If there’s anyone that is entitled to be just a little bit excited about the start of Derby County Women’s 2023/24 season, it’s Megan Tinsley.

The defender missed the entire 2022/23 campaign after she made the decision to follow medical advice and have an implantable loop recorder placed in her chest to monitor her heart rhythm and rate.

A frustrating year watching on, which offered its mental challenges along the way, has made Tinsley hungrier than ever to show her undoubted quality on the pitch.

After being a key member of Sam Griffiths’ squad in the previous three seasons, her unexpected spell out of action has provided her with a different outlook on life and football - but she is more than fired up to make up for lost time this term.

Her period on the sidelines was also treated extremely carefully given that Tinsley was diagnosed with atrial septal defect at the age of just three. In short, she had hole between the two collecting chambers of the heart and had surgery two years later to address the issue.

She never had any concerns with her heart again growing up and it wasn’t until early 2022 that she began noticing some problems. A couple of chest paints here and there provided nothing more than a few worries, but it wasn’t anything to indicate there was a major problem on the horizon.

But even then, Tinsley thought she might only have to miss a couple of games at best. She was convinced that she’d be back on the pitch in next to no time. To end up sitting out the entire season was, to put it politely, unexpected. For someone who began playing football at the age of six, it’s all she’s ever known.

It’s been a hard 12 months for Tinsley, not that you’d know it by the way she’s comfortable telling her unique story. When we met for the first time to do this interview, I wasn’t sure how much she’d want to talk about it or how comfortable she’d be. Did I need to tread carefully? Not at all.

If anything, we ran out of time chatting, so much so we had to meet up again a week later to polish off the finer details. This is a chance for her to talk in detail about her experience and, given she’s champing at the bit, provide an element of closure before looking firmly ahead.

Sitting in the canteen area at Moor Farm Training Ground ahead of another pre-season training session, Tinsley is understandably all smiles as she’s ready to pull on her boots and get down to work and add to her 65 games and six goals in Rams colours.

It’s a feeling she’s missed, that’s abundantly clear. The way she speaks gives that impression and the way she grins her way through the interview, which begins on the topic of how it came to her missing a year of football to start off with, is like a child on Christmas Eve.

“I kept getting a load of chest pains when I was running,” the 25-year-old calmly explained. “It wasn’t stitch because you can feel that in your ribs.”

Pointing to just above her heart, she said: “I was feeling it here, right in my chest. It hurt when I ran and I knew something just wasn’t right.

“I assumed I was either running too much and not breathing enough or properly, or I had eaten or drunk too much or too quickly.

“I’ll be honest, I kept putting it off getting looked at. It was going on for quite a while. But we have all been there where you just keep putting something off; maybe in fear and also in the thought it’s nothing to worry about.”

Then came a moment where she knew it was time to act.

“I was breathing quite heavily in a game,” she recalled with great detail. “We won the ball on the edge of the box and I sprinted beyond the halfway line. We actually lost possession and as I was running back to defend I could hear my heart ringing in my ears. It was really fast and I knew it wasn’t a good sign.

“I tried to get booked in at the doctors but that wasn’t so easy. It did take a while. Whilst it was pre-season, I made a real effort to get booked in and get everything checked. I thought if I got it sorted, I wouldn’t miss much of the season - which are the famous last words.

“I looked at the fixtures at the time and at first I thought I would probably only miss about five games. I didn’t!”

The way she ended that sentence was perhaps the only moment during our first 30-minute interview where there’s a detection of sadness.

She’d been in stunning form in the 2021/22 season and contributed to a positive season on the pitch, including what she describes as her favourite moment in a Derby shirt against Nottingham Forest in March 2022 at Pride Park Stadium. She was sent off for a handball on the goalline in a 1-0 win over the Reds, who missed the resultant penalty. It’s not even a debate for her as it played a key role in a win which saw Derby complete the double over their local rivals.

When asked how long she wasn’t feeling right, she said: “I would say quite a few times towards the end of the season and going into pre-season last summer, I knew something wasn’t right. I don’t know if it was getting worse or if it was just the same.

