After over two years away from the Women’s National League, Sophie Watters is glad to be back. Her journey has been arduous and at times, quite literally, painful. An ankle break while playing for Republic of Ireland Under 19s in 2017 was the first major setback of a fledgling sporting career.
That was quickly followed by a damaging ACL rupture a year later, not long into a spell north of the border with Crusaders. Now, the Dundalk native is back in football and in the spotlight as part of a young Bohemian FC team that will make their WNL debut against Wexford Youths on Saturday evening.
If Watters is selected in the starting XI by coach Sean Byrne for what will be a historic occasion, that she will take to the pitch with relish and appreciation cannot be questioned. The last three and-a-half years has been shorn of football and full of sessions in solitude, as the 21-year-old built up her strength with a view too returning to the pitch.
The fact that Watters had no club to go to, prior to Bohemians calling earlier this year, was considered a minor detail. Fitness came first and with as a player who represented her country to Under 19 level and made her WNL debut with Shelbourne at just 16, her pedigree earmarked her as someone who would have suitors, somewhere.
Speaking to LouthNow.ie this week, the player from Tom Bellew Avenue in Dundalk said it has been a frustrating experience to go without competitive football for five months, especially having worked so hard to get back from her personal injury nightmare.
“I found it frustrating more than anything,” she said. “I was coming back from injury – I tore my ACL two years ago last week – so I actually haven’t played in that time. I was only back up and running and ready to go and then the pandemic happened.
“After all that to be put back again, I felt like I would never get back playing again. No one expected it. It will probably only happen once in my lifetime. But that’s the way it is and I’ll take the positives and I used the time to get fit. I’m fitter and stronger now. Hopefully it will go ahead on Saturday.”
That last comment suggests the youngster is taking nothing for granted anymore. Her serious injury and the subsequent time out of the game was provided her with a perspective and a mature outlook that she hopes will help underpin the younger members of the fledgling Bohemians squad embarking on their maiden WNL campaign.
“We’re in as the underdogs. We can take that in a good way as there isn’t much pressure on us. Hopefully we can go in and cause a few upsets and be a surprise. There’s a sense around us that we’re a new team, a young team – but all of us, we want to compete, same as Sean. Nobody wants to go out just to play. We want to compete and win as well,” she said.
“I’ve had experience but I don’t think it matters what age you are. We have young players in the Bohs team with no much potential so hopefully I’ll act as a senior figure and try and bring them on as well. My experience stands to me.”
By the club’s own admission, Bohs entry to the Women’s National League is a belated one. With Byrne at the helm and the addition of former Raheny players Sinead O’Farrelly and Shauna Newman, those close to the club believe they can be competitive and cause some surprises to the more established teams in the division.
Watters is firm in her belief that Bohs are not simply in the nine team division to make up the numbers. They are intent on making their mark, starting with Saturday’s clash with last year’s Continental Women’s Cup winners Wexford.
“We’ve strengthened up the squad now. We have a few players who’ve played in the league before, I think we have five underage internationals that played last year. And my friend Chloe Flynn who is back from America after four years on a scholarship.
“We’re ready to go. Everyone knows now what they have to do. We’ve no excuse now,” Sophie explains. While many consider a new, inexperienced team like Bohs marks them out as potential strugglers, the Louth native says that mindset has not permeated the squad and won’t be considered as a mitigating circumstance.
“There is a sense of that but I don’t think that’s an excuse for anyone. If you’re in the national league, you want to be competing no matter who you’re playing. It’s not an excuse. It is not the mindset within the team. Maybe a few people on the outside think like that.”
The season was due to start back in the Spring, in line with the men’s SSE Airtricity League, but lockdown put paid to that. Whilst frustrating for a player who was chomping at the bit to resume her football career, it did have some advantages for the team that was pulled together at the last.
“We were just getting into it, “Watters told us. “It did take us a while. I felt like we were just getting into it when the pandemic happened. During lockdown, we were doing Zoom training twice a week. We were getting to know each other and then when we went back it was a bit more normal. It felt like we knew each other.”
