There’s a sense of anticipation when Liverpool are awarded a throw-in the attacking third; you don’t have to be watching TV or following along with radio commentary to know a pundit is currently talking about Megan Campbell and her mammoth throws. The defender’s ability to launch the ball into the box from the touchline was something she fast became known for when she moved to England in 2016 to play in the Women’s Super League. And it was no different earlier this year while the Reds were battling away at home, an hour before ESPN sat down with the Ireland defender.
Having stated over the years that she doesn’t just want to be known for her cannon-like throwing ability, once the game was done and dusted — and the Reds had pocketed three points — the defender said she’s always happy to use her ability to help the team. She also joked that she would also like to be known for playing football with her feet. Yet it’s those feet — specifically her ankles — that have been so troublesome throughout her playing career as she’s endured multiple injuries, almost seeing her playing days cut short several years ago.
When we first sit down to chat after the Reds’ game at Prenton Park, Campbell reels off her injury history, starting with the navicular — a bone of the ankle she broke at college in the U.S. — before it becomes a menu of abbreviated ligaments and tendons: ATFL, ACL, TPT and AFTL again. The defender had been fine following a four-month spell out after breaking her navicular, but a rupture to her left ATFL (anterior talo-fibular ligament) at Manchester City sent her to the sidelines in mid-2016.
With her ATFL fully healed and her lengthy absence over, the Irishwoman returned to the starting XI for the Citizens in time to play a starring role in their FA Cup final win over Birmingham City in 2017. Fans were seeing Campbell at her peak, as the no-nonsense defender was able to balance out the attacking and defensive duties needed for the then title-holders. But it wasn’t to last and, just before the hour, in the second leg of a Champions League round of 16 tie in mid-November 2017, the Irish international dropped to the turf stricken and at 24 years of age, was starring down another long lay-off having suffered an ACL injury.
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Campbell’s recovery was far from smooth sailing and prompted some big questions.
“The mental side of it was probably the toughest, I think for me it was more of ‘why am I playing football?’ It takes you out of the actual love of the game and goes to your personal life,” she explained. “Like… I need to be able to walk every day, I need to be able to do the things everyday life people do; when I have kids, I wanna be able to pick them up and I wanna be able play with them if I wanted.
“That was probably the biggest thing that was constantly going through my head: ‘what’s your life look like after football?’ Because football, yes, as great as it is, it doesn’t last forever, you know? And there was times where I was contemplating stopping, retiring on multiple occasions.”
It wouldn’t be until 2019 that Campbell returned to playing, but again, she could only build up so much steam before she was hurt again. This time, the injury wasn’t one often seen in athletes, the defender having ruptured her posterior tibial tendon. The surgery, usually given to those with fallen arches or “flat feet,” is meant to help patients get back to being able to walk, not to pursue sporting careers, and on the day of her surgery, her surgeon admitted that he’d only performed the operation required, and had only been successful, once in his career.
Determined to come back despite hearing she might never play football again, the Drogheda native struggled. “So I was in lockdown, I was on my own, and it’s the one that probably hit me the hardest. I struggled a lot with my anxiety and the mental side of things thinking like, ‘can I actually do this?’ Like, I don’t know if this is worth it.”
This is where her support network proved vital. “But if not for the people around me, I don’t think I would still be playing the game. I mean, you need good people around you, whether that be your family, your friends, your teammates, your staff, like the medical staff. You need good people around you every day, because they’re the people that you see more than your family ultimately. And if you don’t have those then you’re struggling, but thankfully I have good people around me.”
Campbell indeed made a full recovery from the injury, but she needed a change of scenery, opting to make the short journey over to Liverpool. The Reds were facing a second season in the Championship having failed to instantly get promoted back to the WSL; it would be quite the change of pace for Campbell, but it was exactly the type of challenge she wanted.
Of course, she had another surgery and spell on the sidelines — rupturing her left ATFL again after being caught by an opponent in a preseason friendly — and not returning until January 2022, marking the second full calendar year in which she’d been unable to play any competitive minutes. “Touch wood,” she jokes about her current run of fitness, hammering her palms down on the wooden table between us just a little harder than most.
Since the start of 2022, Campbell has barely looked back, first helping Liverpool achieve that elusive promotion from the Championship. With Ireland having qualified for their first-ever World Cup, talk drifted to Vera Pauw’s team and the conversations the defender has had with her national team coach over the past few years. Pauw was quite clear in her need for Campbell not just to be physically fit and ready to play, but to be playing and training consistently to earn her selection — something the 29-year-old understood entirely.
“You want the best players to play for your national team and I would never step in the way or want or feel begrudged by that because at the end of the day, it’s still my country and I want the best for them.”
As for the chance to make the historic squad that will be participate in that first World Cup game, against co-hosts Australia in Sydney on July 20, Campbell isn’t trying to get ahead of herself though she is “hoping to be on a nice flight somewhere” this summer.
Campbell has a maturity when it comes to these ideas; while she appears a quiet person who might linger at the back before being coaxed out of her shell, there’s a nurturing side that she displays with her teammates and that might help shape her post-playing days. “I would like to give back to where I’ve come from in Ireland,” Campbell said. “Whether that be through trying to help younger, girls get to a professional level, give them opportunities… we can open up doors for other young girls. If I can help in any way, then I’m gonna.
“Just helping the next generation is what I want to do.”
But this isn’t a trait she’s reserving for the future; as one of the more experienced players in this Liverpool team, Campbell is happy to help those around her however she can, with an emphasis on helping her teammates with the mental side of playing in the WSL.
“A lot of things will be mental, more so than physical… if you’re playing in this league, you’re a good player, you know what I mean? You’re not picked to play in this league cause you’re not a good player. A lot of it is the mental side of it: how do you cope when the losses are coming, how do you cope when you’re not playing as often as you were in the Championship, or if you’re in and out of form… how do you cope with that? Any little thing that I can do to help players, I’ll always speak to them and offer some advice. If they take it on board, 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 purpose to play football is not just for myself to play football and do well. It’s [to be here] for other people, and I feel like I’ve been put into the sport maybe to help others because I mean, I’ve gone through quite a lot of s—, to put it mildly. And I think maybe me having the experience of that can then help others…”
Amusingly, for all the injuries and lows that have punctuated Campbell’s career, it was an off-field event during her time in America that will go down as the lowest. (And also one that’s left her petrified of water.)
“When I was at [college], the army came in to do a team building thing and we went to 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’ve had nightmares for weeks after it because I was like waking up thinking I was drowning… yeah, it was not good.”
Away from all of this, the defender has managed to play actual football and not just with those throw-ins. How did she continue through the setbacks, self-doubt and urges to retire early? “I keep seeing pictures of me when I was a kid playing back home in Ireland and it’s like I’m playing for that little girl who always dreamed about playing and so I’m not gonna give up now.”