Julie-Ann Russell: 'The girls are like sisters to me - I'm devastated to leave them'

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Julie-Ann Russell (left) celebrates with Fiona O'Sullivan during a 2-2 draw with Austria in 2013. Credit: Ian Anderson

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When the squad was announced for the Republic of Ireland's summer friendly with Iceland late last month, there was one name curiously absent.

 

Over the past eight years, since making her debut as a 18-year-old in a World Cup qualifier against Kazakhstan, Julie-Ann Russell has been vitually ever-present at senior international level.

 

The UCD Waves midfielder has gathered 56 caps over those eight years, scoring four times, playing under Noel King, Sue Ronan and, most recently, Colin Bell.

 

So more than a few eyebrows were raised when, having appeared a substitute in the March win over Slovakia at Tallaght Stadium, the Galway native was nowhere to be seen.

 

The 26-year-old informed Bell, the Champions League-winning former manager of SC Sand, last month that she was to leave Ireland in order to take up a dream job in Sydney with Microsoft.

 

She played her final game for UCD Waves, the club where she's spent the better part of four years, last week, in a 2-1 away win over Wexford Youths in the Woman's National League Cup.

 

However there was no public mention of Russell's impending departure, meaning many naturally assumed she had simply been overlooked for selection.

 

“I was disappointed that there wasn't anything said about why I wasn't included, that I was going away, but it's coming out now anyway through people speaking,” Russell told extratime.ie.

 

“I had told him last month that I was moving, so that's why I wasn't included in the squad. A lot of people were asking about it.”

 

The suddenness of Russell's departure has taken many by surprise, but this wasn't the first time she's been offered a similar role within the company

 

“It was a huge decision. I was actually offered a role over there last year and I said no.

 

“The timing wasn't right professionally and personally, so I said no at the time. Then, over the next six months, I started thinking about it more.

 

“I made the decision a couple of months ago and it's just fallen into this place. I think everything happens for a reason so we'll just go from there and hopefully I'll be successful over in Sydney.”

 

 

Russell celebrates a spectacular free kick against Slovakia in Tallaght in 2013.

 

 

Russell's situation illustrates the difficult position many top-class footballers find themselves in when their professional lives come into conflict with their football careers.

 

She has, in the past, thought about emulating international colleagues like Emma Byrne, Louise Quinn and Megan Campbell and seeking out a professional contract abroad.

 

However the world of professional women's football remains a precarious one for all but the elite of the elite, as demonstrated by Louise Quinn's experience with Notts County earlier this year.

 

Having spent time abroad with Los Angeles Kickers and Doncaster Belles, Russell concluded part-time football would offer her greater stability and standard of living than pursuing it full-time.

 

“When I was younger I kind of thought about it, but my studies and my working career always came first, then soccer. I was blessed that I was able to do both.

 

“If I was a male and playing English football I obviously wouldn't have to work and if I was earning hundreds of thousands a week I probably would have picked football!

 

“With my career in Microsoft, I don't think professional football would have been able to provide the standard of living.”

 

It all began for Russell in the suburbs of Galway city where, as one of three children in a sports-mad household, she was exposed to football from an early age.

 

Her older brother, John, has forged a successful career in the League of Ireland with Galway United, St Patrick's Athletic and Sligo Rovers and is a Regional Development Officer for the FAI in the north westt.

 

While they were children, John, as the only boy, co-opted his younger sister into sport, although she didn't take an awful lot of convincing to stick with it.

 

“Literally since I can remember I've been kicking a football. My brother only has two sisters so I presume I was made into his little brother. Growing up I used to play with him and all his friends.

 

“I was constantly playing not just soccer, but all sports. I was sport mad. I decided, influenced by John, to stick with and pursue the soccer instead of gaelic and basketball.

 

“I was playing boys' football as well but the girls' set-up in Galway was probably a step ahead of other counties [in Ireland].

 

“I started out with Salthill Devon. They had a really good set-up and they still continue to have it and are producing some brilliant players that have played with Ireland underage and in the senior team. I was very fortunate to live right beside Salthill and be able to play with them.”

 

 

Russell in action for Ireland in a Euro 2017 qualifier with Portugal last year.

 

 

Galway has punched above its weight in producing women's footballers in recent years, and the Salthill team Russell emerged in featured fellow future internationals Niamh Fahey and Meabh De Burca.

 

The trio helped the Galway Ladies League to the Women's FAI Cup title in 2007 having just turned 16, and represented them in the following season's Champions League as a result.

 

However, when the move to a nationwide league was mooted, there was no Galway-based team in the running so Russell was forced to move in order to play at the highest level.

 

While at college at the Univerrsity of Limerick, Russell opted to join Peamount United, who had just prevented the Russell's Salthill gaining her a second cup title.

 

She took part in the Champions League again as a guest player with the Peas and subsequently signed onto a team that featured the likes of Steph Roche, Louise Quinn and Áine O'Gorman.

 

“The National League had just started and I was going into college and Salthill didn't have a team going forward.

 

“I wanted to play at the top level, so that is what made me have to leave the club to play in the Women's National League. From there, I got asked to join with Peamount.

 

“They were playing in the Champions League and you were allowed to have guest players. I got on really well there and I stayed with the club for the National League.”

 

Peamount were the best team in the country at the time and they finished three points clear of Raheny United (now Shelbourne Ladies) to capture the inaugural Women's National League title.

 

“The group we had were very talented. A lot of the girls were playing for Ireland, and the girls that weren't had previously played or had loads of experience.

 

“It was very enjoyable to be playing with the likes of Sue Byrne, Sara Lawlor, Stephanie Roche, Karen Duggan and Áine. We'd a good group of core players there.”

 

By 2014, Russell had completed her degree and shifted to UCD to do her masters, while the merger of UCD with DLR (Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown) Waves meant the college now had a team in the league.

 

In a move that is still a point of contention for some within the league, UCD required that players on scholarships at the college playing at other clubs sign instead for Waves.

 

The core of that successful Peamount side was broken up overnight as Russell, O'Gorman, Karen Duggan, Dora Gorman and others made the move across Dublin, as did manager Eileen Gleeson.

 

For Russell, beyond the greater convenience, the opportunity to work with the top-class facilities that are the envy of men's and women's club across the country made it an easy transition.

 

“A lot of the girls from Peamount joined, and then we got some very talented young players over the last year or two that have improved and broken into the Ireland team, which is great to see.”

 

Following a couple of difficult years, UCD challenged for the title in 2016, only being pipped to the title by Shelbourne on the second-last matchday.

 

They've continued that form this year as they sit in second behind Wexford, while the national team under Bell are confident they can progress from a relatively kind World Cup draw.

 

So it's with somewhat of a heavy heart that Russell walks away from the fray although, at just 26, she has time on her side if she decides to return to Ireland in the future.

 

“I don't really have any regrets. I enjoyed every year. The girls are nearly like sisters to me at the end – we're very, very close. I'm devastated to leave them.

 

“I would have loved to have qualified for a finals – I think that's all the girls' dreams. I hope that they're able to achieve it in the next qualifying campaign.

 

“I think with the new management there's a fresh aura about it. I also think with the group that they got isn't as tough as it could have been – it's sort of the best of a bad bunch.

 

“And you never know, I could be back in the next year or two playing for Ireland. I'm going to keep my options open.”