For anyone out there who is struggling with loneliness or frustration in these difficult times, I want to share a tip with you that I got from Petr Čech.
Petr mentioned it to me back in 2018, after I had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee. Doing your ACL is one of the worst injuries in football. You need surgery, and after that you face a period of rehab that usually lasts between seven and nine months.
Any player who suffers one can be considered very unlucky.
I have done my ACL twice in 14 months.
When Petr came over to me in the gym, I had just begun rehab from my first injury, which I got in May 2018. The men’s senior team at Arsenal have their own gym, but quite often Petr would come into the main one, where anyone can train. Sometimes he’d talk about the serious head injury he suffered back in 2006, the one that forced him to play with a helmet for the rest of his career. But this time he knew I had picked up a bad injury of my own.
He said, “Have you ever thought about keeping a diary?”
I had not.
Obviously he knew I was having a difficult time. So he told me about a method he had used in his own recovery that might prevent my mind from making the situation seem worse than it actually was. He said, “Every night you write down whether you’ve had a good day or a bad day. At the end of the week you count up how many bad days you’ve had. If you’ve had one bad day, you’ll often think that the whole week has been bad. But if you keep count, you might realise that most of the days were actually good.”
It made sense, so I began to keep one. If a day had gone well, I’d draw a smiley face. If a day had been bad, I’d draw a sad face. Sometimes I’d write. If I hadn’t been able to carry out an exercise that day, I’d put, “Couldn’t do it through the pain. :-(”
Petr was right. The notes helped me to put things into perspective and evaluate what had been good and what had not.
Although at that point, truthfully, the Mother of all Bad Days was still being replayed in my mind.
It was 20 May 2018, our last game of the season. Bristol City away. I got a chance inside the box, planted my right foot in order to shoot with my left, and then a player struck my standing leg. I screamed in pain. But I couldn’t tell what I had hurt. The physio did a test on me and walked me off the pitch. I felt better. I ran back out. I got a pass, turned and heard something in my knee go click. Soon I felt fine again — whatever it was had probably clicked back in. Six minutes before halftime I went off, ’cause we were winning anyway. I sat down on the bench, put some ice on. After the game I did more tests: Nothing was showing. But on the way back home the knee began to stiffen up. The next day I got a scan, hoping for the best. Instead I was told I had done my ACL.
So many thoughts ran through my head. I raged at the sheer unfairness of it all. This isn’t my fault. I’ve done nothing wrong. I couldn’t avoid it. Why me?
Then I turned philosophical. How unlucky do I have to be for this to happen?
And then I realised how far I had come in my career, and what I might miss out on. My mind went back to the school playground in Walthamstow, East London, where I played with the boys when I was eight years old, kicking a tennis ball around on a concrete pitch with painted goals, ripping my trousers, ruining my shoes … dreaming of playing for England at a World Cup. I thought about the day I signed for Arsenal. I recalled my excitement the first time I got the call to play for England, and then my national team debut in September 2015, against Estonia, when I scored a hat trick. That was when I began to think that my World Cup dream might come true.
But now that ship had sailed, at least for the time being. I was not a regular for England, and if I was going to make the squad for the 2019 World Cup I knew I would have to play a lot of games for Arsenal in the upcoming season. That obviously wasn’t going to happen.
The World Cup only comes around every four years. I had just turned 25. I thought, Will I get another chance?
Will I get that call again?
Eventually I came to accept that there was a very, very long road ahead. I waited a month before having the surgery, and then began working with one of the club physios. I realised early on that this was above all going to be a battle in my head. The hardest part was putting in so many hours and so much effort and not seeing any instant progress. Of course, when you have a long-term injury, you’re putting in the work so that you’ll be able to improve a month or two down the line. And yet you can easily start thinking, Why am I doing this? It’s not helping at all. What’s the point?
That was when the diary helped. It made me realise that it’s impossible for a human being to have a good day every single day. Some days you’ll just want to be by yourself and not talk to anyone and just grind your way through. And that’s O.K.
I also learned another important thing: that I had to lean on the people I had around me.
That meant my boyfriend, Theo, who I was living with, and my mum, Valerie, who would visit me on weekends or after work. But it also meant my teammates. At the start there were few other players who were doing rehab, but during the last half of that year several girls picked up long-term injuries: Tabea Kemme, Viki Schnaderbeck, Jess Samuelsson. In November, Jordan Nobbs did her ACL. Obviously I would never want any player to be injured, and definitely not any of my teammates. But in some way I was fortunate that when those players were injured, it was at that exact time. Soon we were a solid group doing rehab together. And once we were several girls in the gym and on the pitch together, the sessions became a lot more enjoyable.
As we spent more and more time together, we began to push and support each other. If someone wasn’t feeling well, the rest of us knew what it was like because we had been through it, too. If you were having a bad day, you could rely on those who were having a good day to get you through. You didn’t necessarily have to talk about how you were feeling. It could be as simple as someone taking your mind off something you were worrying about. Before you knew it the frustration about not seeing instant results had gone away. You were thinking, O.K, I’m doing this now so that, in a few months, I’ll be able to run outside.
In some way we all bonded over our misfortune. I remember one day in particular, during an international break at the start of 2019, when I had become fit enough to train with the ball. Most of the girls had gone away to play for their national teams, and we injured players had stayed behind at the training ground. We were out on the grass playing a game on a small pitch, and the vibe was amazing. It was warm and sunny. Everyone was smiling. We were so competitive that we began throwing ourselves into tackles. We were enjoying it so much that, for just one or two hours, we forgot all about the injuries we had struggled with during the past months.
