The injury that fills footballers with dread is severe damage to their anterior cruciate ligament.

Suffering such an injury, known as ACL for shortening purposes, results in anything between nine and twelve months out of action.

It requires surgery, months of rehabilitation away from the rest of the squad and ultimately, worst of all, robs players of precious time on the pitch in what is a short career.

So, it was quite a pleasant surprise to find Derby County Women’s Becky McGrother in high spirits and with a smile on her face which was clearly unforced towards the end of October when we met for a chat at Moor Farm only weeks after being the latest victim to the dreaded ACL.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really.

The Women’s players were asked to fill in an online information form ahead of the new season relating to their background, careers so far and any interesting facts about themselves.

One player filled every single section in and had a bit of fun in the process.

That was 25-year-old Becky McGrother, who admitted she was a quarter German and could juggle Rubik’s cubes. She also let it be known she is a budding, amateur artist alongside being a Mechanical Design Engineer and turning out for the Ewes.

It was only a small snapshot into her personality, but enough to give an indication of her outlook.

I wasn’t sure if she’d be keen to talk about the injury and how she would be in terms of her headspace and mindset.

I need not have worried. It’s fair to say she’s embracing the injury that she sustained on Sunday 17th September 2023.

It came at the Don Amott Arena in the closing stages of the first half of the Ewes’ 1-0 home defeat to Newcastle United. A freak and unfortunate moment left her lying in a heap on the floor and ended her season in a millisecond.

Speaking in the days leading up to her surgery on Saturday 28th October to kick-start hitting the comeback trail, McGrother certainly isn’t feeling sorry for herself and it’s a mentality that is seriously impressive given the circumstances.

It’s one that will stand her in extremely good stead over the weeks and months ahead as she regains her mobility and cracks on with her rehabilitation programme.

Sustaining the injury itself is a moment McGrother can recall in parts but, perhaps unsurprisingly, she was able to sprinkle her personality on the situation.

“It was the second phase from a corner,” she recalled. “I can’t remember it that clearly, but the ball was in the air and, after it bounced, a Newcastle player and I both went sprinting towards it.

“I went for a shoulder barge and she caught me a little bit from behind and as I planted my foot, the knock I got twisted my knee inside but my foot stayed straight.

“As soon as I planted just my toe, I felt a pop and then my knee grated a bit. After that I just grabbed my leg and dropped to the floor like I had been shot! The pain was quite intense.

“I was on my side and holding me knee. Our physio came on and asked me, when I was ready, to roll over and sit up. I couldn’t do it; I was almost frozen. Eventually I did get up and I made a joke about my leg still being attached!”

Jokes aside, McGrother knew the injury was bad immediately.

Previous injuries left her knowing the difference between a sprain and what was a serious injury, albeit until she underwent a scan to determine the extent of the damage she was remaining hopeful it would be a situation of not being as bad as first feared.

“I’ve had little ligament sprains and stuff like that in my knee before, but nothing like this,” she explained.

“I knew it was bad. The pain was severe and it just felt it was right in the middle of my knee, which is where the ACL is. I had a feeling it was bad.”

The game against Newcastle was just McGrother’s second appearance of the season after a stop-start beginning to the campaign owing to an ankle injury picked up on the opening day of the season.

Despite being injured early on against Wolves in the season’s curtain-raiser, she was excellent at left-back and offered a strong attacking outlet as the Ewes pushed forward in search of an equaliser in a narrow 2-1 loss.

She said: “I had a really good second half to last season and also a positive pre-season too, so I was eager to really kick on this year and I was excited about it.

“I was enjoying my football and I felt I was in good form. I rolled by ankle early on in the first game of the season against Wolves but I still managed to play the full 90 minutes. However, I was out for three weeks after that and I was disappointed to miss out early on.

“The match against Newcastle was my first game back so that made it even more frustrating. I’d got 45 minutes under my belt and it happened in the final seconds of added time at the end of the first half.

“I can’t change what’s happened, so I just need to move forward now.”

McGrother doesn’t want to put too much of a timeframe on her return other than wanting to be back on the pitch for the start of the next season. It’s a fair target.

Whether it is something that will be achievable, only time will tell. But if it isn’t, then don’t expect to see her sulking, she’ll just crack on with a smile on her face - she knows the value of looking at the bigger picture.

