‘ANITA KIND OF VIEW’: An in-depth, exclusive insight from Chelsea & England’s Anita Asante

Photo: Chelsea FC Women

BREAKING (and other attention-grabbing words…): She Kicks has made a new signing!

After an ACL injury in England’s opening SheBelieves Cup game with France last March, Chelsea’s Anita Asante has been steadily returning to action this year. Her inclusion in Phil Neville’s inaugural Lionesses squad was her first international call-up in three years, bringing back into the fold one of the country’s most experienced and successful players. ‘Neetz’ has 70 England caps and six major tournaments (one with Team GB) to her name. She won the lot with Arsenal before representing four clubs in the U.S. during the Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) era, adding more silverware in the past few years in Sweden.

The defender/midfielder rejoined Chelsea last year after almost a decade away, but so much has changed since she was last a Blue (the introduction of the FA Women’s Super League, for one, plus the odd restructure…). Neetz continues to be an articulate, passionate voice for women’s football and plenty more besides, and we are proud to share what we hope will be the first of many behind-the-scenes glimpses into her adventures…

 

FC Rosengård’s Anita Asante & Frankfurt’s Mandy Islacker  during the UEFA Women’s Champions League quarter-final in Malmo, Sweden, March 23, 2016. (PA Images)

      I want to start by sharing the past year with you all. As many of you already know, I have played the past six years in Sweden and returned to play for Chelsea at the end of 2017. I have so far really enjoyed my return to the club and meeting old and new faces. I started last year with the intent to train hard and be a positive influence for the squad. Admittedly, I had a nervy start against Everton at home, where we had to battle it out for a winning result. However, as the season developed, I began to find my feet and settle into my role at centre-back. After three years of being omitted from the England squad, to my surprise and delight, I got called back in, in February 2018.

To have the opportunity to play for England again was truly an honour and I was for sure emotional and conflicted as to whether to go back, initially.

 

      To have the opportunity to play for England again was truly an honour and I was for sure emotional and conflicted as to whether to go back, initially. This feeling arose mainly because I hadn’t been playing at international level for a lengthy period of time, and to be quite honest, I had no longer set my sights on being involved ever again. I had already dealt with the divorce some years before and was certain that part of my career was over. But, then I decided why not?! This England was under a new leadership and this could be my last shot at making another tournament, so I agreed.

      I believe Emma Hayes and Phil Neville had some discussions about me and how I’d been doing since my return to the club, before I received the call from Phil. I remember talking to Emma first; she was very supportive and encouraged and reminded me that getting a call-up for England again was an opportunity I did not want to perhaps look back on as an opportunity missed. I spoke with my dad, too, and he, as always, reminded me of all I have managed to accomplish and all the things I could still achieve if I just believed in myself and had faith in my decision to return to the fold. I’ll be honest, when I finally spoke with Phil, I was rather nervous. My mind was running at full speed and I wasn’t sure what answer I would give him at the time. There was a feeling of excitement and anxiety. I hadn’t prepared for this moment and it came in a short window of time. Phil started off by introducing himself and being very complimentary about me as a player, from what he had witnessed. He obviously had done some research and spoken to players in the England squad, so it was nice to hear positive feedback about my character and that he was happy to have my experience back in the squad. I really got the sense that I was talking to a real football person, someone that’s really passionate about the game, and that gave me the confidence to accept the call-up. I truly was honoured to have the chance again.

      The time came to join the team and travel to the USA for the She Believes Cup, and I was ready for this opportunity. I received a lot of support from Emma Hayes, the staff and all my Chelsea teammates, as well as Phil, who was extremely supportive and welcoming, along with the rest of the England squad. It was a great first few days in Ohio; team spirit was good and the atmosphere was relaxed. I was excited for the tournament to kick off, after a number of good training sessions. You could feel a new energy in the group, since everything was somewhat new again under the boss’s leadership.

(Photo: Fred Vuich for The FA)

      People often ask what it’s like in the moments before you step out to play a competitive match. What I can tell you is, for me, it can be a spectrum of emotions: exhilarating, nerve-racking, adrenalin-pulsing and exciting. All of these things combined. I was really happy to get to start the game against France; it was nice to know the management had confidence in me. I have had a long history of playing against France, both in friendlies and tournaments; often close-called matches, tying or losing. I was determined, like my teammates, that on the day we would take our game plan to them and put them on the back foot.