“During that season, Sam (Griffiths) and Bart (Jenny Simpson) were saying I was like a new player because I had got myself in a good place fitness wise. I had been to a personal trainer to get myself fit for the season.

“As I said, I kept putting it off and putting it off and eventually I went to the doctors. They said there was something wrong with my ECG (electrocardiogram). The alarm bells started ringing at that point. I knew I needed to do whatever was required to get it sorted.”

While she’s missed the cut and thrust of competitive football, Tinsley doesn’t need telling she’s done the right thing. Health comes above everything else, even something you love.

The harrowing images of Christian Eriksen falling to the floor whilst representing Denmark in the delayed UEFA 2020 European Championships immediately springs to mind when thinking of players suffering from heart problems on the pitch.

Tinsley certainly didn’t want to put herself, or her loved ones, in the position of treading on a similar path.

“The bigger picture is my health comes first,” she said. “I know I’ve done the right thing, as difficult as it has been to watch on from afar. If I hadn’t gone to the doctors and acted on things, who knows what could have happened to me on the pitch.

“Another reason I went to get myself sorted was because I saw a lot of footballers collapsing on the TV. I thought to myself: that could be me.”

With so much focus on Tinsley’s physical health and particularly given she was unable to play football due to a heart concern, her mental wellbeing could easily have been overlooked.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case as her family and friends, as well as team-mates and staff from Derby, rallied around her. They made her feel involved and valued, which was comforting.

She attended first-team matches but admitted when the whistle blew at kick-off, she became anxious. She wanted to be out there. She was supporting her team-mates but almost torturing herself at the same time.

Her efforts to support her team-mates went to a whole new level when she donned mascot Ewie’s outfit for a game. She did question where she was going with her life at the time, but at least it allowed her to step back on the pitch, albeit in an alternative role, and the youngsters in the crowd were none the wiser.

She said: “Mentally, it’s actually been OK. Although I think it did get to me a little bit. At the start I thought I’d be back in a month or two but then it kept getting later and later. Once we got to December and I still wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just knew the season was done. There was no way I was going to come back before the season’s end.

“I came in to training a bit, but I didn’t want to be around happy environment and have the temptation to kick a ball about with people and acting happy - because I wasn’t happy. It was all good and well turning up to the matches, but when the whistle blows you want to be on the pitch.

“Everyone has been brilliant; the players and staff especially. I’d come in to training and games and I’d get a hug and be told I was being missed on the pitch, which made me feel good and like I can make a difference out there.”

Her job as a teaching assistant at Ashgate Croft School has kept her busy while her boyfriend, Seán, who is Sheffield United fan, has been nothing short of a rock and been with her every step of the way.

When the temptation to feel sorry for herself and wallow in self-pity crept up on her, Seán was the first to keep her on the right track. A cheeky alcoholic drink and ‘crappy food’ whilst watching the football was a particular craving. Without him, she’d have cracked.

“I have grown up with football since I was young and people close to me, especially those that have known me for a long time, took me under their wing so when I told them about this problem, they were all concerned,” she said. “They started to worry about me more than I did myself and it was nice to know that I wasn’t alone in the journey.

“My family have been amazing and Seán has been so good through it all. There is the temptation when you aren’t playing football to indulge in the things that you shouldn’t - for example when I go and watch football there’s beer and crappy food there in front of me!

“He has made sure I have stayed on the right path. It was annoying, but great. Without him, I would one hundred per cent would’ve given in to those!”

“He has been a big driving force and he has been there for me,” she added. “If I had been living at my mums I would’ve been on the sofa and sat down and maybe not been too bothered.

“However, I am living in Sheffield with him so I have to get up at 6am each morning to catch the train to go to Chesterfield for work. He has helped me with my job and everything and it makes my life so much better.

Sometimes you have an argument with yourself in your head, don’t you? You can stay in and watch TV or go on the field at the back and do something to be active. That voice in your head tells you to stay in; binge and chill. Or there’s that other one to show you want to be back playing football and be part of this squad. The latter means so much to me and Seán knows that.”

Tinsley has been back in training since the summer and describes herself as in a good place. Once she got the all-clear from the doctors, she described the news as like having a big weight removed from her shoulders.