It’s a mature outlook and is symptomatic of all the players in Sam Griffiths’ squad. Each member of the group is a rounded and sensible individual.

“I want to be back for next July/August time,” she said in a determined matter. “The standard recovery time is around nine months to a year in the Women’s game but obviously some of the players we’ve seen be out of action and return with those injuries are professionals.

“As much as I want to get back quickly, I know I can’t push my recovery too much. That’s important if I want to get back to my best. However, I have to prioritise my life in the future and I want to be able to walk and not have issues around that. I won’t be too hasty with what I am doing.”

While McGrother has plenty of physical work to get through to return to fitness, it is important to highlight the mental challenges that she must navigate around too.

Being ruled out of action for so long provides mental challenges but McGrother isn’t letting herself get downbeat.

If down days and tough moments appear, she’s got a strong support network around her and she’s well aware that it is something she can lean on.

“I feel like I have been quite positive,” she said with a smile on her face.

“I still have my leg! It has already made me look at things in terms of the bigger picture a bit more. I certainly feel it has given me perspective of my whole life.

“I have a good life, I have a roof over my head, food on the table and a car. I’ve got a job, a great family, friends and a boyfriend. I’ve also got a great team here at Derby supporting me. I feel my support network around me is strong.

“I will be down to as many games as possible as the team’s biggest cheerleader, but I am gutted I can’t play and contribute. I can’t dwell on it though, as I know that will impact me mentally.”

Playing football at Derby, alongside having a full-time job and a life, requires great commitment and sacrifice from the players and coaching team.

The Ewes train three nights a week and also play the majority of their matches on a Sunday afternoon, so time with family and friends can be limited.

The injury, however, comes with a positive that she will now have the unexpected opportunity to spend time with those closest to her.

That’s important too, to keep her spirits up and guide her along the way back to action.

“With football you do have to make a lot of sacrifices, such as not seeing friends as much as you would do normally,” she said.

“You miss going to things, but I wouldn’t change those sacrifices. I’ve wanted to prioritise football. This injury has given me an opportunity to see my friends more and be more social, so I have to make the most of it. It is nice I’ll be able to see them and be there in person rather than just dropping a message or a phone call.”

McGrother’s surgery was a success and she’s now at home and recovering well.

Speaking around 48 hours before going under the knife, she understood the first few weeks recovering would be the most challenging.

Not being active doesn’t come easily to McGrother, but she did plenty of research in advance so nothing would blindside her.

“The hardest part for me is not being able to move at all for the first couple of weeks after the surgery,” she sighed.

“Regaining my mobility will be a slow process. I like to feel like I’ve worked hard so I won’t be able to do much to get a sweat on for a little while. When I can get on the bike and gently turn my legs at bit, that will feel amazing!

“Sleeping and getting comfortable will be a challenge. I’ve read a few blogs and stuff like that so I know what to expect.”

While most people use YouTube for entertainment purposes, McGrother used the six weeks between sustaining the injury and having surgery to watch ACL surgeries. There won’t be many people with that in their search histories!

On top of reading blogs and having an understanding of the injury, surgery and recovery programme, you can’t say she’s not done her homework.

“For some reason, I had the bright idea of watching some ACL surgery online!” she laughed.

“I wanted to watch several of those. It is insightful and what they do is impressive, I have to say.

“I’ve been looking at timelines, exercises and stuff like that. I’ve looked at lots of stuff and obviously how some of the Women’s players have been getting on coming back from their own ACL injuries.

“There are loads of top professional athletes that have had this injury and come back to play at a high level. I am not worried; I am actually really looking forward to the challenge.”

So, given she’s going to have to spend a fair bit of time on the sofa resting in the short term and not overexerting herself, how is she going to be keeping herself busy and her mind occupied?

The answer, in short, is she won’t be left bored!

“I’ve been doing some art stuff for a little business on the side,” McGrother admitted. “I’ve designed a few Christmas cards and stuff like that, so that should keep me busy and not bored!

“I’ll also be working from home as well, which will certainly keep my mind occupied.

“When I was younger, I dabbled in playing the keyboard. I taught myself a few things on it and then I guess my interest dwindled during school.

“During the COVID lockdown a few years ago we bought one, a little one, and I’ve been trying to re-learn. I’ve not touched it for a couple of months so maybe now is the time to get back on track. Especially with it coming up to Christmas, I can play the festive songs again!”