      We started off aggressively and it was a very energetic first ten minutes or so. But much like life, you never know what’s around the corner. Within 15 minutes of the first half, I twisted my left knee in an innocuous situation after chasing a ball away from a French forward. I knew straight away it wasn’t good – I was in agony! The doc thanked me for being straight up with him and telling him I couldn’t continue. I limped off the pitch with help from the medics, in total shock and bewilderment. A part of me didn’t want to believe it was happening, or that the injury was serious. It just ended so abruptly. In an instant, an opportunity gone, a whole season with my club dwindled away. After a day or two of crying and feeling completely awash with emotion, scans confirmed my worst fear: a complete tear of the anterior ligament, severe damage to my meniscus and strains to both lateral and medial ligaments.

Do the robot

      Somehow, when I returned to England, I just became robotic. I came to terms with my situation rather quickly. Perhaps having torn my ACL in the other knee ten years earlier had mentally prepared me for the journey ahead. This time around, though, everything was different. I had my family around me, staying with me, taking care of me, and experts at Chelsea immediately setting out post-surgery protocol. Ten years earlier, my operation was done in New Jersey, USA, and when I look back, I can see a vast difference in the techniques and methods applied to rehabilitation today. Firstly, I didn’t have surgery right away; I had at least four days to have manual rehab focusing on getting a good range of extension in the knee. Trust me when I say being injured is way more taxing on your day-to-day schedule than being fit and available to train and play.

Neetz in action for Sky Blue FCin the WPS, in April 5, 2009. (Photo by Howard C. Smith/isiphotos.com)

      Secondly, I had access to state-of-the-art therapy available to me at Chelsea, which I did not have in NJ. I must have spent 6-7 hours daily rehabilitating my knee. I worked on building strength back in my quad and calves, with light-to-no-weight, to eventually with weight. As the months rolled on, every day I had manual therapy, working mainly on getting a full range of extension back, and later, flexion. As I progressed to walking with a normal heel-toe pattern and running, the AlterG (anti-gravity treadmill) was a great way to steadily do these actions non-weight-bearing and prepare me towards doing the same things eventually weight-bearing and outdoors on grass. Ending the day, I always used the magnet and the hot and cold Game Ready (compression) to reduce any swelling or inflammation. The use of aquatic therapy is the most significant difference between this injury and my previous one. The pool and HydroWorx (underwater treadmill) were a staple part of my rehab, advancing which movements I could do over the months, as well as aiding my recovery.

      When I think back to ten years ago, some of this technology did not exist. When I first stepped into the anti-gravity treadmill, it was a strange but fun feeling. It’s a sensation of feeling like you are being lifted from the ground, just like you imagine astronauts in space to feel. The amazing thing about this piece of equipment is you have the ability to adjust resistance, taking pressure away from the body until you are ready to walk/run with full body weight. The same goes for the underwater treadmill. My first impression when I saw it was like ‘wow, this is amazing.’ I’d never seen anything like it before. I think these were the moments where I was thinking and feeling that this is what a professional club looks like, and then I knew I was in really good hands. It also reminded me that my past ACL experience could not compare to my recent one – it’s like night and day!

Left to right: Arsenal’s Lianne Sanderson, Jayne Ludlow and Anita Asante celebrate winning the FA Women’s Cup in 2007.

      I definitely feel fortunate to have had such a positive rehab experience and equally world-class treatment from all the physios that have worked with me during this process. This time around, instead of only having consults with a surgeon and one physio, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had one of the best surgeons in this field, Andy Williams. It makes me wonder how many other players in the league, and I guess generally across the women’s game, have the same access to such resources. I honestly don’t know, but I imagine very few still.

      All in all, it’s taken approximately nine months to return to full matches. It has been a challenge and I, like most people, have had good and bad days. But all the work and toil was worth it to get back to playing again, and this knee has definitely benefited from the wealth of experience within the club, since my left leg has a better range of extension and flexion than my right.

