in Galway and I opted to go to a different county. At the time, they didn’t have scholarships for women’s soccer and they did probably in every other college, but I still went. 

In terms of travel commitments, that was tough. Balancing it kind of came naturally, because in secondary school I was studying all the time and playing as well. That’s come naturally to college and work. I knew no different.”

In addition to her mounting accolades at Peamount, Russell won “everything” at UL as well. Winning medals for the Women’s Soccer Colleges Association of Ireland (WSCAI) Premier Division, WSCAI Intervarsities Cup and the WSCAI National Futsal Intervarsities were all accumulated.

Despite all her domestic success and unlike some former team-mates such as Quinn and Fahey who moved to England, prior to Australia, Russell never had a sustained spell playing football abroad. In 2011, there was a brief foray Stateside. While she was off from college, in 2011, Russell lined out for United Soccer Leagues W-League outfit Los Angeles Strikers.

“I just played a summer over there. I think it was only two months. It was a short league, but it was just to get a bit of international experience and live abroad as well. It was great at such a young age. I was still in college, so I never intended to not come back and finish my degree.”

The following year, she linked up with English team Doncaster Belles in another short-term deal.

“With my college degree, I had to go on placement for nine months. So I went to Doncaster. I did marketing for the club and as usual, linked the both in together, which worked out well. I got a bit of experience playing football in England and was continuing with my studies. After those nine months, I went back to final year in Limerick.”

Colin Bell Russell featured in Colin Bell's first home match in charge as Ireland boss. Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO Matteo Ciambelli / INPHO / INPHO

Though Russell never returned to play across the water, you get the sense she doesn’t necessarily regret that fact.

Of her Peamount team-mates, she says: “I feel like any of the girls could have gone on to England if they really wanted to.”

In 2014, Russell left Peamount along with a number of her team-mates. Gleeson stepped down following a “dispute” at the club, and several players followed her to the newly formed UCD Waves. This spell also happened to coincide with a Marketing master’s degree that Russell was undertaking at the college, before going on to work for Microsoft.

She spent three years with the Students, earning another WSCAI Premier Division title and WSCAI Futsal Cup, while they finished second in 2014-15 WNL campaign.

In 2017, however, the opportunity to relocate to Australia proved too tempting to turn down. As a result, having spent close to a decade playing for her country after debuting as an 18-year-old against Kazakhstan during Noel King’s tenure, she made her last appearance off the bench against Slovakia in an April 2017 friendly, Colin Bell’s first home game as manager.

The match took place over a difficult backdrop. Earlier in the month, the Irish side had become embroiled in a high-profile protest with the FAI, as they demanded better working conditions.

“It’s an absolute honour to play for your country, so to go on strike is a huge decision,” she says. “I knew I was going to be going to Australia for work, but I wanted to do it for the girls that would be staying at home and for the next generation of people. I didn’t really care much about myself, because I knew I was going. I’m delighted that standards have risen [since]. The girls are getting treated way better.”

Eileen Gleeson Like her former manager Eileen Gleeson, Russell believes the standards in the WNL need to improve. Tommy Dickson / INPHO Tommy Dickson / INPHO / INPHO

And while the outlook for Irish female players has certainly improved, it remains far from perfect. In a recent interview with The42, Gleeson was critical of the low standards and the lack of professionalism that sometimes mar the WNL. Russell concurs with her former manager on this subject.

“100%. And that’s an issue for the domestic team then. They can’t be playing the weekend before and thumping a team 14-0 and then going in and playing a top country. They’re not being tested, so they’re not going to be able to cope.

“If you want to make a living out of it and play against the best players in the world, I don’t think you’re going to do that in Ireland. I’d love to say different. It’s great that the league’s there, but I don’t think over the last couple of years that it’s progressed.” 

She depicts football in Australia favourably by comparison.

“There’s a pro league, it’s quite short, but a lot of the players play in the US, the grassroots is really good. There are so many kids playing. A lot of the girls I play with on my club team, they train with a squad called the Future Matildas. So they’re basically just the next batch [of Australia internationals]. And that’s not done in Ireland. If you don’t make it from the 19s to the seniors, you just kind of fall by the wayside, which is a pity. If there was an U21 or U23 team, it would definitely benefit the senior team.

It’s hard to stay so committed if you’re not involved. And then you get swayed by other sports, or by your friends emigrating and whatnot. I’ve seen a lot of great talents that weren’t picked up, people develop a bit later as well, and they just [fall off the radar]. I feel like if they had U21s or U23s teams, they’d still be there.

“But I couldn’t really get over the standard [in Australia], to be honest. The facilities are amazing. Our games are on a Sunday and they start it off with the U12s, 14s, 15s, 17s, reserves, seniors all in the one day, so it’s kind of like a day out. That was a really good idea.”

She continues: “The biggest decision on moving to Australia [was] leaving the Ireland team. It was my whole life. I was on every underage team. So every spring, summer, autumn and winter I was playing football, all through my teenage years, all through my 20s. But I gave everything up for football and thought I might start putting it into my career. I was always very focused on studies and the academic side, just knowing at the time with women’s football that you couldn’t really make a career out of it when I was in school and college.”

There have been plenty of positive signs in recent times, however, with a successful, record-breaking 2019 World Cup the latest indication of progress. Many clubs in England have turned professional, while the same is true of players around Europe. Does Russell feel if she was 10 or 15 years younger, she might have been better placed to attempt a sustained career at the highest level?

“Absolutely. I definitely think my thinking would have been much different. I maybe wouldn’t have been as focused on school and work and tried to play professionally and make a living out of it. But who knows?”

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