Megan Campbell, a WSL player with a higher purpose
There is a sense of anticipation as Liverpool are awarded a throw-in in the attacking third; You don’t have to be watching TV or listening to radio commentary to know an expert is talking about Megan Campbell and her mammoth throws. The defender’s ability to fire the ball from the touchline into the box was something she quickly became known for when she moved to England to play in the Women’s Super League in 2016. And it was no different earlier this year when the Reds struggled at home an hour before ESPN sat down with the Ireland defender.
After stating over the years that she doesn’t want to be known just for her cannon-like throwing ability, the defender said once the game was over and dusted – and the Reds had bagged three points – the defender said she always liked them likes to use Ability to help the team. She also joked that she would also like to be known for playing soccer with their feet. Yet it’s those feet – especially her ankles – that have been such a nuisance throughout her playing career, as she has suffered multiple injuries and almost saw her playing time cut short a few years ago.
As we first sit down for a chat after the Reds’ game at Prenton Park, Campbell reels off her injury history, starting with the scaphoid — a bone in her ankle she broke while in college in the United States — before progressing to one abbreviated menu becomes ligaments and tendons: again ATFL, ACL, TPT and AFTL. The defender was doing well after a four-month layoff following a fractured scaphoid, but a rupture of her left ATFL (anterior talofibular ligament) at Manchester City sent her to the sidelines in mid-2016.
With her ATFL fully healed and her long absence over, the Irishwoman returned to the Citizens starting XI in time to play a starring role in their FA Cup Final win over Birmingham City in 2017. Fans saw Campbell at his peak as the sober defender was able to balance the offensive and defensive duties required of the then-champion. But it didn’t last and just an hour before, in the second leg of a Champions League round of 16 in mid-November 2017, the Ireland international fell to the ground in a bruise and was down at the age of 24 after another long layoff after suffering a suffered an ACL injury.
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Campbell’s recovery has been far from smooth and raised some big questions.
“The mental side was probably the hardest, I think for me it was more ‘why do I play football?’ It takes you away from the actual love of the game and into your private life,” she explained. “For example… I have to be able to walk every day, I have to be able to do the things that people do in everyday life; when i have kids i want to be able to pick them up and play with them if i want to.
“That was probably the biggest thing that went through my head all the time: ‘What’s your life like after football?’ Because soccer, yeah, great as it is, it doesn’t last forever, you know? And there have been times when I have considered quitting and retiring on several occasions.
Campbell didn’t return to playing until 2019, but again, she only managed to build up so much steam before getting injured again. This time around, the injury wasn’t often seen in athletes as the defender tore her posterior tibia tendon. The surgery, which is usually performed for fallen arches or “flat feet,” is designed to help patients walk again and not pursue an athletic career, and on the day of her surgery, her surgeon admitted that he had performed only once in his Career underwent the required surgery and had only been successful once.
Determined to come back despite hearing that she might never play football again, the Drogheda native fought. “So I was in lockdown, I was on my own and that’s probably what hit me the hardest. I’ve struggled a lot with my anxiety and the mental side of things where I’m like, ‘Can I actually do this?’ I don’t know if it’s worth it.”
This is where their support network proved crucial. “But if it weren’t for the people around me, I probably wouldn’t be playing the game anymore. I mean, you need good people around you, be it your family, your friends, your teammates, your co-workers, like the medical staff. You need good people around you every day because they are the people you ultimately see more than your family. And if you don’t have those, you’re in trouble, but luckily I have good people around me. “
Campbell actually made a full recovery from the injury but she needed a change of scenery and opted for the short trip to Liverpool. The Reds faced a second season in the Championship after failing to immediately rejoin the WSL. It would be quite a change for Campbell, but it was exactly the kind of challenge she wanted.
Of course, she had another operation and spell on the touchline – she broke her left ATFL again after being caught by an opponent in a preseason friendly – and didn’t return until January 2022, which was the second full calendar year, unable to play any competitive minutes in which she had been. “Touch wood,” she jokes about her current level of fitness, pounding her palms on the wooden table between us a little harder than most.
Since early 2022, Campbell has hardly looked back, initially helping Liverpool achieve that elusive climb out of the Championship. After Ireland qualified for their first-ever World Cup, the conversation turned to Vera Pauw’s side and the discussions the defender had had with her national team coach in recent years. Pauw was very clear that as well as being physically fit and ready to play, Campbell needed to play and train consistently to earn her selection – something the 29-year-old fully understood.
“You want the best players to play for your national team and I would never stand in your way or fret or resent me because at the end of the day it’s still my country and I want what’s best for them.”
As for the chance to make the historic squad that will take part in that first World Cup match against co-hosts Australia on July 20 in Sydney, Campbell isn’t trying to outdo herself, although she “hopes to be on one nice flight somewhere” this summer.
Campbell has a maturity when it comes to these ideas; While she comes across as a quiet person who might linger in the background before being coaxed out of her shell, there is a caring side she shows towards her teammates that could help shape her post-game days. “I want to give something back to my Irish heritage,” said Campbell. “Be it trying to help younger girls reach a professional level, giving them opportunities… we can open doors for other young girls. If I can help in any way, I will.
“I just want to help the next generation.”
But that’s not a trait she’s reserving for the future; One of the more experienced players on this Liverpool team, Campbell enjoys helping out her teammates wherever she can, with a focus on helping her team-mates with the mental side of the WSL game.
“A lot of things will be mental, more than physical… if you play in this league you’re a good player, you know what I mean? You are not selected to play in this league because you “I’m not a good player. A lot of it is the mental side: how do you deal with it when the losses come, how do you deal with it when you don’t that often play like in the league or if you are in shape and not in shape… how do you deal with that Any little thing I can do to help the players I will always talk to them and give them advice If they accept that, then all well and good.
“At the end of the day, and I feel like it might sound silly to a lot of people, but I feel like my goal in playing football isn’t just for me to play football myself and do well. That’s it [to be here] for other people, and I feel like I was put into the sport, maybe to help others, because I feel like I’ve been through quite a bit of S— to say the least. And I think maybe with this experience I can help others…”
Amusingly, for all the injuries and lows that halted Campbell’s career, it was one off-the-field event during her time in America that will go down in history as the deepest. (And also one that made her petrified from water.)
“When I was there [college], the army came in to do a team building thing and we went into the diving pool, which was ridiculously deep. I had to get in and tread water and at the time I had no idea how to tread water…and I had nightmares for weeks afterwards because it was like I was waking up thinking I was going to drown…yes it was not good.”
Apart from that, the defender managed to play real football and not just with those throw-ins. How did she weather the setbacks, self-doubt and the urge to retire early? “I keep seeing images of myself playing at home in Ireland as a kid and it’s like I’m playing for this little girl who always dreamed of playing and that’s why I won’t give up now.”
https://www.espn.com/soccer/english-womens-super-league/story/4897117/megan-campbell-a-wsl-player-with-a-greater-purpose Megan Campbell, a WSL player with a higher purpose