Ruesha Littlejohn pictured at the Ireland media day earlier this week. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'The treatment of the team is a lot better. The FAI back us now'

Ruesha Littlejohn on the changes she has witnessed in the international setup since her debut in 2012.

HAVING MADE her debut back in 2012, Ruesha Littlejohn is one of the most experienced players in the current Ireland squad.

Alongside the likes of Louise Quinn, Aine O’Gorman and Niamh Fahey, she forms a core group of senior players that complement the many promising youngsters that will also be travelling to Sweden for next week’s important World Cup qualifier. 

Of course, well over a decade of senior football has taken a toll, to the extent that at 31, Littlejohn has to approach training with a degree of caution these days.

“I’m just happy I’m back fit,” she says. “It’s just managing my Achilles, that’s fine, that’s the way it is now. Sometimes you get carried away and you need to rein yourself in. You can’t train that day or you can’t do that part of the session. As long as I’m fit for game days, I’m happy with that.

“I’ve hit a wee bit of form. I’m getting used to playing in a deeper [midfield] position, which I’m starting to enjoy. You’re learning stuff every game and I’m going over my clips with one of the guys in the [backroom] team.”

The Glasgow-born footballer, who qualifies to represent Ireland through her maternal grandparents, has been playing regularly this season for an Aston Villa team who are currently ninth in the Women’s Super League. They have a tough run of games coming up, with Man United, Arsenal and local rivals Birmingham on the horizon. They will, however, take confidence from a 1-0 win over fifth-place Tottenham at the weekend in a match that saw Littlejohn complete 90 minutes at the heart of midfield.

For now, though, the focus is on international duty. Littlejohn missed the opening two qualifiers through injury, and came off the bench amid the 1-1 draw with Slovakia, before being handed a start in the record-breaking 11-0 win over Georgia. So has she done enough to retain her place in Vera Pauw’s side next Tuesday?

“We’ll obviously go to training and see what kind of team she thinks is going to be best,” Littlejohn replies. “I think it’s important that whoever’s selected is ready, but if you’re on the bench, everybody’s got to be ready too.

“Just because you don’t start a game doesn’t mean you can’t come on and make an impact, so we’ll see how it goes. It’d be lovely to start but look, it’s not up to me, it’s up to the manager and the coaches to pick the best team we can for the game.”

While attempting to beat the country ranked second in the world is a tall order, there is a sense of confidence and positivity exhibited by this Ireland team, with recent morale-boosting wins over strong sides like Australia and group rivals Finland backing up this feeling.

Littlejohn has seen plenty of talented footballers in the 10-years-plus since her first call-up, namechecking former Arsenal trio Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracy — all of whom she also played with during a brief spell with the Gunners in 2010 — as Ireland stars she would have looked up to in the early days. 

And while the atmosphere within the group has always been excellent, it is only in more recent years that the Irish team have started to receive the level of backing they deserve, partially as a result of their seminal protest in 2017.

That moment ultimately paved the way for further progress, including high-profile sponsorship deals and equal pay to their male counterparts.

“I think what we can say is the game has grown. We could say the treatment of the team is a lot better. The FAI back us now, they support us. We feel they care about us now. We’ve got that bit of respect now. It’s nice to have. We’re all working towards the dream of qualifying for a major tournament. So it’s nice to know that we’re supported and we’re valued.”

And Littlejohn agrees with the suggestion that these changes have bred greater confidence, as reflected by some positive recent results.

“Of course, it does. But with that comes the pressure of having to qualify for a  tournament. We do have that on our shoulders. But we’re happy with that. We’d rather have that than not have it. It’s nice to know that people are behind us and there are fans and young girls looking up to us now, so we may be able to actually qualify for a major tournament one day. It’s in a good place, the game’s come a long way, it’s still got a long way to go, but we’re going in the right direction.”

Irish football’s growth in recent years has coincided with Littlejohn’s own maturation as a footballer. Having learned from the aforementioned Arsenal trio among others, she now finds herself being viewed in a similar light by the current squad’s crop of accomplished youngsters.

“It’s funny — when I first came into the team, I think I was about 20, 21, I used to look up to the older girls and I used to think: ‘They’re so much older than me.’ Now, I’m actually the old one, but I don’t feel old.

“It’s nice to talk to some of the young ones, have a carry-on with them, but then at the same time, just make sure they’re okay and they’re comfortable. Sometimes they say two words to you and that’s about it. Hopefully, we can keep dragging them out of their shells.

“There are a good few young ones in now so they’ve got that wee group that they can all stick together. They have their own wee group and their banter with each other, but it’s nice, it’s a good bunch.”

She then pauses, before playfully adding: “But yeah, I’m pretty ancient now.”

She remains young at heart, however. During her time in the Ireland setup, Littlejohn has garnered a reputation as a bit of a messer, as was seen when she interrupted partner Katie McCabe’s post-match interview after the Georgia win and suggested that the Arsenal star’s mum was behind the decision to name her player of the match.

This sense of humour can also help lighten the mood in more difficult moments, such as when a loss to Ukraine all but ended Ireland’s hopes of reaching the 2022 Euros.

“I was hurting after that game. But you go away and next time you come in, boom! You’re ready to annoy people, have a bit of a carry-on and that’s it. I’m happy to be here and that I can be myself. I’m allowed to be a bit of a joker. I’m not causing havoc or ruining training sessions and team meetings. But as long as I can work on the pitch and work in our meetings, then when I’m allowed to have a carry-on and a bit of a giggle, I’m allowed to do it. And I’m happy that I’m allowed to do it when I’m here.”

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