“Without football, I felt worthless...”
Chloe Kelly on her ACL injury
MENTAL HEALTH AWARENESS WEEK 2022
When Chloe Kelly latched on to an Ellen White through-ball in the penultimate game of City’s 2020/21 FA Women’s Super League season, there looked to be only one outcome.
On a hat-trick and having beaten her marker to the inch-perfect pass, it looked inevitable that the winger would go on to extend the hosts’ lead: either by completing her treble, or providing for one of her teammates – both of which had been regular occurrences throughout her debut campaign in Manchester.
A summer signing from Everton, the then 23-year-old had proven an exceptional acquisition with a superb return of 16 goals and 14 assists in 34 appearances, including a brace that very afternoon against Birmingham.
As she bore down on goal in search of our – and her – third of the day, she opted to create a yard of space to craft an opportunity, jinking the ball back and away from defender Rebecca Holloway and drawing the foul to win a penalty. However, as the City star clattered into the Birmingham centre-back, she immediately fell to ground with a scream that rang around the empty stands of the Academy Stadium, with games still being played behind-closed-doors.
Her anguish was plain to see: with tears in her eyes, she slammed her hand down on the ground in agony. The players quickly rushed to her aid, as the physios raced onto the pitch. It was a deeply troubling scene, especially for a player who had starred for City and was readying herself for potential involvement in the Olympic Games that summer. Such had been her impact, she would go on to be named the Club’s Etihad Player of the Season.
Though she had not anticipated it at the time of her fall, Kelly’s worst fears were confirmed in the following days as the surgeon delivered the dreaded words: ‘ACL injury’, accompanied with its daunting timeframe. It was a crushing blow for the forward, who had lit up the league: a shining star in City’s campaign.
One year on, Kelly is back: back on the pitch, back in the starting XI and back amongst the goals. To mark Mental Health Awareness Week 2022, our wing wonder opens up on the most challenging, arduous and at times, loneliest period of her budding career, in her own words…
It feels so good to be back. Being back out there on the pitch has been brilliant. I feel fit, I feel confident and I feel like myself again. Although I know it’s going to take a while until I feel 100% and back to my best, I know it will come. It just takes time. When you’ve been away for so long, you appreciate football so much more and I’m just enjoying myself, looking forward to each game. I feel like a kid again!
A year has passed since I suffered my injury. Sometimes I think it has flown by but then when I break it down, it was actually a really tough journey. Looking back at that moment, to be honest, I didn’t know the magnitude of what had happened… I just knew my knee was sore! I had the pain relief whistle at the time, which helped, and then I had the scan the next day to see what the extent of the injury was. I remember waking up and although I wasn’t in pain anymore, I couldn’t bend my knee.
Once I found out the results of the scan, hearing those words: “You’ve done your ACL”, I just broke down in tears to our Club Doctor Phil Clelland, who has been brilliant throughout my rehab. He was so understanding. At first, I didn’t know what to say and he said: “Call me back whenever you’re ready.” That allowed me to have the time to process it and speak to my family.
In those first few days, I just cried and cried, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was such a difficult moment and I couldn’t change anything.
The toughest part was accepting it but I had to. I had no choice. It happened but I couldn’t dwell on it. I thought: ‘If I sit here and cry, I’m not going to get anywhere. I need to be able to push on and that’s down to me – no-one else is going to be putting in that work – and if I don’t put in that work, my knee suffers.’ I just had to get on with it.
In the first few days, there isn’t much you can do – it’s just a case of getting the swelling down and preparing for surgery. I was lucky in that I got mine within ten days of the injury. Others maybe wait longer.
Then, as soon as you’ve had your surgery, you’re on the ‘game ready’ rehab. As soon as you wake up from surgery, you’re doing exercises, learning extension, flexion… and everyone gets that back at different stages. At first, I couldn’t do it. I spent some time back home with my family but I was in so much pain, I’d just sit there and cry. I couldn’t actually get out of bed by myself – my boyfriend and my mum had to literally lift my leg and place it on the floor.
You feel worthless in those moments. I didn’t think I could overcome it but it’s about having good people around you.
From there, you have to learn how to walk again. Coming out of surgery, you have two crutches so then it’s trying to get down to one and then walking your gait. Once you’ve done that, you instantly think: ‘Okay, when can I run?’ but there are smaller milestones in front of that: your strength markers and how you're moving.
I really focused on that early on, doing work with Bill Knowles in America, who nailed in on the movement side. You have to listen to the professionals and take everything on board. You focus on your strength, then running, then walking... Then it's a case of keeping your fitness, shaping you for when you're back on the pitch.
Because I set goals throughout, I always knew what my next goal was and once I achieved that, I could see my progress. I spent some time away from the Club at another rehab centre, which allowed me to focus on myself. If I were here at the City Football Academy, it would have been more difficult because I would have seen the girls coming back, enjoying training, which can be hard. It was a long period of time but I kept thinking: ‘There’s always someone worse off. Yeah, my knee is sore but there are worse things going on in the world.’
That isn’t to say there were not tough days and moments. There are some days you don’t want to come in or results aren’t going your way... There are days you can feel hard done by, days when your knee is really sore and stiff, and days where – for whatever reason – you just can’t do an exercise. You go home feeling so frustrated with yourself.
