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'Say, if one of us has a bad result, you don't want to talk about football until you're ready'

Arsenal’s Katie McCabe and former West Ham striker Ruesha Littlejohn discuss life as a football-playing couple before and during lockdown.

Republic of Ireland internationals Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn.
Republic of Ireland internationals Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn.

Updated Jun 19th 2020, 8:41 AM

KATIE MCCABE AND Ruesha Littejohn’s relationship survived lockdown.

“Just about, just about,” jokes Littlejohn on a Zoom call with journalists.

“This smile is fake!”, laughs her partner and Republic of Ireland international team-mate McCabe, who is sitting next to Littlejohn in their shared London home.

It has been just over a year since Arsenal forward McCabe and Littlejohn, who recently left West Ham, publicised the fact that they were a couple. To them, it didn’t feel like a major deal at the time: they hadn’t hidden the fact that they were a couple for the three preceding years, either.

But it was a major deal in the eyes of plenty of other people for whom McCabe and Littlejohn’s sheer comfort in their own skin fuelled a similar feeling, and even inspired some to reveal a major part of their lives that they had been actively hiding from people closest to them.

Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn support Aviva Pride Ruesha Littlejohn (L) and Katie McCabe (R).

“It’s been very moving for us,” says Ireland skipper McCabe, who for the second year running has teamed up with Littlejohn and Aviva for a Pride campaign.

Obviously, within the last year, we’ve been on the pitch for Arsenal, West Ham and Ireland, so we are in the public eye that little bit more. But when you’re receiving DMs on Instagram from people you don’t know, that are telling you their story and how what we did empowered them to come out to their friends and family, that’s what the campaign was all about and it’s very moving for us.

“You have people especially messaging Katie — she’s obviously got a bigger social media platform”, says Littlejohn, “but there was a real range of ages — younger people but a few older people messaging too. It was encouraging.”

Naturally, the conversation moves towards homosexuality in the men’s sport — or the glaring lack thereof on the record — and whether or not a high-profile male player could in the present day do what McCabe and Littlejohn did last year.

During their corresponding Aviva/Pride interview in 2019, McCabe was asked if she could envisage an Ireland men’s international player in her position any time soon and admitted: “I can’t imagine that — not right now, and I don’t know why that is.”

A year on, however, she believes it is incumbent on a gay male player to come out publicly and point the way for others to follow. The miracle work of a Manchester United and England striker over the past few weeks was an example of somebody using their fame for good, she explains, and it’s high time for a men’s player to lend their profile to the LGBT+ cause.

At the same time, however, she doesn’t expect it to be as seamless a process as it was for her and Littlejohn, whose relationship within women’s football wasn’t cause for so much as the batting of an eyelid.

And Littlejohn, too, sympathises with any gay male player toying with the idea of revealing their sexuality to the world.

“I think it’s time, now,” McCabe says. “In the men’s football they have a massive following, and I think it’s important when you have that platform to use it. We’ve seen Marcus Rashford this week with the campaign and the u-turn by the British government to feed families all through the summer. So, it (a large platform) can be used in a positive way.

“For me, I think it’s time, now. But I think it’s also important to take into consideration that they need to be ready themselves, as well, because it is a big deal for a lot of people.”

“Obviously, in men’s football there are thousands and thousands of fans, and you know what they can be like,” adds Littlejohn.

“They’re under scrutiny, like,” says McCabe. “Whether you’re performing, whether you’re not performing. The fans will be behind you if you’re scoring goals and winning and stuff but on the other side of things, they can turn at times.

It’s up to yourself individually to be comfortable with coming out. That’s what’s most important. Obviously, we’ve had tremendous amounts of support from our friends and family, and being in the female game, as well — it is a lot more accepting. There’s a wider range of LGBT community in the women’s game. I’ve been around teams even growing up [in which there were LGBT players].

katie-mccabe-celebrates-scoring-their-second-goal-with-ruesha-littlejohn Katie McCabe celebrates her second goal against Montenegro with Ruesha Littlejohn. Source: Filip Filipovic/INPHO

Living with your partner, who also happens to be a professional footballer, is not without its tensions.

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“Say, if one of us has a bad result, you don’t want to talk about football until you’re ready to speak about football,” admits Littlejohn.

“Like when Arsenal beat West Ham earlier on in the season,” adds McCabe with a wry smile, which turns into a grin: “I scored a cracker that game. That’s when you want to avoid…”

“I was on the bench”, says Littlejohn, “and I missed it because I went in for a wee…”

west-ham-united-v-arsenal-womens-fa-cup-fourth-round-rush-green-stadium McCabe nets against West Ham. Source: Bradley Collyer

But during lockdown and the associated battle to remain physically sharp ahead of the resumption of action for club (mid to late July) and country (19 September), co-habiting has its everyday conveniences: at least you don’t need a wall to pass the ball back to you.

“We’ve kept competitive,” says McCabe. “I think having each other to keep training and bouncing off each other… We’ve been working off Arsenal’s schedule, Ruesha had West Ham’s schedule, so it was really good to keep it interesting and not be doing the same thing day in, day out.”

“We’ve mixed it up,” adds Littlejohn.

We’ve had some sessions where we’ve trained together and we’ve had individual sessions. Katie can’t keep up with me so she goes on a trot, goes at a different time.

west-ham-united-v-arsenal-womens-fa-cup-fourth-round-rush-green-stadium Littlejohn (then of West Ham) in pursuit of Arsenal's Beth Mead during an FA Cup match in January. Source: Bradley Collyer

“You have to get your fitness to a certain level to go into train with Arsenal and Ruesha’s new club,” McCabe continues, smirking as she stops short of shedding light on the identity of her partner’s soon-to-be employers.

And there is a club — that much is certain. It’s “not too far away” from home in London and “it could be a lot worse” in terms of travel time, Littlejohn explains. “I can’t say [which club] right now because it’s not been totally signed off. I’m excited for what’s in store.”

A mutual friend and international team-mate, meanwhile, is also on the move. Defender Louise Quinn has parted ways with Arsenal, for whom she played 76 times and with whom she won a Women’s Super League title and league cup after signing what was supposed to be a short-term deal in 2017.

It’s a setback for Quinn, the towering 79-cap Ireland defender, but also for her friend McCabe, who will miss the Irish company when training resumes next month.

quinn Quinn and McCabe celebrating Arsenal's league title last year.

“I was gutted to see her go,” says the Gunners attacker of Quinn. “She’s been an absolute professional in the time she was there.

It was tough but I think it hasn’t really hit me yet. I think it’ll hit me when I go back to pre-season and I won’t see her. Obviously, we’ve not seen each other for a while now.

“On and off the pitch, everything about her is just 100%.

My high with her was obviously winning the league. We sat down together after we beat Brighton that day and we were like, ‘Look, we’ve joined that Irish group that has won trophies at Arsenal.’ To share that moment with her was fantastic and she’s not getting away from me yet: we still have unfinished business with Ireland.

“You want her in your team all day long and I’m lucky that I can still play with her for Ireland,” McCabe concludes. Nearly.

“…She paid me to say that!”

The Aviva Stadium is lighting up for Pride this year on Friday 26 June through to Sunday 28 June. Aviva are asking people to #LightUp4Pride to show their support for the LGBT+ community.

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