Sophie Bradley: Returning after World Cup and FA Cup heartache

Sophie Bradley in action for England
Sophie Bradley was among the first players to join Notts County Ladies on their relocation from Lincoln, having played for the club before the move

The broken bike at the end of Sophie Bradley's bed is testament to her determined comeback from a knee injury that made her doubt her future in the game.

It has taken three operations, recovery from a bizarre case of a locked knee, and 18 months for the 26-year-old England defender to declare that her return is almost complete.

When Notts County Ladies start pre-season training on Monday, Bradley the footballer farewells the isolated athlete which she became.

The chances are that her first session will be in the gym warming up on an exercise bike - the same piece of equipment she parked at the end of her bed and cycled madly towards her comeback every night she could.

"The minute the physio told me I could go on the bike, I was on the bike. I had a bike in my bedroom because I was that keen," Bradley told BBC Sport.

"That bike is now broken, Dad threw it out. We have since moved house and my husband isn't letting me bring a bike back in the room."

Questioning her football future

Bradley, who has won 28 senior England caps and was part of the 2011 World Cup squad in Germany, can now look back at moments during her comeback with a smile and talks about having friends and family join her in a hotel pool on her hen party to run through recovery drills with an airy delight.

"I would never have had an hen party if I was playing football," she said. "But I still couldn't let my hair down, I needed to train. I had all the girls in the pool with me aqua jogging."

Sophie Bradley makes a tackle
Sophie Bradley says she does not fear the physical side of the game on her return, having hurt her knee with an innocuous movement

But there is no hiding the disappointment of missing England's Women's World Cup journey that finished with a bronze medal, or masking the frustration of being sidelined as Notts County lost both the FA Cup and Continental Cup finals last season.

"Do you know what I would have preferred to do between a hen party and celebrating the build-up to my wedding, or playing for Notts County and going to the World Cup? For me it is an easy decision - I would have preferred to play," Bradley said.

"It has been a tough 18 months. For me it has been a torrid time in my football career.

"I didn't feel like a footballer. I was always in with the girls and the banter, but that was taken away from me when I was injured.

"I always questioned why. I just couldn't get my head around that I had done everything, yet for whatever reason my knee happened and it wouldn't go right. To say it was hard is probably an understatement, watching all three - the World Cup, FA Cup and Continental Cup.

"Some people questioned whether I would be able to get back. In my head it did cross my mind at one point because I thought 'this is a bit of a joke now. Will I ever get back playing football?'

"But I was so determined to prove that I could and that is why I'm in the situation now, where I am on countdown and hoping to play some matches and training with the girls."

'They stopped giving me comeback dates'

With one innocuous move, Bradley crumpled to the ground in agony at Yeovil Town in July 2014 - the real pain, she said, was knowing her place at the 2015 Women's World Cup had probably ended there and then.

Two operations were to follow in quick succession on her right leg, one on the horrendous knee injury - which saw her dislocate the joint before rupturing ligaments - and the second on a painfully persistent ankle complaint.

Ankle surgery to cut away bone growths was supposed to be the "tricky" operation.

However, it was complications with her knee that cost her a place in one of the biggest years in the history of women's football in England.

Sophie Bradley doing knee rehab pitchside
Sophie Bradley says every setback was like a "kick" in 2015

At one stage, winning back a place in the Notts County team for the first Women's FA Cup final at Wembley was set as a target. Complications with scar tissue ruined that plan.

"The most annoying thing was that I did everything that the surgeon and the physios could possibly ask of me," she said.

"After the second operation the surgeon just said 'sorry, it never really happens'. When I straightened my leg, it locked like that.

"I was going to be back for the FA Cup, it was the last date they gave me. To not return for that was just another kick. They stopped giving me comeback dates after that."

Better than ever

So long had she been on the injury list, working on her recovery in the gym, that she stopped trying to pre-empt when she would return to the field.

Then one day in November, when she hardly expected it, Bradley was given the all-clear.

Sophie Bradley playing for Great Britain at London 2012
Bradley got through the 2012 Olympics in London despite an ankle problem which eventually saw her undergo surgery in 2014

"I couldn't even tell you what I did in that training session after that because I was just that excited," Bradley said.

She was advised to give herself a break over the festive period. She politely declined.

"I've not stopped training. Pre-season starts on Monday, but I've been in pre-season for months," she continued.

"The physio told me to have a break, but I said 'are you kidding, there is no way'. I want to be the player I was before and better."

And that means winning back her England shirt - one that she wore for 12 years before her injury.

"Playing for England, representing my country is something I've done since I was 13," she said.

"For me, at this moment in time, getting back to training and playing matches for Notts County is my focus and if I do that well, then returning for England will take care of itself."

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