It’s an understatement to say the last few months have thrown everyone’s plans into confusion. But for Brighton and Northern Ireland defender, Laura Rafferty an agonising period has been made more agonising still by the Covid-19 pandemic.
In August last year she suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury that ended her season before it began. In March she was back on the pitch and closing in on a full recovery. In May she should have been pulling on a shirt for club and country. Instead came coronavirus, lockdown and more frustration.
“The target was to be 100% in May,” said Laura, “but I haven't been able to get in for treatment, which has delayed things. Being at home has been tough, I’ve had to improvise with equipment. But my family has been great, so you have to take the positives. When you play football you’re away from your home town. I isolated with my family, which has been so nice and I have caught up so much.”
Laura celebrated her 24th birthday during lockdown, surrounded by her close family. A return to fitness has been the icing on the cake.
“With a process like this you have to be so tough and mentally positive. Lockdown was just an extra hurdle. I just thought: ‘maybe this is for a reason, maybe it’s meant to take longer'. I’m willing to be more patient. I’ve done the hard work now.”
Such is her positive approach to the game and life in general, Laura has even managed to find a silver lining to her extended recovery period…
“To have to face people doing something you love while you’re injured... being away from that isn’t the worst thing. It’s an opportunity rather than time wasted. This year is still part of my career, even though I'm not out on the pitch. It’s about going out and doing more for the community, doing business work and spending time with the family. I just can’t wait to get back to playing. I won’t take football for granted.”
RETURN TO ACTION
The WSL season will kick off in September and Northern Ireland return to Euro qualifying the same month. That double target forms a new focus for Laura. And she was already in pre-season in mid-June, doing three pitch-based sessions a week and three gym sessions at home.
During her lay-off, Laura sat on the sidelines while her Northern Ireland teammates suffered some tough results in qualifying. Two heavy defeats by Norway, both 6-0 home and away, and two draws against Wales mean the team has not set the world on fire.
“One of the hardest parts of the process is that, before the operation, it hadn’t hit me that I’d done it,” said Laura. “I could still walk around and drive. When I woke up from my operation and I couldn’t move my leg, that's when it hit me.”
Northern Ireland were playing that day. And, as Laura was coming around from the anaesthetic, she put the game on TV. “I burst into tears. The girls did me proud but it was just so hard to not be there. I hadn’t missed an international since the age of 15.”
Weekly Zoom sessions with her Northern Ireland teammates have helped Laura stay in touch but don’t match the experience of being in the squad. “I love going away with the girls and I love representing my country. I’m just excited. Fingers crossed to be there in September.”
“We have a massive chance of qualification. We have a brand new manager, coaching staff and people who have been at a very high level in the men’s game. They bring tactical and technical knowledge and the girls play a completely different game now.
“We play out from the back and, me being a centre-back, it’s what I want to do - receive the ball from the keeper and build. That’s Kenny Shiel’s way of playing.
“That’s been tough to see as well. It’s the first time they have played a system that favours me a lot. It just makes it exciting for the future. I’m hungry to get back.”
During lockdown, Laura has kept busy with community work. Amid fears that being out of sight could leave her out of mind during injury recovery, she had already put in player appearances and visited girls football teams before lockdown.
“I’ve just signed with Common Goal, the organisation formed by Juan Mata. I want to help women who have job interviews and can’t afford the clothes, makeup and the conversations to build their confidence.
“I’m supporting Megan Rapinoe with the LGBT and equality campaigning. That will be a very exciting adventure.
“The more I can take on with the community, the better. I want to do more and more. It makes me happy and a happy person off the field is a happy person on it.”