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'On the day of the surgery, my surgeon said 'you may never play professional football again''

Ireland’s Megan Campbell talks to The42 about her latest injury woe and signing a new deal for Man City.

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND and Manchester City star Megan Campbell has travelled this road before.

megan-campbell Megan Campbell in action for Ireland. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

At this point, she’s just grateful that airport security machines don’t detect the screws that have been inserted for surgical reasons.

“With all that metal they’d be thinking, ‘what are you carrying?’” she laughs as she trudges through this familiar, well-worn path once again. It’s important to make space for humour, and she’s in good spirits as we talk through the web cam.

The 26-year-old discusses the new one-year deal she signed with City, and the relief of knowing that they’re still backing her. Coming up the end of her last contract, she had some concerns about her future at the club.

Injuries have blighted her career since she first made the move to the Women’s Super League side in 2016, shortly after completing a sports scholarship at Florida State University.

That year was the start of her setbacks when she was felled by a serious ankle ligament injury, which required reconstruction surgery and eight months of rehabilitation. Some tendonitis followed, but she recovered in time to earn a starting place for City in their 2017 FA Cup final win over Birmingham City.

Her next big setback, however, was just a few months away. Man City were hosting Norwegian side LSK Kvinner in a Champions League last-16 tie on a November night, when Campbell felt a pain dart up her leg.

The dreaded ACL injury. Another long stretch on the sidelines for the Drogheda native. All in all, Campbell spent about 15 months battling injuries before making another attempt at a return to football in early 2019.

manchester-city-v-lsk-kvinner-fk-uefa-womens-champions-league-round-of-16-2nd-leg-city-football-academy-stadium Campbell being stretchered off after that game for Man City in 2017. Source: Martin Rickett

But the lowlights reel wasn’t over yet. Playing against Tottenham in January of this year, she felt what she describes as a “pretty sharp, crunching pain up the inside of my right ankle.”

She tried to shrug off the pain and play on, but by the 65th minute she was forced to withdraw from the pitch and face another encounter with injury.

“I said, ‘you’re going to have to make this decision to take me off because I’m not gonna voluntarily come off,’ Campbell tells The42, the frustration of yet another injury lay-off still evident in her voice.

“I didn’t want to just walk off the pitch after what I had gone through. It was really tough to take.

The initial pain was excruciating. It was like someone was sticking something in my leg. I couldn’t to a calf raise. If I went onto my calf, I would just scream. It was just awful and I was just compensating through my left leg and I never realised it really. It was horrible.”

Campbell’s injury is more commonly associated with middle-aged people who are overweight or have fallen arches in their feet. The stress they put on the joints leaves them prone to a rupture.

It’s not something that happens in sport. 

Of all the specialists she consulted before having an operation, only Campbell’s surgeon had seen an injury of this nature in an athlete. 

At the outset, Campbell was told that the middle-aged patient’s objective in their recovery is to get back walking again. Her main aim is to return to professional football. The contrast is quite stark.

“I obviously had these conversations with the surgeon about this [being] a surgery that may or may not work,” Campbell continues about the risks involved in her recovery.

“You do need it if you want to play professional football again, so I thought it was a no-brainer, I’m going to try. And then, on the day of the surgery, he came in and said they were ready and prepped.

He said, ‘I do have to tell you, you may never play professional football again.’ So obviously you see something on the scan but when you go in yourself, you might find something different and something might not attach right.

“Thankfully, the surgery was a big success and my surgeon did incredibly well to sort me out and get me back to where I am now.

“He did also say that surgery is 20% of it [the success], 80% is the rehab. So depending on how the rehab goes, will decide whether I can play football again. It’s a lot more mentally challenging than a lot of people may think.”

A peculiar thing happened when Campbell was told that there was a possibility that this could be the end of her career. It was certainly a frightening prospect, but it wasn’t the first time that this thought had entered her head.

The Ireland defender went through something similar during her time out with the ACL injury. After all the injury heartbreak, she started contemplating the end of her days in football and possibly considering a different path for herself.

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She thought, perhaps, that her body just wasn’t able to withstand the punishment anymore.

manchester-city-women-v-west-ham-ladies-womens-fa-cup-final-wembley-stadium Campbell holding the FA Cup trophy after Man City's triumph earlier this year. Source: PA

Having already experienced that scenario before, it cushioned the blow somewhat when the surgeon prepared her for the same outcome this time around.

But something else happened when the dangers were laid out for her. It ignited a fire in Campbell to ensure that this isn’t how it ends for her.

“In that instance, it was easy but it’s different me saying [it] than someone else going ‘well, that could be taken away from you,’” she explains.

“Thankfully, my family flew over, and my partner is over here, so I had something outside of football. Whereas before, I never really had that. I thought football was just it and everything revolved around football.

Meeting my partner has given me that aspect of there’s more to life than just football. Having someone over here with me gives me that opportunity to just shut off from football sometimes and I think that made my situation easier.

“Mentally it’s not the best but I’ve got my partner over here and her family so it’s been nice.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a horrible time for people worldwide. Campbell understands the human impact of the virus and even has links to people in Ireland who contracted it and have since made a full recovery.

Sport was rattled by coronavirus too, with the Women’s Super League winding up early while the men’s Premier League has resumed.

Ireland’s remaining Euro 2021 qualifiers against Germany and Ukraine have also been postponed while the tournament itself will now take place in 2022.

Shelving all those crucial games at club and international level is certainly difficult for Campbell’s team-mates, but the Covid-19 shutdown has given her a window of opportunity to play catch up and be ready for when the green light eventually comes.

denise-osullivan-celebrates-after-the-game-with-megan-campbell Campbell with Irish team-mate Denise O'Sullivan. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“There’s no taking away that this pandemic has been awful for so many people around the world, and people passing away and that,” she says.

“But the one positive that I can take from such a tough situation is the fact that I can now fully focus on my rehab, and hopefully be back to train with the girls when they return.

“It’s tough when you’re in rehab and you’re watching them going out onto the training pitch [while] you’re in the gym. At then at the weekend, you’re in the stand and they’re on the grass. You’re part of a team, don’t get me wrong, but you don’t feel part of the team. It just doesn’t feel the same.”

Campbell is close to being able to run again after the four-month mark since her surgery this week. She has gym equipment at home to get her rehab work done and is able to stay in contact with her S&C coach and physio through Facetime. 

Most clubs hope to get back training in July and Campbell’s goal is to be back on the pitch the following month. Just like her other injury battles, the suffering eventually makes way for progress.

Indeed, it has often been challenging for her. After facing this road so many times before, there were days when motivation was understandably hard to muster. 

But knowing that her best is yet to come is what radiates through.

“I don’t really know if I’m being honest,” she responds, when asked what has been keeping her going through her latest injury cycle.

“If I think too far ahead I’ll get caught up in things and probably shut down and I’ll not do well in my rehab. I think just doing things day-to-day. I like structure and I like being organised and push myself.

I don’t think anyone has seen the best of me yet in a Manchester City or Ireland jersey so I don’t want to end my career like that.

“I want to finish knowing that I’ve given everything and I still think that there’s some left in me so I’m not just going to quit that easily.”

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