If someone had told Steph Small in January 2020 that she wouldn’t complete a competitive 90 minutes for over a year, she might’ve thought the nasty shoulder injury she’d picked up doing gym work would be the reason why.
However, along came a global pandemic which has thrown the last 12 months up in the air for Steve Cuss’ side, who initially saw the 2019/20 campaign declared null and void while being sat top of the table and who have now, in mid-February, played just one league game this season.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Small, who has battled injury after injury, started a new role in the club’s Community Sports Trust and attempted to regain fitness ahead of a possible return to the grass – whenever that might be!
She talked through it with afcb.co.uk: “It all started when I injured my shoulder in January last year and the recovery took much longer than expected.
“I ended up coming back from that in early August, but then got re-injured a couple of weeks later in pre-season – that was a wrist injury.
“I came back from that in early December, before I then strained my thumb, so I’ve had three back-to-back injuries and the season has been really on and off for me.
“It’s been frustrating, but it’s taught me a lot of things about myself. It’s certainly made me better at looking after myself and in terms of recovering properly.
“I haven’t really been able to play, but I suppose no-one has. The season has been really stop-start for all the girls, but I haven’t had a chance to play at all. I’m getting myself fit now, so I’m looking forward to when we can go back.”
Small cited the expertise of colleague and fellow coach Stephen Lillis, who works largely on the Walking Football programme, as crucial to her health and wellbeing during the country’s third national lockdown.
Regular sessions have helped her regain fitness levels ahead of a possible return between the sticks.
She continued: “I’ve been lucky enough to train with one of my colleagues, Stephen.
“With the government guidelines, you can exercise outside with one person at two metres apart, so we’ve been training together and doing a lot of goalkeeper-specific stuff.
“Stephen is part of the health team within the Community Sports Trust and he’s a qualified personal trainer. He has also played a bit himself which is good.
“We’ve been doing different types of training outside, but it’s been really good for me to keep my fitness up.”
While Covid-19 may have halted life on the pitch, the 23-year-old went on to discuss the wider impact of the pandemic and how she has adjusted to the changes.
“I think, being a coach, we’re so used to being outside all day and interacting with people all day, so it’s a massive adjustment to not be doing that.
“I can’t wait to get back on the grass because it’s really weird at the moment.
“I think I struggled more in the first lockdown as opposed to this one – I think everyone is more used to it now and it’s not as big of an adjustment.
“For me, trying to get out every day and exercising, either with my colleagues or just on a walk by myself, has been a massive help for me.”
Another focal point for Small has been a change in job title with the Community Sports Trust, who she has worked for since the summer of 2017.
She now works closely with young female footballers in a local college, helping to develop their game and the education that goes with it.
For a job that is so heavily reliant on outdoor activity, it’s yet another thing that has required some significant adjustments over the past few months.
“This season I started my new job role and I’m working alongside my colleague Dave Staddon on Brockenhurst College’s Female Football Education Programme.
“We were quite lucky that we could keep doing that for the majority of the time, but obviously since the turn of the year they’ve been back to remote learning so we can’t go in.
“A lot of it since then has been behind the scenes planning ready for when we go back. We’ve been putting together sessions and things for the girls to do, but generally all of us community coaches haven’t been able to go into as many schools as we normally would.
“We’ve also not been able do our normal sessions like Minikickers, so it’s been really different.”
It’s not just been different for Small, who concluded by stating the impact that the Community Sports Trust has had all over Dorset in recent months.
Both children and adults have been getting involved through a number of different methods and several have connected with the club in ways like never before.
“I think we saw when we came back after the first lockdown, we had a record sell-out for our soccer schools,” she explained.
“People were really desperate to come back to us, which was good.
“Even the Zoom calls that we do with our players I think is something they look forward to each week.
“It gives them something different instead of just online schooling or going out for a walk. It keeps them in touch with us and us with them too!”
AFC Bournemouth Women are proudly supported by two local companies.
Thank you to Bournemouth University for being the front of shirt sponsor and thank you to Vitality for supporting our Women's and Girls’ setup.