'I have the competitive fire in my belly for the first time in a long time' - Shelbourne's Rebecca Creagh putting injury nightmare behind her

Sun, Feb 03 2019

Creagh (left) toasts Shelbourne's WNL Cup win over UCD Waves with teammate Noelle Murray. Credit: Tom Beary (ETPhotos)

When the inaugural Women’s National League kicked off in 2011, Rebecca Creagh was part of the Raheny United squad that would go on to lay down very solid foundations for the path taken by the sport in Ireland.

The WNL has gone from strength to strength in recent years in terms of attendances, quality and media coverage as well.

It would turn out to be a very successful few years for Creagh and her team-mates as they won two league titles, three FAI Cups, reached the last 32 of the Champions League.

The 29-year-old had the honour of being the first women to lift the FAI Cup at the Aviva Stadium after Raheny United got the better of Castlebar Celtic in 2013.

As captain of such a successful dressing room, one of the important roles that Creagh had to play on a regular basis was ensuring the girls around her were motivated and in the right frame of mind to give themselves the best opportunity to ensure their success continued unrivalled.

Having enjoyed an injury-free career up to then, the start of the 2016 WNL campaign was to signal the beginning of a very trying few years for the experienced player, one that would test her hunger for the game, belief in her own ability and a lot more.

“Going back, the first injury happened in September 2016,” Creagh tells extratime.ie.

“It was the first time ever since I first joined a club at eight years of age that I started asking myself am I still interested in playing because the end of 2015/2016 season we got into the playoffs for the league and got beaten.

“I was at a stage where, maybe because of how long I had been playing football and with getting older as well, I started saying to myself I’d love to be able to just go away on holidays. I’d love to be able to just go out and about and to do different things.

“As a squad we were so interested in playing and training together and I suppose being as successful as we possibly could be for as long as possible. These things at the time just took a back seat in terms of our priorities.”

She remembers the day down in Cork that she sustained the first injury.

“I remember scoring I think in the first half but shortly into the second half a ball came into me and my foot was just loose.

“The Cork player came in to challenge me and whatever way we came together I came off worse and fell to the ground.

“I had cracked my fifth metatarsal in my right foot. I knew straight away by the popping sound and the shooting pain up through my leg that it was something serious and I wouldn’t be playing for a while.

“I was trying to stay as positive as I could with the whole thing but I found it hard because I had always been lucky enough with staying relatively injury-free.

“I was so used to being the one doing the reassuring and doing the best I could in my capacity as captain to motivate and to help each of my team mates through the bad times.

“It was strange to now be experiencing the other side of things and, at times, I must admit I did begin to feel a bit sorry for myself but with the network I had around me things weren’t the worst.”

As is normal for any sports person or anyone at all with a competitive nature, observing from the bench when you are so used to playing is very tough and for Creagh it was no different.

A lack of knowledge about the injury itself and a lack of discipline in terms of recovery would come back to haunt the striker very quickly.

“The main problem that arose came from a mistake I made myself and trying to come back too soon,” she says.

“It’s a very hard thing not to do and for me I took advantage of getting a boot and not a cast and was walking on the boot after only a few weeks and I wasn’t really maintaining it and looking after it as best as I should have.

“The start of December came and the boot was off. Everything seemed to be going well. I was back walking normally in a shoe and in my mind everything externally felt great.

“I came to the conclusion myself, rightly or wrongly, that I was ready to get stuck back into things properly.

“It was Christmas week and I decided to join the girls for a game of indoor. With the ball at my feet I was attempting to hold one of the girls off.

“As I put my weight onto my right foot there was an immediate pop and I fell in a heap thinking, ‘I don’t believe it, not again! Not a hope!’

“I was hoping with everything I had that it wasn’t the same thing again.”

Whether it was as a result of putting it to the test too soon or it was just very bad luck, the exact same injury had reoccurred and she now faced a further eight weeks twiddling her thumbs on the sidelines.

“For some reason the physical side of things didn’t really bother me as much this time. It was more so the mental torture of having to sit out for another eight weeks minimum and not be involved to the extent that I would always want to be.

“The hardest day of the entire length I was side lined was definitely Cup Final day in the Aviva Stadium, sitting in the stands.

“I remember sitting there on the bus on the way to the ground and obviously you aren’t going to make it obvious and bring the mood down around the girls when everyone is buzzing as they should be for Cup Final day.

“It was an amazing day for the club and I was so happy for everyone involved but, from a personal point, of view it was tough because you want to be involved and out on the pitch.

“I didn’t get back in at all for the remainder of that season because it was end of February/start of March before I was back fully fit and ready to go and that’s when our season was coming to an end.”