‘With a little help from my friends…

      I was 23 when I tore my ACL the first time, and I was scared about having surgery and going under the knife. The uncertainty of what returning would be like also played on my mind. I was away from my family and friends and going through this major thing not knowing at all what the day-to-day process was going to be like. I did have support from my partner at the time and my teammates – they were awesome! Heather O’Reilly, KB (Karen Bardsley), Yael Averbuch (my very first roommate in WPS), my dubs Kelly Parker, Julianne Sitch. Shannon Myers would play her guitar and sing to me! So many other players showed me some serious love and support, just always bringing that positive energy and being around me; that was enough to feel good and like I could face this setback head-on. The Vasquez family were hosts to a teammate of mine and became very good friends of ours; they made me feel welcome and would have us over for dinners. I definitely got the sense of community whilst I was injured in the States, and that I fondly remember and greatly appreciated.

      Everyone kept everything light-hearted. They brought me my favourite snacks, we’d camp out and watch movies together, laugh and tease each other; it really was my family away from home. The biggest difference then was I had to be quite independent. There were times when I got to the stage where I could walk with crutches that I was driving myself to physio appointments at a private clinic. I didn’t have the day-to-day hands-on manual treatment that I’ve been able to acquire this time around either. I believe I was definitely more stressed out about the rehab process itself and it took a bit of a toll on my relationship, too. I think this time around it was a blessing that I play for Chelsea and have such amazing people in the medical team and staff.

Anita Asante during a press conference for Great Britain’s women’s football team at the 2012 London Olympics.

Neetz, eats ‘n’ treats

      Without a doubt, having my family around, especially my parents, making accommodations just to take care of me has made a huge difference to the quality of my recovery and mental health. Yes, I felt like a big baby needing my mum to help me take a shower/bath, or go to the toilet, but the reality is I needed them and it was nice to spend some quality time, too. Things that got me through some of those long monotonous days have been Mum and Dad’s cooking, reading cover to cover a whole host of tabloid trash magazines, and not feeling like I’m trapped indoors. So, I encourage anyone going through a similar situation to go out and smell the fresh air as soon as you are mobile enough.

Things that got me through some of those long monotonous days have been Mum and Dad’s cooking, reading cover to cover a whole host of tabloid trash magazines, and not feeling like I’m trapped indoors. So, I encourage anyone going through a similar situation to go out and smell the fresh air as soon as you are mobile enough.

      I went to restaurants with some of the girls on the team and they came and hung out with me at my apartment at times. Plus, it’s always a bonus if you have teammates with pets. Maria Thorisdottir’s dog Theo is a little dreamboat and I got to cuddle with him – even my dad fell in love and he is not what you would term a pet lover! I dabbled with stuff really; I played Duolingo because I thought it would be fun to try and pick up another language, even if it was to a basic level. I was trying to learn Italian, and of course I was also practicing my Swedish, just to keep it up. I played my upbeat Spotify playlist and watched a lot of Loose Women, The Chase, BBC News and Netflix. Whatever keeps you occupied and in good spirits, do. Remember, ‘when the mind is controlled and the spirit aligned with purpose, the body is capable of so much more than we realise.’

      Currently, I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m focusing on continuing to get back playing and gaining confidence and form with Chelsea and seeing where that path takes me. Since this rehab journey began, there were many weeks and months where I had endless amounts of time that I was unable to be physically active and therefore, I began engaging more in philanthropic pursuits. I want to mention some of the things I’m involved with this year. I have loosely been working with Amnesty International UK for several years now, however, I became an official ambassador last year and will be working alongside some brilliant ambassadors and Amnesty associates. I will be working in projects like Football Welcomes, with the objective of welcoming refugees and bridging communities through an open and fun football experience. Also, for those of you that enjoy podcasts, tune into (Chelsea teammate) Ali Riley’s in-depth chats with ballers near and far, in ‘Girls with Balls,’ and the erudite Deborah Frances-White’s ‘The Guilty Feminist‘ – you won’t be disappointed!

You can follow Neetz on Twitter: @NicenNeetz

Chelsea’s Anita Asante (left) and Manchester City’s Georgia Stanway (right) battle for the ball. (PA Images)