Like every other member of the squad, Tinsley had to prove her worth to sign up for another year with Derby. Pre-season trials meant a chance to impress and show everyone what they had been missing out on, but it also provided an element of worry and doubt.

After so long on the sidelines, it was only natural to be concerned. Did she have anything to worry about? No. Did she worry about being retained? Absolutely!

“It feels amazing to be here!” she said with a huge grin on her face. “I was a bit worried with the trials and everything, which I was always going to be.

“To know Sam, the staff and all the squad value me feels so special. Everyone tells you not to worry, but I was definitely worrying.”

There were plenty of players looking to catch Griffiths’ eye during the pre-season trials. With several defenders being assessed, Tinsley admits to reading too much into every little detail.

She joked: “I remember saying to myself ‘there wouldn’t be this many defenders if she wasn’t thinking of getting rid of me’.

“We had a game on a Sunday at Moor Farm and Bart came to ask me to meet her and Sam in the classroom. I was trying to read Sam’s body language as I walked in the room and I thought: ‘that doesn’t look good’. I thought she didn’t look happy and a bit upset.

“She started by asking if I was OK and was like: ‘Oh god. What is she going to say?’. I’ve known Sam and Bart for years and I thought she was going to say something to break both our hearts.

“She then said I was still wanted here; I think my shoulders dropped!”

Tinsley feels good from a fitness point of view too. A long pre-season, training three nights a week and getting match minutes under her belt too, has allowed her to gradually build up her sharpness.

While that’s been the sensible approach, it won’t come as a surprise to learn she’s been eager to push herself. However, she knows doing too much too soon would be a naive thing to do.

The way she has been edged back into games has been a confidence builder, especially as the medical team have treated her return like she’s come back from suffering a cardiac arrest.

“We started our pre-season fairly early and I have been taking gradual steps,” she said. “My minutes have built up a lot more than they would have done if we had started a bit later.

“You must respect the strength and conditioning coaches and the physiotherapists. You have to respect their decisions, as much as I’d just love to play 90 minutes and ignore their expert advice!”

It’ll be a big achievement when she returns to competitive action this season and her response to the question of how much she longs for that moment brings us both into a fit of laughter.

How much do I want it? A lot,” she said. “Like you wouldn’t believe. I just want to get stuck in. To something or someone, not in a bad way! Do you know what I mean?

“I have waited about a year for this. When you’ve been watching for that long and had moments where you’re dying to be on that pitch, it’ll be special.”

Tinsley’s football journey began in the mid-2000s but, perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a slight twist to her tale.

Her early years saw her form part of a boys’ team, which is the same for many female players of the same age. It wouldn’t happen now, certainly given the excellent steps taken in Women’s and Girls’ football at grassroots level and higher.

Tinsley, a lifelong Chesterfield fan, spent her maiden years turning out for Handley Wood JFC and it is an experience she wouldn’t swap for the world.

“My dad took me to some local football camps at one of our local schools in Chesterfield,” she recalled.

“I don’t know how many sessions I went to but a guy called Jed was the manager of Handley Wood and he wanted to sign me. I stayed with them until I was 11 because after then girls couldn’t carry on playing for the boys’ team.”

Trials at Chesterfield Ladies followed but she was not overly keen to make the step. She even had trials at Sheffield Wednesday with the boys, knowing nothing could come of it. Sheffield United spotted her and she was eventually convinced to join their Academy until her early teenage years before she made the switch to the Derby County Women Academy.

She made the first team at the age of 16, as well as representing England at Under-17 level, but returned north to join Sheffield FC for three years to establish herself on the senior stage. She was their 2019 Player of the Season, but financial commitments saw Sheffield FC’s Women’s Team withdraw from the FA Women’s Championship that year. The financial commitments necessary to compete at the level proved to be too onerous but they continue to participate at a lower level.

Tinsley moved to Sheffield United, eventually, after refusing to walk out on Sheffield FC before their 2019 season concluded. It says a lot about her character that she didn’t want to jump ship at the first sign of trouble while they were fighting relegation. By her own admission, things ‘didn’t work out’ with the Blades.

