Should the new women’s football season begin in September, AFC Sudbury/Billericay Town defender, 18-year-old Ellie Mitchell, will finally be returning after thirteen plus months away from the game. Here she speaks exclusively with Sports Journalist, Peter Mann, about her year out with an ACL injury and her hopes for the future.
“I feel like a volcano waiting to erupt, nervous, but I’ll running around like a headless chicken.”
Last summer, Suffolk-based outfit, AFC Sudbury, launched its eagerly anticipated Girls Academy, a direct pathway to their Ladies side and, in doing so, opposed Sunderland FC’s Foundation of Light Scholars in a prestigious pre-season friendly.
A successful expansion began with the introduction of Eloise King, Ebonie Mae-Shepperd, Ellie Mitchell and Amy King, a quartet who’d joined the Academy alongside their successful male counterparts the previous summer. Sudbury’s Academy Director, Danny Laws told www.afcsudbury.co.uk at the time of the launch that: “It was always our intention to run a bespoke girls football academy and I am delighted that we have 18, full-time scholars who will make up our squad of Academy Girls.”
Accepted into the England Colleges FA Women’s Premier League for the first time this past season, it was meant to be another step up the footballing ladder for one of that initial quartet of players.
Captain for the opening night reversal against their prestigious, Sunderland counterparts, back on August 5th, the Yellows would travel cross-county a few weeks later to oppose the Ipswich-based outfit, Brettvale as Ellie Mitchell was set to continue that progression. What nobody could have predicted, a pandemic withstanding, was that Ellie would spend that season on the sidelines.
Fifteen minutes into the game, and following the occasional scuffle with her Brettvale counterpart, Ellie received the ball, turned one way, then another, then pop.
The thing is, she’d been on the receiving end of a foul moments earlier and had she gone down and taken the free-kick, everything could quite easily have been ever so different.
As it was, she didn’t, and the follow-up challenge finished her season before it had begun.
Even then, although the coaching staff as AFC Sudbury wouldn’t let Ellie back onto the field, the seriousness of the injury wasn’t immediately noticeable, except for the oversized knee.
“I was doing a job in centre midfield (not Ellie’s usual position), nicked the ball off one of their players, turned one way then another, before being caught and heard one almighty pop,” began Ellie, now 18-year-old from Marks Tey.
“My knee just blew up, was really fat, but I wanted to get back onto the pitch straightaway; thankfully the coaches wouldn’t let me.
“After the game I just went home and iced it, hoping, praying that it would go down maybe overnight.”
The fact that it was to be a serious injury wasn’t quite the crux of it however, the time it took for the initial diagnosis added more stress upon Ellie and her family.
“We went to the hospital and, in the end, I’d seen four different physios over a short period, neither of whom giving the diagnosis,” said a bemused Ellie.
“In fact I was told I could go back to training around four or five weeks later; I lasted just a couple of minutes before the knee popped again.
“A further trip to the hospital, and a resulting MRI scan, finally resulted in the diagnosis of a ruptured ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and the start of what would become a difficult, tough journey back.”
In a round-about way Ellie was lucky in that her friend, Ipswich Town’s Emma Wallis, had suffered a similar injury, hers for the second occasion, at around the same time, so the pair ended up in hospital and undergoing surgery, and a long and arduous rehabilitation process together.
Although Ellie and Emma went through the initial rehab process at the same time, the emotions, the psychological mind-set, would become a changing constant, more so when a global pandemic adds extra to the equation.
By the time the pandemic did hit, Ellie’s rehab was moving along but the ‘new norm’ would bring a whole new set of problems.
“Early on, yes, there was a mixture of emotions which I was going through,” continued Ellie.
“But with Emma (Wallis) having done her ACL for a second time, we ended up in the same hospital having surgery on the same day.
“In the back of your mind though, you know that something isn’t right and it was heart-breaking and my mood was dampened, especially seeing my teammates out there and knowing I was expected to start the new campaign.
“I guess it did put my mind at rest however knowing I’d be out for the season.”