Following a few months in Australia during the off season and a short stint with Essendon Royals, Creagh returned home to Ireland in search of a full-time job.

She wasn’t even considering a return to the game until she received an encouraging phone call from her former manager.

“Mark Leavy rang me and wanted me to make myself available for the Champions League games in August up in Belfast.

“I was honest with them straight away and told him that having been through so much with the two injuries and having not played at that level in so long I wasn’t confident in my ability anymore around the time that he rang.

“My leg was gone to nothing after the injuries. Also with the younger girls doing so well in the side, I didn’t feel I deserved my place in the squad at all based on the limited amount of work I had done compared to the rest of the squad.

“There were girls within that squad that had been training for the entire year to get into the Champions League squad and here was I rocking up having only played a very small amount of football in the previous 12 months.

“The quality and the level that the squad had reached since I had left in terms of fitness and skill and everything really was notably higher and I wasn’t anywhere near it at that time.

“In fairness to Mark, he persevered with me and stayed onto me for weeks and  I ended up travelling up with the squad.

“I wasn’t travelling to Belfast to just walk into a squad at all, and that was the last thing I wanted people to think within the dressing room or within the squad, but Mark kept telling me it was OK and he wanted me there and to just relax.

“In the final group game, I remember starting and it was an absolute nightmare. The game was just passing me by. At half time everything got to me and I ended up getting extremely upset with myself.  

“My performance or lack of one was part of the reason I got upset but the main reason for it was because I was so frustrated with myself for going up in the first place and taking the place of someone who possibly deserved it more.

“In the second half I came off and Kate Mooney came on and ended up scoring two goals and I was absolutely delighted for her, firstly for the belief that Mark had showed in her and secondly that she had proved that the younger players in the squad could stand up and perform.

“Looking back on it, maybe that faith should have been showed that little bit earlier because I wasn’t in the right place or at the right level to be there at that time.

“I have had far more highs than lows throughout my career and it was a tough time for me because the previous twelve months had been some of the toughest of my footballing life, trying to get back after the metatarsal injury twice.

“To play so badly on the biggest stage left me in no doubt that I was done with playing from then.”

There’s only so much anybody can take and at this stage enough was enough.

As much as she appreciated the Champions League experience and the belief that had been shown in her again, Creagh had accepted within herself that it just wasn’t meant to be anymore.

She stepped away from the game completely for a number of months before history would repeat itself for a third time.

“From a mental point of view the third time was the toughest because the previous two times that it happened I maintained an involvement with the squad right the way through my injury.

“Prior to it happening the third time, I had taken 6-7 months out and the decision to return under Danny [Crowley].

“After taking so much time out was a huge thing for me to do and you don’t know how much you miss something until it is gone.

“My hunger after a complete break for so long was stronger than it had ever been and now I was left sobbing on the side lines powerless to have any involvement at all.

“It confirmed in my head all of my worst fears and questions that I had asked myself and doubted within myself repeatedly over the previous twelve months.”

Having suffered so much in such a small space of time anyone would understand if the 29-year-old Dubliner decided to finally call it a day.

But with the 2019 WNL season just around the corner, amazingly she has decided to give it another shot as her hunger and passion for the game has proved too strong.

“I remember watching Wexford lift this year’s FAI Cup and the memories of lifting that Cup as captain of Raheny in the Aviva, and more recently the success with Shels, that I have banked came flooding back to me.

“I picked up my phone after the game and texted Rachel Graham saying we need to get back there and want to now do everything in my power to make sure we are. That was the first time I had that competitive fire in my belly in a long time.

“I put my phone down and went through the squad in my head and thought we have a squad good enough to challenge these teams.

“At times this year, watching from the sidelines, the girls have played some of the best football in the league and why can’t we be the team to lay down the challenge to Wexford next year.

“You miss the feeling of scoring goals, you miss the dressing room banter, you miss the bus trips to away games and the conversations with the girls on the way to games, so here we go again!

“I’m looking forward to hopefully experiencing that feeling of scoring goals again, of the bus trips with the girls to away games, to the feeling of camaradarie that exists within that Shelbourne squad and to just be involved again and associated with the WNL.

“I’ll always have it in the back of my head that the same thing may happen again for a fourth time but I can’t let that hold me back from what I love.

“Whatever is meant to happen will happen and anything I achieve this year will mean so much to me.

“I look at the likes even of Kylie Murphy and the phenomenal success she has achieved since returning from a major injury.

“To get back to the top of my game to try and help us be as successful as possible, to get that consistency back into my game, would be fantastic but we’ll see how pre-season goes first.”