Exclusive – Leeta Rutherford says the time is right for her to take a shot at the big time
If it’s possible to be happy and sad at the same time, the proof is most likely to come from those connected with Portsmouth Ladies.
Players and officials had expected to say goodbye to one of the club’s footballing icons this weekend. But there won’t be a tearful final appearance for everybody to lock into their memory banks for ever.
Leeta Rutherford has already played her last competitive game for the club. She just didn’t know it at the time.
Rutherford, the midfield dynamo that links Pompey’s attack and defence, has joined the Super League adventure at Millwall and the chance to test her abilities against the best in the land.
She has already played her first friendly for the Lionesses and has some more challenging games coming up before she kicks off in the new Super League 2nd division, against the likes of women’s football veterans Doncaster Belles and unknown newcomers Durham.
‘At my peak’
Nobody should begrudge the 26-year-old her shot at glory. She has served Pompey well, having joined a decade ago and spending just one season away from the Hampshire club, at Brighton.
But she feels it is now or never for her football career.
She told Sent Her Forward: “I’m 26 now. I’ve been at Portsmouth for all my life and I’m coming towards the latter stages of my career now.
“I’m probably at my peak; I’m playing really well. I’m confident in myself and I’m in the best shape physically and mentally, thanks to our new fitness coach at Portsmouth.”
She was aware of previous Millwall interest. Now it has finally borne fruit.
“Millwall have got the Super League now,” she added. “I thought it would be my last chance.”
While Rutherford is probably underplaying the number of years she still has to offer, it’s hard to argue with her logic that now is a perfect time for her to step up.
Exciting new era
Summer football is established in the women’s football calendar. Some games are televised and the Super League even gets more than a passing mention in national media.
The introduction of a second division – and the potential riches it can bring to some clubs – represents the start of an exciting new era in the women’s game in England.
Rutherford feels she has paid her dues with Pompey, helping them into the Premier League before the FA’s vision for the future condemned them and so many more ambitious sides to a kind of limbo land, at the top of one pyramid but still agonisingly far from the new élite.
She said: “When Millwall got in touch with Perry [Northeast, the Portsmouth joint-manager] under the seven-day approach, he had to tell me.
“He was happy in a way for me. He didn’t want me to leave but he wanted me to progress.
“It was a hard decision for me, but at the same time it was an easy decision because it was the right time.
“I achieved what I set out to do with Portsmouth – to get into the Premiership. When the Super League came in I was hoping that with Portsmouth we would get there, but it wasn’t to be.
“I couldn’t turn down playing in the Super League.”
The issue of promotion and relegation between the Super League and Premier League has yet to be settled – but the sort of free movement that would raise the incentive for women playing below élite level is certainly not imminent, making Rutherford’s move all the more understandable.
The deal was agreed before Christmas, when Millwall made a double swoop for Rutherford and Lewes’s Naomi Cole.
The idea was that Rutherford would switch to the Lionesses at the end of January, launching the countdown to a long farewell for the Portsmouth-born former Milton Cross schoolgirl.
However, the weather has put paid to that. Without a Premier League game so far in January, and unable to play in Pompey’s FA Cup game against Keynsham to avoid being cup-tied, Rutherford’s last game for Pompey was on December 15 against Brighton.
Inevitably, she scored at the Withdean Stadium, which turned out to be a pretty apt parting gift from the box-to-box midfielder, even though no-one was aware at the time that it would turn out that way.
“All my team-mates knew I was moving on and wished me well,” says Rutherford. “But I haven’t seen them to say goodbye.”
She had hoped to put that right on Sunday when she planned to attend Portsmouth’s cup tie as a spectator before severing her links once and for all with her home-town club.
A second postponement means even that will not now happen.
Instead, she must look forward as she heads for pastures new and a taste of the big time.
It’s just a pity that for administrative – rather than meritocratic – reasons, it could not be at Pompey.
However, Pompey’s manager refuses to blame the growing gap between the Super League and Premier League.
“Of course I’m gutted we’re not in there,” Northeast told Sent Her Forward. “On the pitch we were certainly ready.
“But I’m a believer in getting on, and I see it as an opportunity for us to get everything right off the pitch so that when there is a chance to apply again, we have every chance of getting in.”
Northeast says Rutherford will be difficult to replace, but he sees her departure as an opportunity for others.
“I’m massively overjoyed and pleased that Leeta has taken this opportunity because she is a good enough player for that level,” he said.
“But at the same time I would have loved to have kept her here. She is just the sort of player I want at the club to help the others coming through. It is a big blow for the club.”
He knows Rutherford is leaving “with a heavy heart” and he is equally certain that she goes with the good wishes of her erstwhile team-mates.
“When she told us [in November] she was leaving, she felt she had a point to prove to us – to me, to Kate [Poore, the joint-manager] and to the other players.
“That is the best thing – the players seeing how much effort she has been putting in, knowing that she was leaving.”