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Dublin: 14 °C Wednesday 8 April, 2020

'You could hear my scream echo around the stadium. I still feel sick every time I walk past the same place'

Ireland and Man City star Megan Campbell has battled back from the brink once again – and we’ll be seeing plenty of her on our TV screens over the next few weeks.

MEGAN CAMPBELL REMEMBERS the moment so well.

It’s one she’ll never forget.

RTÉ and TG4 launch coverage as they bring  FIFA Women's World Cup free-to-air to Irish screens for the first time Ireland and Man City star Megan Campbell will be on punditry duty for RTÉ for the 2019 Fifa Women's World Cup. Source: Donall Farmer

The Ireland and Manchester City star wasn’t long back from a nightmare run of injury, back in full flight with club and country after a really serious ankle injury. Everything seemed to be finally behind her, but truth be told, an even more horrific nightmare was about to begin.

While she had been leading the charge for the Girls In Green once again in their opening 2019 World Cup qualifiers, opportunities were more few and far between at City. She mightn’t have been playing as much as she’d like but the Drogheda native was getting her chance in the Champions League.

So, the moment itself: City were hosting Norway’s LSK Kvinner in their European last-16 tie one November evening in 2017.

“It was a home game, I’ll never forget it, the 65th minute,” she grimaces, casting her mind back. “The pain shot up through my leg and I started screaming.

“It was a night-time game so it was quite quiet outside the stadium, but you could hear my scream echo around the stadium. It was that bad. I still feel sick every time I walk past the same place in the stadium and stuff.

When it happened and the physio ran on to me, I just kept screaming, ‘Why me? Why me?’ I couldn’t fathom as to why this was happening again to me. I knew it was serious, I knew it wasn’t something small because I don’t do things in halves.

She was right, and her fears soon confirmed. The dreaded cruciate injury. Campbell had ruptured her anterior cruciate ligaments (ACL) in her right knee.

Injury after injury, setback after setback, she was surely asking herself if this was actually happening again, and how she was going to go through it again.

Manchester City v LSK Kvinner FK - UEFA Women's Champions League - Round of 16 - 2nd Leg - City Football Academy Stadium Campbell leaving the field on a stretcher the night she did her ACL. Source: Martin Rickett

Sadly it was, and she had to.

“It was the thought of nine months of excruciating mental pain, of just having to be in the gym again and not seeing daylight for months on end.”

All is good again with the 25-year-old defender set to sign a new deal with the club imminently. Nothing’s in writing she says, but negotiations are well underway. Her contract finishes at the end of the summer, but it carries on until she makes a decision.

It’s a little stressful, of course, but not half as stressful as the uncertainty surrounding her future at the club was in the depths of her injury hell. 

Worries, there were many, considering the two major injuries she’s had since making the move from Florida State University.

“One after the other for me,” she says of the massive setbacks, “was more draining mentally than physically. 

It was like, ‘What if I don’t play again?’ never mind, ‘What if this club doesn’t sign me?’ It was ‘Do I want to play football again?’ Through small times within my ACL [injury], I was thinking maybe football wasn’t for me and maybe I should go down a different route.

“Mentally, it was just so draining. And then, different things happened outside… my Grandad passed away and then my Nana passed away. So you’ve all these emotions going on within your head, and all you want to do is play football. Football for me was my out.

“And then I didn’t have that either and it was just like, ‘What do I do now?’

So, yeah I’m not gonna lie,” she stresses, “throughout times in my ACL recovery I was thinking maybe football isn’t for me and maybe I should just stop. I thought, ‘Yeah I’ll do the rehab but maybe I won’t play again. What if I do something else?’

“If it wasn’t for my family and friends around me, pushing me on to go, ‘Well look where you were when you came back from your ankle. You played in an FA Cup final.’ Things like that, and Colin [Bell] ringing me and constantly being in contact, asking how I am and saying that I’m missed within the national team.

Manchester City Women v West Ham Ladies - Women's FA Cup - Final - Wembley Stadium Campbell with the FA Cup in May. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

“I wouldn’t be backing playing again without those people, definitely not.”

Last January, she told The42 that it wouldn’t end her career, but evidently, that did cross her mind. There were probably more bad days than good, particularly given the fact that she struggled with patella tendinitis through her rehabilitation. 

It took her a long, long time to trust the knee again, she admits. There were setbacks: she went back running too soon, there was pain in the tendon and it inflamed, then she couldn’t run and had to start all over again.