Moving away from the injury, McGrother’s career to date has seen her play for several teams across the Midlands.

Getting into football came from joining in with one her friends at school and, from that moment, she was hooked and took her on the journey to where she finds herself today.

“I got introduced into football when I moved up to the Midlands through one of my friends at school,” she said.

“She was the goalkeeper for a local boys’ team, so I went along with her. I joined in and I was kind of good at it, without being big-headed.

“I don’t have core childhood memories of kicking a ball around or anything like that. Going to those training sessions was the first real time for me playing football.

“From there, I ended up playing for two local teams and then a girls’ team was started up that I played for.

“I worked my way to being in Leicester City’s Academy for four years and then Birmingham’s Academy and Reserves after that. We won the 2015 Reserve League Cup and that was a great experience.

“From there, I started university and couldn’t keep up the training in the day like I had been doing previously whilst I was at college. I was studying at Loughborough in Mechanical Engineering and I had to find another club at a good level to go alongside my studies.

“I went to Notts County to start with. Amy Sims and Charlotte Steggles were there too. The owner ended up pulling the plug on things and several senior internationals, as well as the rest of the squad, ended up without a club.”

After leaving Notts County, McGrother was in limbo.

Loughborough Lightning were her closest club, which would reduce travel and be a perfect fit, but they were playing in Tier 4 of the Women’s game at the time so it would have represented a significant drop down the leagues.

She had a decision to make.

“I needed to decide if it was right to drop down a few leagues,” she said.

“There were things which made it appealing. Loughborough were on the verge of getting promoted, I could enjoy my football and it was only 15 minutes away from where I was based which would be great alongside my university work.

“I ended up being with Loughborough for the whole time I was at university; I was there for five years as I did a placement year and an integrated Masters.

“We secured promotion to Tier 3 but were put into the Southern League as we were the most Northern Southern team! We had COVID as well, which stopped all the progress. It was frustrating as I thought I was doing quite well there. We had some good cup runs and then the momentum got pulled, really.”

After McGrother finished her studies at Loughborough, she had the chance to go professional with Coventry United.

That meant shelving what she had worked for over the course of the previous five years for the short-term, but it was an opportunity she simply couldn’t turn down.

She said: “After I finished University, I said to myself that if I got the chance to play professional football then I would take it.

“I had some conversations with Coventry United and I went down there and played for them for a year.

“It was an up and down year with the club nearly going into administration, getting points deductions and all that. The club were saved at the very last minute, and we also only stayed up on the final day of the season with a goal in the seventh minute of injury time. It was the craziest thing I’ve experienced and the emotion of it.”

After an emotionally charged year as a professional with Coventry, which is something McGrother had dreamed of, there was a part missing in her life during that year.

“During that year when I was just playing football, I missed the engineering and learning aspects of things,” she said.

“I tried to keep my engineering up. I was developing games written in Python, but it wasn’t the same as being involved in projects and stuff like that.

“I felt I needed to play football and also have a job in engineering.”

Luckily, Derby County became an option in the summer of 2022 that would offer McGrother the opportunity to play football in Tier 3 and have a full-time job as a Mechanical Design Engineer. The stars had aligned.

“At the same time as I was feeling all this, Sam Griffiths approached me about coming to Derby,” she said.

“I came down for a training session and I loved it. I knew straight away that this is where I wanted to be. Everyone was so nice and it felt like a family immediately.

“It was helpful I knew a few people like Simsy and Joycey. I knew Emelia Wilson from Loughborough too and it was nice to have those familiar faces.”

After what she admitted was a slow start to life with Derby in the 2022/23 season, McGrother felt she clicked into life just before the halfway point of the campaign.

The team finished the campaign in fourth place and McGrother played a key role in the side’s impressive season.

“I feel like I had a slow couple of months at the start of my Derby career,” she said on reflection.

“But, after I scored against Burnley last December, I kicked on. I was so relieved to score!

“That was the proper start of my time at the club. I’ve enjoyed every minute, apart from getting injured. Injuries happen though and it kind of grows your character and develops you as a person.”

She added: I was happy overall with how things went, despite that slow start. We never changed formation, but we changed the outlook we had in it. We made the formation our own and I felt I kicked on.

“We had to understand our roles and responsibilities within the team. It took a couple of months and especially after a bit of a challenging pre-season with fixtures cancelled, warm weather and some COVID issues.