Opting to go private for her ACL reconstruction, with the NHS waiting list was a good twelve months, Ellie finally went under the knife on the 23rd November 2019, three months after picking up the injury.
It wouldn’t take her long to begin exercising again following surgery, boredom does strange things to people. In taking the short trip from Marks Tey to Sudbury, twenty minutes north by train, Ellie was already out and about on her crutches – it’s an athletes mentality isn’t it?
“I was heading into Sudbury for physio, initially to get the swelling down and to get the nerves working again, but it was difficult early on doing those exercises,” she said.
“I got very frustrated, very quickly, trying to do things I used to do all the time, things that you really do take for granted – I’d forgotten how to walk in essence.
“Then, it is a few months down the line and I’m working on my mobility through balance and cycling, and undergoing strength-work – the latter is important for the recovery process.
“It was a definite priority as the nerves change in the knee, and then you can start running again,” she beamed, her first official run coming at the beginning of March.
“I was really, really happy to be told that I could start running again.
“It was only short, but I felt I was ready and it was at the right time of the rehab process, more in my mind anyway.”
With a potential scholarship in America a real possibility, Ellie is expecting to start playing again next season in which will be her third campaign in the Sudbury Academy, as well as pulling on the jersey of Billericay Town Reserves, ninety minutes or so south-west of her parent club.
It is between those two clubs, Ellie splits her time continuing her rehabilitation physiotherapy at the Essex club bringing further light to Ellie’s path.
“My physio has mainly been at Sudbury, yes, but I’d also started working with Billericay prior the onset of Covid-19,” continued Ellie.
“That’s what I’ve missed the most though, through all of this, one-on-one contact with a physio.
“Other problems have also arisen over the past few months, more from my own doing really; I’ve got some, but minimal equipment at home and I thought that yes, I can do this, it won’t last too long.
“I then started to get depressed, I over-trained, and started picking up smaller injuries, shin splints and the like.”
However, as she worked her way through rehab, and a pandemic lockdown, Ellie was understandably ecstatic to get some long-awaited news on the afternoon of June 24th, her surgeon giving her the all-clear.
All eyes have now switched focus to the 2020/21 campaign (whenever that may be) as Ellie looks to increase her fitness levels over the next couple of months before pulling on the AFC Sudbury yellow (midweek) and the Billericay blue (weekend) jerseys and kicking those first balls in anger.
“It was really good to actually see the surgeon face-to-face,” laughed Ellie, “it had been a while that’s for sure.
“However, it took a while to process the news that I’d been given the all-clear but the knee looks good and strong, and the physio has been going really well; I just never though that moment would actually come around.
“Now, I’m expecting to be back in training by mid-July at Sudbury for up to six weeks, then back on the playing field in September.
“I’m really looking forward to it as well, hopefully to be playing for AFC Sudbury midweek, and for Billericay on the weekend, where I’m hoping I can push towards first team contention – that’s something I’m aiming towards.
“I’ve taken a whole lot of positives from this whole process though; I feel a lot stronger as well, both mentally, and physically, both as a player, and as a person.
“As for Sudbury, it’s the best environment to be in, a family and I’ve got a lot of love for everyone there.
“I wouldn’t be where I am now without their ongoing support.”
Aiming towards an American Dream, that golden nugget still firmly in Ellie’s sights, lacing up a pair of football boots on a match-day again will be a moment of enjoyable relief for the 18-year-old full-back, although she does have a dream of playing for one of her favourite clubs, one day.
“America is the dream for me, it really is, unless a Women’s Super League side comes along, then the options will really need to be weighed up, more if it’s West Ham United,” she smiled, beamingly.
“It’s all about the levels though but Barcelona, now that’s the one to look for, it’s the ultimate for me.
“That and I’ve been learning Spanish through lockdown as well, just in case.”
Ellie Mitchell was talking exclusively to Peter Mann and Long Reads: Football; you can follow Ellie’s progress on Twitter via https://twitter.com/ellie_mxtchell whilst Peter can be found at https://twitter.com/petermannwriter