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'It's not straightforward. It's been worth the ups and downs, and mistakes'

Ruesha Littlejohn’s career to date has been a colourful one.

RUESHA LITTLEJOHN’S JOURNEY hasn’t exactly been straightforward.

“My career, it’s not plain-sailing,” as she told her sister, Shebahn, in an excellent interview on the What The Football podcast recently. “It’s not going up and up. I’m constantly battling to get to where I want to be, I’m constantly fighting, constantly trying.”

ruesha-littlejohn Ireland and Aston Villa star Ruesha Littlejohn. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

This week, she’s exactly there, though: in camp with the Ireland women’s team as preparations ramp up for the 2023 World Cup qualifying campaign with a friendly against Australia on Tuesday [KO 7pm, live on RTÉ 2].

Having revived her international career under Vera Pauw, Littlejohn is beyond grateful for every opportunity she’s given now – and grabs them with both hands. Football is fickle, as she knows better than any one, so she’ll make hay while the sun shines.

“I had always been in the squad and then you’re not in the squad, you’re out of favour,” she tells The42. “That was tough at the time, to take that. So now, you never take it for granted, and you never think that you are going to be in the squad.

“You’re always waiting to see the confirmation if you’ve made it or not, so it’s always nice to see when you have made it. It’s great, I love being here. When you’re not here it’s difficult, it’s tough, but I’m happy to be back in right now and looking forward to the camp ahead.”

As always, the Glasgow-born midfielder wants to prove herself; as is the central theme of her colourful career to date. The Aston Villa midfielder’s list of clubs is a rather lengthy one, with injury and other personal struggles often hampering her progress.

The 31-year-old candidly details those in the podcast; her honesty and authenticity unparalleled. That’s the thing about Littlejohn; she wears her heart on her sleeve and isn’t afraid to be her own person. She’s a character and a joker, though that may not be everyone’s cup of tea in football.

In her younger years, her reputation may have come before her. As she says herself, she may have been immature and seen as trouble, but she wouldn’t change a thing because it’s made her the person – and player – she is today.

The moral of her story is to be yourself and to never give up.

Cutting a relaxed figure settling into her seat at the Castleknock Hotel, it’s speaking about recent off-field positive developments — the FAI’s equal pay announcement and the Sky deal, not to mention a host of others — that we really get into it all.

The fact that she is now a role model. Alongside her partner, Katie McCabe, and the Ireland team she captains.

“That’s the thing with all the interest now, that’s something you need to always be aware of,” Littlejohn nods. “Obviously, when I was younger, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of that. But now, there’s more eyes on you. You’ve got to behave, you’ve got to be mature.

“Everything that I used to do, you can’t do any more. But no, it’s good. I’ve got a past, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, I’ve learned from them. Young players too, they’re going to make mistakes. It’s natural. Everyone’s human. You learn from it and you move on.

“But it’s about learning, learning quick and moving on. Like I said myself, I’ve taken a wee bit longer than others, but I think I’ve got there in the end.”

It’s also important, she says, that younger kids see they can pursue a career in women’s football thanks to recent positive moves and increased exposure. For her, as a child, it was almost a pipe dream.

“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.

ruesha-littlejohn-with-nadja-stanovic In action against Montenegro. Source: Filip Filipovic/INPHO

“I always said I would [make a living out of it], even if it wasn’t possible. As a kid, that’s what you wanted to do. You always said that’s what you’re going to do. Obviously then when you get a bit older, you realise it’s not that straightforward.

“But it’s been worth the ups and downs now that I can say, ‘That’s my job.’ I don’t know how many years I’m going to play football for — hopefully it can be for next couple, two or three, maybe more if I’m lucky and I don’t get injured and what not. But no, it’s amazing. I love it. So I’m happy that it is.”

The ups and downs that she mentions, the highs and lows, the good days and the bad; he’s had her fair share of them all through this uphill battle.

“I don’t think there’s many footballers that can say they’ve had a straightforward journey,” she nods, “unless Ronaldo or Messi, but even then they might not have.

“There’s always going to be ups and downs, but you’ve got to dig in and you’ve got to just keep going. If that’s what you want, you’ve got to fight for it. You can’t be too disheartened. Obviously, you can have a wee sulk here and there but then you’ve got to dust yourself down and crack on.”

That’s what she has done over the past few weeks and months, enjoying life at Villa after crossing the “wee divide” from Birmingham City. It’s a move Littlejohn is extremely happy with, after inadequate facilities and unsuitable working conditions were highlighted by Blues players last season.

The Scottish native, who qualifies for the Girls In Green through her grandparents, was negotiating terms to stay put but the contract was rescinded. And off she went to the cross-city rivals, where she’s linked up with former Blues head coach Carla Warde.

“When one door closes, another opens. It’s great, such a nice environment, a great group of girls and staff. I know quite a few of them from last season at Birmingham and then obviously there’s a lot more in there. But everyone’s great.”

“It’s such a nice set-up, it’s so nice to go in and train on lovely pitches. You’ve got everything you need. The food’s amazing,” she laughs. “So I can’t complain really.”

Especially given the fact she feels more settled and secure after the tough times.

“It’s a huge difference. It’s nice knowing that you don’t have to worry about that stuff. You’re not fighting for that. As a player, you don’t want to be fighting for a training pitch, or stuff. You just want to go in and train and do your job.

“It’s a nice weight off your shoulder, knowing that you’ve got that and it’s all there. Obviously, a few of the [Irish] girls are now at Birmingham. They’ve said there’s been small steps taken, there has been change happen so that’s good to hear.”

The importance of staying in the Women’s Super League [WSL], the English top-flight, was huge for Littlejohn, as she looks to hit the peak of her powers.

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“I think people will have different views, people are at different stages, but for me, I wanted to stay in the WSL. I like to challenge myself against better players. It keeps me motivated, it keeps me going and it’s nice to play against top teams.

“Then you go away, look at your performance and go, ‘Right, what can I do better?’ I like that. It just keeps me hungry, it keeps me driven. I like playing against better players. Hopefully I can compete and play at that level still.”

That’s the same with Ireland, as Vera Pauw’s side look to test themselves against the Matildas next week. “Whether we want to admit it or not, the pressure’s on. There’s a lot of backing behind us,” Littlejohn nods amidst a seven-game winless run.

She, like everyone involved, knows they have to start producing results, and reaching major tournaments, having never done so before.

There’s plenty of eyes on this team, like with the WSL due to increased exposure and new TV deals. With the good, comes the bad, and those involved are now more open than ever to negative comments and abuse.

The flip side to the role model role and the connection between women’s football players and fans, must be noted too. And it’s rife on social media, Littlejohn concludes.

“I saw an example a few weeks ago and it was one of the big companies posting about women’s football and how their team got beat by their U14s or U16s in a friendly. I didn’t see the relevance of the post, I was like, ‘Why are you posting about this one?’

“At the same time now, we are going to be open to so much more abuse, praise, all of it. Obviously, if you focus on the negatives, that’s what you’re going to see but I think it’s important now as players to not go looking for it… maybe staying off social media at times after games – if you know personally yourself, you’ve maybe not had the greatest game or you’ve had a howler, don’t go looking to read about it. But that’s the times, that’s part of it now. We’re going to accept it and just crack on.

“Think about yourself. I’ve probably said about some players in games — like, ‘What’s he doing?’ and stuff. I’m going to get that now. I’m going to need to be able to take that. But it’s fine.

“Some people deal with it differently than others, but I guess it will make us stronger.”

Resilience. Ruesha Littlejohn is no stranger to that.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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