Claire Rafferty: The final straw was when I fell over my dog

Wednesday 04 Mar 2015
Claire Rafferty made her England debut against Austria in March 2010

For Claire Rafferty the final straw was when she was knocked over by her dog, Trevor.

The England and Chelsea left-back had already suffered three serious knee injuries when, during rehab, she was sent tumbling by her Labrador.

Then, just as she was starting to step up her recovery her bike – and her best source of aerobic exercise – was stolen.

It was only then that she started to wonder whether a hugely promising career that yielded seven England caps might have been cut short in its prime.

Claire Rafferty

DOB: 11/01/1989
Club: Chelsea
Position: Left-back
Caps: 7
Debut: v Austria, 25/03/2010
Last match: v Croatia, 19/09/2012

Could Rafferty, who has missed a penalty in a World Cup quarter final and an FA Women’s Cup Final, be among the unluckiest players in England?

“I just couldn’t catch a break,” she said.

“I was feeling sorry for myself. I was thinking ‘why me?’ I was gutted. I cried for a bit and then that was it. I just had to get on with it.”

Rafferty, 26, is back in the England squad ahead of their Cyprus Cup campaign and has aspirations of staying in the 23 for this summer’s World Cup. 

She has yet to play under Mark Sampson, and with just over three months to go until the tournament kicks off you would be forgiven for thinking that she was running out of time to impress the head coach.

But that would be doing a disservice to her incredible strength of character. Rafferty knows time is against her, but she has come through much tougher times.

Rafferty’s first prolonged spell out of the game came when, aged 15, she ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left leg. However, she battled back and broke into the Chelsea team and the England youth team setup.

In 2011 she ruptured the ACL in the opposite leg in a challenge with former Arsenal midfielder Kim Little. And she suffered the same fate two years later in landing awkwardly in a match against Everton.

Rafferty explained: “I knew I’d done it again because I’d been there before and because of the way my knee was moving around.

“I knew that was me out for nine months minimum. And because that was the second time I’d done it I knew it would probably be longer."

Claire Rafferty

Claire Rafferty has suffered three separate ACL injuries

Rafferty knew what lay ahead. The operation involved taking a graft from her hamstring and using it as a substitute ACL. For the second operation on her right leg the surgeons were forced to use a piece of her patella tendon.

Then it was the dreaded rehab. At first this involved Rafferty simply lifting her leg 20 times, four times a day for a week in order to activate her quad.

Crutches were discarded after a couple of weeks, though she stayed in a brace for a month afterwards as she had to hobble on to the London Underground to get to her other job: she works three days a week for Deutsche Bank in the City.

“The one positive I took out of being injured for so long was that I was able to focus on my career away from football which other players wouldn’t have been able to do,” she said.

Rafferty then moved on to a basic programme of squats and balance exercises. She did not start running again until three months after her operation. And it took every ounce of her physical and mental strength to get back to full fitness.

“Every dog has its day. I feel like I still haven’t had mine yet”

Claire Rafferty reveals her motivation

She said: “It’s quite a lonely place. People obviously care about you but it hasn’t happened to them so they don’t know what you’re going through.

“It takes a lot of mental strength to block out everything and just focus on getting yourself back out there. At first I got really angry and probably unbearable to be around. 

"But I remember my mum told me that it could be worse. That it was only football and if it didn’t work out it didn’t work out. That put it into perspective. 

"I was lucky. There are millions of people in the world worse off than me.”

Rafferty continued: “The first three months of rehab were awful. I biked a lot the first time, but I couldn’t bike that much the second time – my bike got stolen.

“The worst part was people asking me if I was going to quit. People were wondering whether I’d be able to come back from it for the third time. 

"Quitting never really entered my head, but when I did it for the third time and after being tripped up by my dog I was thinking ‘clearly this is not meant to be’.

“The hardest thing is the seclusion. You can be around the team as much as you want but you’re not involved. There’s only so much you can force yourself in.”

Then there was the frustration of not being able to show Sampson, who replaced Hope Powell in December 2013, what she could do.

She said: “Hope was really supportive the first two times, but when I did it the last time I didn’t know where I stood because I hadn’t even met Mark at that stage.

“I felt that I was knocking on the door with England and then kept suffering these setbacks and letting other people jump ahead of me.

“I started to question myself, wondering if I’d be able to get back to where I was. That was the biggest doubt in my head.

Claire Rafferty in action against Arsenal

“Everything just goes. When I started training again I suffered with my peripheral vision and my timing. 

"I had to teach myself how to do stuff I used to take for granted. I had to accept that I had to train differently and I’ll have to do that for the rest of my career.”

But Rafferty completed her hat-trick of comebacks. She returned to the Chelsea team in April last year and has been enjoying a full pre-season programme with the Blues ahead of the new campaign.

She is back in the England set-up too. Her maiden call-up under Sampson came in September, for the resounding 10-0 win in Montenegro. Although she did not feature it gave her an opportunity to train under Sampson’s gaze for the first time.

And now she is involved with the Lionesses again she is determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Rafferty said: “My motivation to get fit again was that I hadn’t had the chance to show my full potential at international level.

“My ultimate goal is to be England’s No1 left-back and I haven’t reached that stage yet.

“I don’t want to be told I can’t achieve that because I was injured. I don’t want my injury to be an excuse. I want to be able to compete on a level playing field and have to be told that I’m not good enough.

“Every dog has its day. I feel like I still haven’t had mine yet.”

By Glenn Lavery