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The “really long journey” after life-changing ACL injuries in football

South Shields Women head coach, Alex Miller. (Credit: Nathan Bell. Photo taken: March 14th 2024)

Sometimes you need to appreciate the “little moments” in life because all it takes is a snap to turn things upside down.

For football coach Alex Miller, her two ACL injuries have put her in an unforgiving situation where it isn’t known whether she will play for her side again.

The ex-South Shields Women skipper has stepped up in the meantime as head coach, as she looks up at a potential promotion into the FA Women’s National League with the Mariners.

She has recently undergone a procedure to help correct things, and it is, again, a long and tiring recovery process but Miller believes she is stronger as a person for it.

“Definitely the hardest thing about an ACL injury is the process afterwards,” she reflected against the backdrop of her players warming-up, “it just takes so long.

“It is a really long journey but a lot of it comes from your prehab as well.

“You get told to go into the operation as strong as you can and that aids your recovery chances better.

“It is a lot of learning how to walk again, trusting yourself to actually put that pressure on my knee again because it just doesn’t feel the same as it did before, and it’s patience.

“Patience is absolutely massive because you’ve got to, as much as you want to get back out on that field, get your body back up there.

“It does take time for it to heal and to build up the strength around that knee again to get yourself back up to match fitness.”

These accidents can truly be a surprise, and a last-ditch tackle on the edge of the box sparked trouble for Miller, who immediately knew what it was.

She continued: “Unfortunately, the bottom of my studs got stuck in the ground and someone’s been coming in at the side and it pushed my knee out.

“I heard it before I felt it.”

ACL injuries have been described by contemporaries as an ‘epidemic’ – especially in the women’s game – and leading figures have come out in recent months to share their own experiences about a life-changing injury which many medical professionals don’t fully grasp.

The first step is getting things checked out, and when that’s impeded, alarm bells start to ring.

“It didn’t even cross my mind,” Miller shared, visibly sombre and regretful.

“For me it was just about getting back up, trying to continue – obviously [it] can’t happen when I’ve just snapped that – but I tried to go on for a couple of weeks without getting it checked out because I was in a bit of a denial, I think.

“Eventually I went and got it checked out and confirmed that I had ruptured it.”

The second time, she “just knew” what had happened, and if things weren’t bad enough, the pain and turmoil forced her to fear the worst.

“I’m not a spring chicken as I was before, and for me it was coming to the realisation that that might have been my last game for Shields,” she said.

Thankfully family and friends have continued to support her throughout the two journeys of self-reflection and recovery because without it, the scale of enormity could prove to be disastrous.

But her job as a secondary school teacher complicates things, given she can’t afford to lose more time for the sake of her students.

She followed up: “It’s a massive injury both physically and mentally to take on board as well.

“So, it’s just making sure that I’ve got my good support network around me.

“I had my family who helped me through it the last time, and the lasses as well, so there’s a few of them who have been through it themselves, so I’ve got a good support network.

“In terms of teaching, I’ve got lots of kids that rely on me.

“It’s not as easy to take that time off so it has a massive impact on work and obviously home life as well.

“In terms of mental health, it’s a really, really hard thing to take on board, going from being active all of the time multiple times a week to being limited to only doing certain things because of the risk of further injury.”

What is the biggest lesson she has learned?

“Appreciating the little things and taking everything away from it that you can do.”

Exterior of Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC. (Credit: Nathan Bell. Photo taken: 19th April 2024)

Former professional footballer Jamie Chandler, who started his career in the Sunderland AFC academy, found the experience uplifting despite how gruelling the recovery process is.

“The process and the rehab journey from a mental and physical point, as hard as it was, was one of the best things I’ve done,” he revealed.

“During that time, I had a full-time job and a young family, so I was having to travel from Boldon to the gym at Seaham to work with a sports scientist around four times a week.

“It was five o’clock wake-ups to get there, get a session – [an] hour to an hour and a half in – before getting to work on time.”

Tyne Coast Academy Director of Football Jamie Chandler with Monkwearmouth Football Academy students at the Beacon of Light. (Credit: Monkwearmouth FA, Facebook. Photo taken: March 1st 2023)

Just like Miller, he relied on a strong support network which guided him throughout a hugely rewarding setback, including the likes of MK Dons assistant head coach Ian Watson, and Sunderland icon Kevin Ball.

Chandler added: “I went through a difficult couple of weeks where I had to speak to a lot of people in football who I’m close with, and who I trust, and ask for their opinions.

“They were a massive support throughout.

“If you’ve got the right mindset and you’re prepared to go the extra mile and work as hard as you can,” he finished, “it can be a really satisfying achievement, and a huge reward when you get back on the pitch.”