It wasn’t easy, she re-iterates. Mentally it was very, very tough and testing. Even when she got back on the grass kicking a ball, she felt weak. Planting her foot to cross a ball, she’d feel it in her knee and panic. Any bit of swelling — although it was normal — had her well and truly on edge, considering all she had been through.

Trusting her body, and those around her, was extremely difficult.

“Mentally you’re trying to adjust going, ‘It’s actually okay’. They [physios and strength and conditioning coaches] come in, they’re doing the tests and they’re like, ‘Megan, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s going to be okay’.

“So trusting that, but also trusting the people around me because things had gone wrong within my rehab [was tough]. I then started to not trust people around me, physios and S&Cs and stuff.

It was mentally not just tough in terms of doing your ACL but then the trust of the people around you who are dealing with you on a regular basis was hard for me to have to deal with.

Campbell’s back now, of course, but her return to full fitness came a little too late for her to make a major impact on Manchester City’s campaign and the business end of the Women’s Super League and FA Cup.

Megan Campbell Back in action with Ireland in April. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

It was difficult for her to get her foot in the door and get minutes under her belt, but her first 90 minutes came at the end of April, in or around 18 months since the dreaded pop.

Thankfully, there are no issues with it now and hopefully that’s the end of the nightmare. With 10 weeks off, she’s chipping away herself, focusing on the knee and participating in home-based Ireland training with the Euro 2021 qualifiers just around the corner. 

Between now and then though, there’s another major tournament to keep an eye on. 

And Campbell will be pretty close to it all, on punditry duty with RTÉ as the national broadcaster and TG4 come together to bring every single match of the 2019 Fifa Women’s World Cup to our screens live and free-to-air.

How does she feel about it all?

“Gutted in one sense that we’re not there. But obviously, humbled at the fact that RTÉ and TG4 are want to cover the women’s game and want to promote women’s football and women’s sport in Ireland.

“I think it’s only a good thing for young girls and boys watching sport, that they can see women can be on an equal playing field being on TV. And also that it’s covered on the social media aspect of it.

“You know about obesity rates in Ireland and the stuff with kids in schools. It’s not just for boys to play sport, it’s also for females. To use the World Cup as a big platform and show kids that once you’re active, it’s good for you. 

“And if you want to go down the football route, [to show that] ‘I can achieve what these girls are achieving and can go and play in major tournaments’. I know it’s not maybe where it needs to be in Ireland but it’s a big step towards where we need to be.”

For her growing up, the role models were all males: Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Vincent Kompany.

RTÉ and TG4 launch coverage as they bring  FIFA Women's World Cup free-to-air to Irish screens for the first time Campbell with kids at the RTÉ and TG4 launch on Wednesday. Source: Donall Farmer

“Those were the players that I aspired to be like as a kid,” she explains.

“I didn’t really have female role models as such. Obviously, you had the likes of Emma Byrne, Ciara Grant and Yvonne Tracey when I started to come through the Irish national ranks. That’s where I wanted to be.

“It was all males at the World Cup and Euros. It was all men’s football. You didn’t really see females on TV, especially when I was the likes of the age of the kids here today [at the RTÉ and TG4 coverage launch].”

The lack of females on TV didn’t really cross her mind, she didn’t know any different. She had always played with boys, there were no women’s teams around her area.

There was nothing for me, and that was the norm. No one knew any different, no one expected any different and no one pushed any boundaries like they are today.

“I think it was just accepted as it was,” she adds, noting the importance of having this upcoming tournament on TV.

“It’s unbelievable. I’m jealous as such, I wish I had it when I was a kid. The opportunity and stuff is there for kids now and it’s unbelievable.”

“Gutted” the Irish national team aren’t there, she’d rather not dwell on it but feels the side were hard done by in the qualifiers. Luck just wasn’t on their side, with long-term injuries meaning they suffered as Norway and the Netherlands advanced from their group.

Colin Bell Ireland manager Colin Bell with his players. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

But everything is heading in the right direction. 

Onwards and upwards, with their absence and envy at the World Cup to be used as ammunition for the Euro qualifiers.

“Definitely,” Campbell enthuses. “The progression that has been made within our national team is really good. 

“I know people will continue to say that we haven’t qualified for a major tournament etc etc. But we now have the opportunity to go forward and use the 20×20 [campaign] as our platform.

“The more players that are abroad playing at a professional level can only be a good thing for our national team. If you look at the past, the majority of players were playing in Ireland for local clubs. And then there were a few playing for Arsenal. But the development that has come within our national team, it still has a long way to go but it’s going in the right direction.

“Finally, we’re taking big jumps rather than small steps. Hopefully we can continue to do so.” 

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Emma Duffy

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