As Kerri Welsh lay stricken on the pitch at the Lamb Ground in Tamworth in November 2017, she knew what lay in wait over the next nine months if she was ever to play football again.
The forward had just ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament for the third time – twice before on her right knee and now on her left – during a cup game between Aston Villa and Sheffield FC.
Immediately, she knew the scans, operations, time off work, physio and rehabilitation it would take just to get her back to the point where she could run again.
And despite promising herself after the second time that she would retire if it ever happened again, Welsh resolved that this would not be how the curtain came down on her playing career.
“There was no question that I wanted to come back,” she said.“I still believed I had a few years left playing at this level and I wasn’t ready to part ways with playing.
“I had this absolute determination that no one was going to stop me – no physio, no surgeon, no coach was going to tell me that I wasn’t coming back.”
The 26-year-old’s trio of ACL injuries have robbed her of nearly three years of playing the game she loves.
But long-term injuries don’t only take a physical toll – it’s the mental hardships which are often overlooked when an athlete’s livelihood is stripped away and they’re reduced to the role of a spectator.
She continued: “You have to be the No.1 fan. You’re not a player anymore – you’re a supporter, and that’s the brutal side of an injury.
“I tried to keep myself involved with the group as much as I could. Every training session and every game, I was there. I think it’s important to stay around the group when you’re out for so long.
“It’s definitely hard to stay positive, especially with the type of injury I had. You can’t do an awful lot for the first three or four months. The rehab is very boring, it’s very repetitive, there’s nothing exciting about it and you’re not kicking a ball for six or seven months.
“It’s difficult but I like to think I kept my own personal feelings away from the group because they had a job to do.
“When I was at home, my parents and my family saw the other side of the injury – the down sides and how it affects you when you’re not playing on a weekend. I wouldn’t wish it on any player.”
Welsh’s ability to play football was not the only victim of her injury.
Every Villa Ladies player studies or works full-time alongside their commitments to the club, due to the part-time nature of The FA Women’s Championship, the second tier of women’s football in this country.
For Welsh, this meant her role as Female Football Development Officer at the Port Vale Foundation was heavily impacted.
“We have to work full-time to pay the bills and we play because we enjoy it and it’s our hobby,” she said. “For me, I had to take time off work for a lengthy period which didn’t help. Obviously, I’ve got a job to do and I need to be there. They were really good in giving me the time off that I needed.
“With the work that I do, it’s very practical. I’m coaching and I need to be giving demonstrations and I’m on my feet a lot, so it was difficult to go back into work and work to my full ability.”
The ACL injuries have punctuated Welsh’s career so far - as a 20-year-old at Everton, and at the ages of 23 and 25 at Villa.
A player with less love for the game might conclude after three such injuries that it’s time to call it a day, but that wasn’t an option.
“I don’t think anything compares to playing football,” Welsh said.“I’ve had three years of being out injured and in that time I’ve tried to find something that compares to playing and there’s absolutely nothing.
“I wanted to make the decision of when I finish playing – I didn’t want that decision to be down to injury.”
Countless training nights at Bodymoor Heath were spent with former physio Andy Frampton and ex-strength and conditioning coach George Farmer as she spent a gruelling nine months in rehabilitation.
Welsh’s commitment to the team was such that she travelled to away games, such as Durham in midweek, on the team bus.
The road to recovery eventually led to her playing return as a late substitute in a pre-season friendly against Coventry United in August 2018.
Welsh promptly scored twice in seven minutes to secure a 3-2 win.
“The first game back was something that I will never forget,” she reflected.“To come on and score two was good and it made me happy. I feel blessed every time I’m able to play football, even in training.
“I never take it for granted that I can just play football. I try and train and play like it’s my last game because in the blink of an eye it could be gone.”
Her importance to the team was underlined by Head Coach Gemma Davies’ decision to make her club captain ahead of the current campaign.
And Welsh has consequently led by example as she works her way back to full fitness, topping the scoring charts with two goals in six appearances.
Three major injuries have failed to diminish her passion for playing football, and she wouldn’t rule out making another comeback if disaster struck for a fourth time.
“I said after the second time that if it ever happened for a third time that would be it, I’d hang my boots up and I’d never play again,” she said.“As soon as I did it the third time, there was no question in my mind that I was going to have the operation and try to get back again.
“This time, I’ve said that if it happens again I’ll hang my boots up but I’ll probably still try and come back again. I’ve just got a massive passion for playing football and playing for this football club.”
Welsh’s love of representing Aston Villa will be on show once again when she steps out against Durham at Boldmere St Michaels FC on Sunday.