“How we played in turn allowed me to play how I like, which I enjoyed. I was able to press from the front and be aggressive and drive down the wing.”

McGrother is a versatile player and, over her career to date, she’s played in pretty much every position on the pitch. Even in goal!

Her height offers that versatility but, when pushed, she believes where she can make the biggest impact is down the wing when running with the ball and delivering crosses into the box.

That said, she’s happy to play anywhere. As a true team player, she’s played in defence, midfield and attack during her time at Derby.

What is most refreshing is how she approaches matches and the biggest thing is enjoying being on the pitch.

“I like to go into each game as if it is your last because you don’t know what can happen,” she said.

“You could have a career-ending injury or something like that.

“It is important to give your all and play with a smile on your face. If you are stressed or angry, that won’t help you play at your best. There’s no point in playing football if you’re not enjoying it because you won’t just be determinantal to your own performance but also that of the team.”

When it comes to the Women’s game itself, McGrother is thrilled with the progress being made across the board - but knows plenty more hard work lies ahead.

She’s grown up in an era where Women’s football was dismissed and not seen as a priority, but its rise in recent years at both club and international level has been heartening.

That has also had an impact at grassroots level and further down the pyramid too and McGrother only sees that as a good thing in the long-term.

She said: “I think back to when I was at Leicester City and in the Under-14s, which was around 11 years ago, we had Strength & Conditioning and gym sessions once a week.

“We were still training on sandy astroturf pitches. At Birmingham City, we used some of the facilities at the university, but we were training on pitches that were meant to be for Hockey.

“To see youngsters training on 3G pitches now, which comes with its only repercussions and may be linked to other injuries, is an improvement. I am happy about it and I just want the best for the female footballers coming through. The foundations now allow that. We have had to have the bad to have the good, that’s how I see it.”

She added: “The training itself, the quality of training and facilities is so much better. The youngsters have such good opportunities and support to help them on and off the pitch. The backing of the whole system has come up but there’s a long way to go still.

“We’ve seen some teams still having issues such as pulling out of leagues and not being able to field enough players, which is a reminder we’ve not nailed it yet.”

McGrother has her own ideas when it comes to the gradual growth of the Women’s game, albeit at a steady rate rather than an unsustainable jump.

She explained: “There’s lots of momentum now after seeing the England Women’s team win the European Championships and getting to the World Cup Final earlier this year. It is an inspiration.

“I would like to see the Women’s Super League and the Championship expand.

“There are enough teams with the backing behind the scenes to be able to make a larger league.It doesn’t have to be loads of teams, just a few spots, and I think the teams can easily handle the step up as in our league there’s some full-time/hybrid sides.

“I think it would make some stronger leagues in the long run; I really believe it. I am passionate about it.”

She added: “For me, social media, advertising, and sponsorship have a big role to play in showcasing that Women can play football. While there are professionals, we have jobs at this level and come to train and play in the evenings and over the weekend.

“Football is a business and I know it needs to be a sustainable and sensible model. You need to take it in stages rather than go 0-100mph. It needs to be linear and not exponential. If it is the latter, it is likely to crash. It will take longer but it is good that it is happening. Looking back ten years ago, I never thought we’d be in this position for the Women’s game.”

McGrother’s love for the game is clear and she believes the commitment of those associated with Derby County makes it clear how much of an appetite there is to play football.

It isn’t for the money, it’s for the love of putting on their boots and playing the game they love.

“We play because we love it,” she said.

“I work as a Mechanical Design Engineer full-time, train with the squad here three nights a week and play on a Sunday. I wouldn’t change it; I love it. You shouldn’t be doing something that is a burden to your life. It just makes you unhappy.

“I love football and engineering. It is not a chore. Sometimes I do feel tired driving to training, but once I’m on the pitch you get this extra energy and it is amazing.

“You feel so good for doing it. Seeing the team happy and smiling really makes it all worthwhile. When you get the results too, it is so rewarding and makes all the hard work worth it.”

After half an hour, the interview concludes. The recorder goes off and McGrother leans back in her chair with a beaming smile.

Her positivity is infectious and, although we won’t see her in a Derby County shirt until next season, there’s little doubt at all she’ll be back stronger than ever.

When that moment comes, the smile will be bigger than ever before.

Interview & Words: Tom Loakes