She returned to Derby on loan in the 2019/20 season before signing permanently in January 2020.

Interestingly, Tinsley admits to believing the stereotype that girls’ football wasn’t good enough as a youngster and she truly felt that was the case. Boys’ football was a key part of her development, and she feels it has provided an extra edge to the way she plays.

She said: “If someone asked me to play for a boys’ team now, I still would in a heartbeat. I think that’s where I’ve got the aggressive nature of my game from and the winning mentality. Training and playing with boys toughened me up.

“When I was at Sheffield United’s Academy, one of the coaches asked me if I had trained with boys. He said my legs had developed in the way that a man’s would. That was specifically about the muscle tone that I had. They said it was what a boy would have!”

She describes herself playing for Handley Wood in tournaments as the ‘blonde-haired girl with a ponytail in a boys’ team’.

Embarrassingly, but not surprisingly, parents and players thought they’d be in for an easy ride at those tournaments. They’d be rubbing their hands, laughing and pointing.

What they weren’t aware of was they were coming up against not just a blonde-haired girl with a ponytail, but one that excelled at football.

“I loved it,” she immediately responded when asked how much she enjoyed proving people wrong. “The opposition didn’t. You’d turn up and they’d see this girl with a blonde ponytail. They’d rub their hands and say: We’re going to beat these and it’s going to be easy.

“I enjoyed the fact I could dribble past the boys, sprint after the ball and they’d be ten yards behind me. I loved that. But then you’d get clattered. It has toughened me up. I’ve had whacks on the shin and all that.

“We played in a tournament once; I think it was in Ashover. I heard a woman say: “They’ve got a girl on their team; this should be easy.” I ended up being the top scorer in that tournament.

“I enjoyed proving boys wrong, massively. Especially when they think about taking it easy on you and then you ping a 25-yard pass and they look at you like: did she just do that?”

Tinsley has, like the rest of the world, seen the Women’s game grow rapidly in front of her eyes in recent years. The professionalism, standard and interest is growing by the week. So is the media coverage.

The exploits of the England Women national side, the only senior England side to win a major trophy since 1966, has played a massive part.

There’s still work to do and a long way to go, but the tangible progress offers plenty of optimism for the future.

It’s a far cry from heading on an England Under-17s camp and being told they could keep either their Nike suitcase or one another item. That lack of respect still irks Tinsley, you can tell.

“The game is getting a lot better and going in the right direction,” she said. “What has helped the profile has been the England Women winning the European Championships. It has really pushed it all on.

“A girl I know who plays for Newcastle United was telling me they had an Open Training Session with 2,000 people there recently. And Leicester City had about 1,500 at one too not long ago. This is to watch Women train!

“The game is growing at a reasonable pace and it has a way to go yet. It is on the right track. If it goes 0-100mph, it will ruin the game. Players will be paid ridiculous amounts, which of course we wouldn’t say no to, but it would cause a problem in the long run.”

She added: “People say to us sometimes that we should be on the same money as the men, but I always say they’re delusional.

“I’ve never been bothered by the money, but it is nice to see the appreciation that you are worth something and have a value. Coming to Derby County, this is the first time I’ve ever been paid.”

“I think maybe that shows it isn’t about the money for us, this is about playing for the love of football and the fun of it. What more could you possibly ask for?”

After 12 months away, what has Tinsley learn from the experience of being on the sidelines?

“I’ve seen the game in a different way in the last year,” she said. “I definitely appreciate how difficult a manager’s job actually is.

“You work on stuff in training and then in the game we don’t end up doing it, so you feel like it is a waste of two hours on the training pitch!

“It makes me think that if Sam and Bart are asking us to do something specific then I am sure as anything going to make sure I do it.

“It has made me respect the things that are going on here to make things better behind the scenes. I appreciate there is so much effort going on.”

And with those final words, the interview comes to an end. The recorder stops and Tinsley is up like a shot and raring to go. Training awaits and she can’t wait to get out there. And quite frankly, who can blame her?

Welcome back, Megan.

Interview and words: Tom Loakes