At home that night I opened my diary and made a new entry.
As the weeks went by I began to realise that I had a chance to play again that season. It would only be a few games, but it was a big deal to me. This was my chance to show people all the hard work I had put in. I was itching to be united with the team, to get back to full training, to have the banter with the rest of the girls. And now I felt I was within touching distance.
One day in early March, my physio picked out a game for my comeback. He said, “This is the date.” It was 14 March 2019. Finally I had a target to aim for.
He said, “How do you feel about that?”
I said, “That’s great! I’m buzzing!”
Then he said, “It’s Bristol….”
That’s when it clicked. I said, “Oh, right … it’s come full circle now.”
Still, I didn’t think about the fact that we were playing Bristol when I got injured. I was just like, I could play! I could play! When the date came, I had been out for nearly 10 months. The kickoff was in the evening, so I had to wait all day. I started on the bench, but shortly before the end I was told to warm up. I ran up and down, adrenaline pumping, emotions flowing. Soon I was just waiting for the ball to go out of play … which took forever! I got anxious. Just go out! Let me just go on!! Five minutes before the end I came on. I was welling up. The crowd applauded me as if to say, “Welcome back.” The Bristol girls were clapping. Some of the girls I had done rehab with were on the bench and in the stands. They were getting emotional, too.
After the game I hugged all my teammates. They congratulated me. It was a case of, All right, you’ve done it.
I played five more games for Arsenal before the season ended, and we won the league. Come summer I couldn’t wait for the new season to start. I wanted to get back into the England team, with the 2020 Olympics in the back of my mind. I began preseason early with my own trainer, Anthony Smarts — and soon I was flying. I was feeling fantastic. I wasn’t thinking about my knee at all. I was back, for good.
Then in July we were playing our first preseason game, against Bayern Munich, as part of the Emirates Cup, the annual friendly tournament we play at home. With 12 minutes to play I nicked the ball on the halfway line. But one of the Bayern players brought me down, and I twisted my knee. I screamed. People would later tell me that they heard a click. I didn’t, but I knew something bad had happened. The physios came over. I was given oxygen and put on a stretcher. Tears were streaming down my face.
To this day I wonder if I was crying because of the physical pain or the emotional pain.
A million and one thoughts went through my head. I can’t do rehab again. I just can’t. It’s too long. It’s too tough.
Then came the sense of injustice. Why has this happened again? What did I do wrong? Why me?
I was on that turf for less than five minutes, but to me it felt like a year.
The scan confirmed an ACL rupture in the same knee as before. The following days I just cried and cried. I didn’t eat much. I knew I had spent nearly a year overcoming an injury, that I had had the hardest time of my life doing it, and that I was now back to the very beginning. Some people were like, “Ah, it’ll be all right, you’ve done it before, you know what’s to come.” That was probably the worst thing, because I knew what was to come. The first time I had almost been like, Oh, I wonder what the next step is. Oh, I’m almost there. This time there would be no surprises.
Was I ever close to giving up? Yeah, I was….
But the previous year had forced me into becoming a positive person. I had had no choice. And eventually I understood that there was no point in being negative. You have to get through it, such is life. Both injuries had been freak accidents — I had no reason to blame myself. And because I had done rehab once, I already felt strong mentally. On my good days I felt as if I could handle whatever got thrown at me. I still do.
So once I had done the surgery, it was a case of, Right, I’m putting everything into this rehab. It’s just another hurdle. I know I can get past it.
And again I have been fortunate. This time there have not been many injured teammates to support me, but one of the club physios, Rose, has been there at every stage. For the first two weeks after the surgery she came to my house every day to do work on me, which was a kind of treatment I didn’t have the first time around. That alone showed her commitment to me as a player and as a person. Obviously after surgery you’re at home with your leg up, you can’t do anything, so it was nice to see a new face and have her as part of my routine. Rose and I were always good, but since the surgery we have forged a bond that you can’t really describe. We just seemed to click. She has put in so much work for me, and made me do so many things that I didn’t want to do. She has been a huge source of motivation for me. She is someone I can say I will keep in touch with beyond football.
Today I’m still recovering. What I hope I have shown you with this story is how important relationships can be when you are facing a difficult situation. I know a lot of people are stuck at home right now because of COVID-19. Many people are lonely. Many people are afraid. So if you have anyone you know who might be in that situation, reach out.
If you are having many good days, try to support those who you think might be having bad ones.
Another thing rehab has taught me is that you have to figure out what works for you. In our injury group there were people who loved to be at the training ground all day talking to people, and then you had others who just wanted to do their gym work and go home. There was no single blueprint for everyone. I think something similar applies to life in isolation. You have to find out what keeps you positive and motivated. Anyone can put on a front when there are other people around. But when you’re at home, whether you live with someone or not, you need to be able to get through the day.
Ultimately, in this crazy situation, it’s about staying positive. Lean on your loved ones. Call a friend, read, keep a diary — do whatever works for you. Accept that everyone has bad days. Try to find courage and strength within you.
And remember that like most bad situations, COVID-19 won’t last forever.
For me, the game is just on pause. Football will survive. I’m still thinking about England. I still remember that feeling I got when I scored that hat trick against Estonia. There will be more World Cups, more games to play, more goals to score.
I know what I can do. I know what I have overcome.
I’m still waiting for that call.