Sometimes, you want to say you’re fine when you’re not because you just want to speed up the process but you have to accept you’re on your own journey – it’s not about anyone else or what’s going on in the background.
I needed to accept that my body would take time to heal – my knee wasn’t ready at that point but it would be – but it's hard. There were so many times where I just sat and cried. All I know is playing football and you go from that team environment to just being by yourself in a gym.
Sometimes, you do feel isolated. There are some moments where you don’t feel part of the group. It feels like you don’t have any worth not playing your sport or being able to do your job, having that taken away from you, and that was difficult for me. Gareth Taylor really looked after me in those moments. He didn’t allow me to feel that way, and as soon as I was back in with the girls, I felt like a new player coming back and it was great.
People don’t realise what goes into your rehab and everyone’s journey is so different. It definitely shapes you. It’s tough but you learn so much about yourself. There are difficult times and looking back, everything seemed so much harder than it actually was because you don’t feel yourself in that moment.
I remember there were times when I was speaking to my boyfriend or my mum and dad, saying: “I just want to be myself, I just want to be Chloe.”
You have to find the positivity in those moments and have positive people around you. That really helps. I spent a lot of my rehab time with Lucy Bronze, who was doing hers at the same time, and Karen Bardsley. We just pushed each other through it: the Wattbike sessions, the boxing sessions – and I can’t punch at all! You have that relationship and you help each other through those tough moments. I even had girls from different clubs calling me when they found out I’d done my ACL to say they were always there for me if I needed anything or had questions, which I really appreciated.
There’s such a negative aura attached to ACL injuries. The term ‘ACL’ just scares everyone and some people can’t overcome it. One of the most frustrating things for me was the timeframe. As soon as you have an ACL injury, everyone says: “That’s nine to 12 months out” but everyone is different. There have been players who have come back sooner…
There was a moment in my rehab where I thought I’d be back in six, seven months but of course, I listened to the professionals and although my surgeon agreed that my knee was ready, he warned that there were other factors to consider: being strong and things like that. I had some setbacks too, otherwise maybe I could have been back sooner. It's just a challenge you have to overcome.
Throughout the whole experience, the hardest part of it was the mental side. I enjoy talking about it now because I’ve overcome it and while there were moments where I felt like absolute s**t, there were also moments where I felt great.
No day was the same but all of those days shaped me to where I am now. I don’t get scared anymore. I’m probably not the strongest person in the world but I’ve overcome it. It’s possible. I tried not to look at my injury as a negative but a chance for me to be better, be the player I want to be. I know I’ve done everything I can do to put my knee in the best possible position so I’m past the mental stage now. I don’t feel scared because I know I’m ready and that’s why it took so much time to come back: because I wanted to make sure I was right.
The most challenging part was probably towards the end, being back on the training pitch and so close to a comeback. You see light at the end of the tunnel and then you can’t because you keep asking: “When is it going to be?” And you have little setbacks – there was a time where my knee just swelled one day, even though I hadn’t had swelling for months. You have to listen to your body and listen to the people around you. I’d felt ready but I had to be patient.
Then finally, the day came that the staff told me I'd be in the matchday squad again. It was brilliant but even then, I thought: “I’ve been ready for ages!” That’s how I felt. I knew I was ready so I just felt relief really.
It could have been seen that I was just excited to play because I just love playing football but I’d experienced every moment throughout those 11 months. I know my body and I’d told the physios I was ready and confident in my knee. Of course, there are fears around it but that’s why I feel so much mentally stronger now: because I don’t have those fears.
I told the physios: “I feel good. Don’t be scared. If something goes wrong now, it’s just bad luck because I’ve done everything.”
It was a challenge for me but also for them during those conversations. We would go back and forth but at the end of the day, they are the professionals and you have to build a relationship with them where you listen to each other.
When the day arrived, I was literally looking at the clock the whole game! I couldn’t really tell you what happened before I came on. I'd taken part in the warm-up in previous games but then you go back, have a shower, get changed and watch the game...
It's different when you could be coming on. Those moments were probably the hardest because it feels like there’s a string being dangled in front of you, and then the time came to come on and it was great. I’d wanted to be back out there playing for so long, enjoying myself and that’s exactly what I’m doing now.
There was a little huddle after the game and I got a little mention. I was so happy to be back with the group because I had spent so much time away from them. It makes you appreciate all the times you have together. One of the best things about this team is that they all enjoy seeing people do well. There’s competition but they’re always supporting you and if someone is doing well, it’s brilliant for the team.
I’m back now. I’ve got my first starts and my first goals and it gives you so much confidence. I don’t want this season to end to be honest because I’ve just come back and it’s nearly over… but it’s the exciting part of the season now. I’ve watched that goal against West Ham back a few times – more for Ellen White’s celebration because she was celebrating just as much as me.
It meant a lot and it just shows how far I’ve come: from the day she was comforting me while I was laying on the floor to now.
I’d like to thank all of the staff for doing so much throughout my rehab, especially the Doctor for having those tough conversations with me. I know my best is still to come but then, even before my injury, I wasn’t at my best. I always want more from myself and I expect a lot from myself, which can be hard sometimes, but hopefully, I can push on now and I’ll be able to contribute even more before the end of the season.