“Full of highs and lows, yeah.” That’s how Megan Campbell, with quiet and deliberate understatement, sums up her rollercoaster 2017.
On a very personal note, there was the sadness of the loss in October of her grandfather, Eamonn Campbell, of The Dubliners fame.
“He was always behind me in my football,” says the Irish international, “and whenever we were playing in Tallaght and he wasn’t away gigging, he was always at the games. So people will definitely miss his face in the crowd.
"He was a man loved by everyone all across the country and worldwide, and that was a credit to how hard he worked all his career to get to where he was.”
On the football front, it was a year of sharply contrasting fortunes for the Drogheda woman, from the ecstasy of an FA Cup final triumph in May — Megan supplied two assists as Manchester City beat Birmingham 4-1 — to the agony of the serious knee injury she suffered in November in the second leg of a Champions League game against Norwegian side LSK Kvinner.
[timgcap=Megan Campbell signing autographs afte Manchester City game in July last year.]MeganCampbellofManchesterCitysignsautographsJul16_large.jpg[/timg]
It was a tie City would go on to win 7-1 on aggregate but victory was overshadowed by the sight of the Irish defender being stretchered off the field of play.
“It was the second half and I was playing quite well at the time at left-back,” she recalls.
“I’ve gone in from behind the girl to tackle with my left foot and my right foot has just given way. My right knee was meant to bend and it didn’t, and that resulted in me tearing my ACL, unfortunately.
"It’s nine weeks now since the injury, five weeks since the surgery, and thankfully I’m on the road to recovery.”
But it’s going to be a long road.
Indeed, the initial consensus was that Campbell would be out for the remainder of Ireland’s currently booming World Cup qualification campaign. Yet, with so much up for grabs for the
senior international team this year, the defender has other ideas.
“They say it’s a six- to nine-month injury,” she says.
“I’ve done injuries before and I don’t like staying in the gym too long. So, I’m hoping for the six months. I don’t want to re-do it or have anything like that ever occur again.
"So I want to do the rehab the right way but I also want to push on and be back on the grass as quickly as I can. And I do have a goal in mind (smiles). I want to be back for the August 31 game against Northern Ireland at home.”
The final qualifier?
“Yeah. That’s the one I’m targeting. It could be the reason we qualify or at least get into the play-offs.”
With two wins and a draw from their first three games, the girls in green have made an impressive start to their bid to reach the World Cup finals for the first time. And Campbell believes a lot of credit is due to Colin Bell who took over as manager last year.
“Coming in he has given us that belief that we can qualify,” she says.
“The first time I met the man we were sat in a team meeting and one of the first things he said was, ‘I don’t want to be in France next year on holiday, I want to be there on the sideline while youse are on the pitch playing’.
"That for me was enough because everyone gets the understanding of where his head is and where he wants to be.”
Megan also thinks that progress on the pitch is one of the dividends of the women’s team settling their differences with the FAI after last year’s high-profile stand-off.
[timgcap=Megan Campbell celebrates with Republic of Ireland team mates Harriet Scott, Niamh Fahey and Diane Caldwell.]RepublicofIrelandsHarrietScottMeganCampbellNiamhFaheyandDianeCaldwellcelebratevNorthernIrelandSep17_large.jpg[/timg]
“That’s all in the past now,” she says. “We got what we deserved and they’ve understood that. I think it was then up to us to give back. Thankfully we’re doing that now and we’ll continue to do that in the future.”
No conversation with Megan Campbell can ever be complete, it seems, without reference to the prodigious long throw which has earned her the nickname, ‘The Flamethrower’.
There have even been suggestions that the 24-year-old holds the record for the longest throw in the whole of football — men’s and women’s — but she can’t be sure.
“I never measured it,” she says. “It was in the books to maybe do it but unfortunately I got injured. Maybe in the near future we’ll do that.”
And the secret behind her ballistic missile?
“It’s a thing called hyper-mobility,” she explains.
“I’ve had it since I was a kid. I played with the boys growing up in Drogheda, and I threw the ball in one day and it was longer than the rest of the lads’. And they told me to do it again.
"As I grew, it got longer and it just went from there. It’s never something I’ve practised or done stuff to help it get any longer. It’s just been there (laughs).”
Not surprisingly, there’s no ready replacement within the Irish team for what has been a hugely effective set-piece weapon in their attacking
“No, unfortunately not. That tactic of when the ball goes out on the sideline to get me to throw it in, that’s obviously gone. It’s a nice asset to have and we definitely use it as best we can.
"If you’re going to give me the opportunity to provide a goal for the national team or my club team, I’m going to do it. But the girls are good enough to be able to compete and play against the best teams without it.”
A point proved in Holland in November when, just ten days after Megan did her cruciate, the Irish notched up one of the most memorable results in their history by holding the reigning European champions scoreless in a World Cup qualifier.
“I was sitting on the bed with my leg propped up watching it on the television and I couldn’t believe it,” she says, smiling.
“I was biting my nails and shaking on the bed.
"Some people might have criticised the way we played, proper defensive and stuff, but when we’ve qualified for our first major tournament and the results in the group say we’ve drawn nil-all with Holland, no one’s going to look back at the 90 minutes, they’re just going to see the result.
“For us it’s definitely a big thing to be able to say that you’ve drawn with the European champions, on their ground, in a sold-out stadium, with a 16-year-old (Tyler Toland) playing holding mid — you can’t complain.”
Quite apart from what World Cup qualification would mean to Megan Campbell and her teammates, she’s fully aware that if the senior team were to make it to one of the big two tournaments for the first time, the achievement would act as a massive boost to the already healthy growth of the women’s game in this country.
It was a point reinforced for her earlier this week when she was in Dublin to promote the 2018 SPAR FAI Primary School 5s Programme, a nationwide blitz for fourth, fifth, and sixth class pupils which last year saw girls make up 40% of the 28,576 children who took part.
“Over 11,000 girls were playing in the tournament last year and hopefully that’s going to continue to grow,” she says. “Success for the national team is great for young girls to look up to and go, ‘You know what? We can actually make it’.”
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