Had the season begun as originally scheduled, Bohs would surely have been behind in terms of their fitness too. The enforced stop to all football-related activity acted as a leveller in that respect.
It was in March 2017, that Watters injury woes began. The former Quay Celtic youth broke her ankle playing for her country in a a 2-3 friendly defeat against the Czech Republic. An operation saw her fitted with a plate and five screws in her ankle but that was he tip of the injury iceberg.
“That was straightforward but with the ACL it was a different type of recovery. I couldn’t believe how hard it was and how time consuming it was and how repetitive it was. It took me a long time. Some people don’t get over it and I didn’t know that even if I did, was I going to go back.
Dundalk FC, where the midfielder has been coaching at their summer camps over the last number of weeks, reached out and offered help which was greatly appreciated. “Martin Connolly and Liam Burns were very good to me. I did my recovery with Sam Rice. Derek Crilly was very good to me in the college too, and Mick Fanning.”
The DkIT student says the journey from operating theatre back to the pitch was unlike anything she had ever known but had inspiration from an Irish international player familiar to fans of today’s opposition.
“I felt like the recovery was so hard and it took a long time to see even a little improvement. It was a lot of time and effort. The pain; I had never experienced anything like it before. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I don’t know if I could do it again.
“I wasn’t going back until my knee was 110%. I was playing for the college then – just two or three games – and then as soon as I got back into it, I realised I missed it. I feel stronger than I did beforehand. I just want to push on that bit further now to get back on the pitch.
“Rihanna Jarrett done her ACL three times and she came back and now she’s playing professional football [at Brighton & Hove Albion in the Women’s Super League]. Even the likes of her, she proved she could get back and all the help I got pushed me on as well. I feel strong now.
“When I broke my ankle, I was two weeks in boot, two weeks in a cast and I was back training. When I hurt my knee, I had my operation and I thought that was it – knee better. I didn’t take my long to realise it was a long road after that.”
Watters describes her decision to sign for Bohemians as “one last try” in the Women’s National League. For a player of just 21 years-of-age, it points to her experiences and in particular her struggles to overcome the ACL injury that has kept her from competitive football for two years, bar an occasional display for DkIT’s girls team.
Her recovery from the injury coincided with the end of the 2019 WNL season, meaning another lengthy spell on the sidelines with no football to play. Having scoped Bohs out, she was eager to get involved and is clearly still susceptible to be bitten by the bug.
“I can’t wait. It will be exciting to go in as the underdogs. Probably people are putting us down as that. We can take that as a positive, with no pressure, and maybe go and cause a few upsets. We are going out to win – there’s no excuse. We all have young players – I know our average age is probably younger – but it’s really no excuse.
“Bohs were very good to our team. They done everything they could do get us into the league. Everything the management asked for, they gave everything they could to us. Hopefully we can repay them on the pitch.
Given what occurred at Dalymount Park on Friday evening, soccer fans in Dundalk will be forgiven for not embracing the idea of supporting a Bohemians team this weekend. But one household with be cheering the Gypsies on regardless, at the start of a bright new dawn for the club. And a fresh start for a young player who wants to remind people of what she can do.
/ Sophie Watters on girls in football
“My uncle Ian first got me involved. I loved it. I had to stop playing with the boys at Under 14. I played with the Drogheda League Representative team in the Gaynor Cup, it was class. Every year, I said I wanted to go back. After Under 16s at the Gaynor Cup, the next thing is international..
“I got involved with the Louth Schoolgirls League. It started last year. There was no league before. I’m on the committee for that. It went from no teams to I think 15 teams under three age groups, with around 300 girls involved.
“It’s great to see all the girls getting involved. It just goes to show there was interest there and the fact that there was no league for them [the girls], it was quite off-putting. It’s a big commitment to go to Dublin or Belfast. At least there is an opportunity for girls now here in Louth. There’ll be no stopping them once the have a representative team from the league going to the Gaynor Cup.
“There’s a huge opportunity there.”