A ‘nobody’ – many would say that’s a harsh assessment of defender Deanna Cooper when she arrived at Chelsea in 2017.
But that assessment is her own. No one knew about her and no one had really seen her play.
Once the WSL Spring Series ended, with Chelsea winning the title, everyone in women’s football knew about Cooper. She was dubbed the surprise package of the series and was touted as a potential England call-up for the future.
But from that high came a crushing blow ahead of the next season when a serious ACL injury put her out of action for essentially a year.
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Game time was limited for Cooper at Chelsea after that and she joined fellow WSL side Reading back in July.
But there has certainly been a big change in the player that arrived at Chelsea from London Bees compared to the player that arrived at Reading this summer.
“The player that arrived at Chelsea, from my point of view, was a nobody,” says Cooper.
“That probably sounds a bit harsh towards myself, but I was literally a nobody. No one knew who I was, nobody had really seen me play, I only got into Chelsea on trial and my first contract was only three months long.
“I had the shortest amount of time to prove myself, but that person has grown so much in confidence and, I think, just as a human being.
“I’ve learnt a lot from being at Chelsea and I feel like now, going into Reading, I’m a completely different person to what I was back there.
“I believe in myself a lot more, I’m a lot more confident and I feel like I understand who I am a lot better, which has enabled me to put a stamp on what I want to do at Reading.”
“I’ve gone from no one to people saying I could potentially, in the future, be an England player”
The Spring Series was massive for Cooper and her career. As she explains, she played without any pressure and took advantage of her chance in the Chelsea first team when she was needed most.
“Emma [Hayes] didn’t really have a choice but to play me, she had no other defenders!” Cooper laughs.
“I remember we played Arsenal and I’m pretty sure we played two at the back because that’s all we had. But it built me up and put me on a pedestal towards the end of the Spring Series where I’d never really been before.”
Those performances meant England talk was never far away and Cooper was fast becoming a defender to watch in the future.
Then the ACL injury happened.
“When I first started at Chelsea no one knew who I was and then, at the end of the spring series, people were saying, ‘she’ll get called up to the next England squad’ and stuff like that,” the 27-year-old explains.
“That was a bit like ‘woah’. I’ve gone from no one to people saying I could potentially, in the future, be an England player.
“Then, obviously, I got injured and that knocked me for six really. I’d never really had an injury like that, which put me out.
“By the time I was back fit at Chelsea they had kind of replaced me with other people, so I never really got back into the starting XI. That, for me, confidence wise was hard but I feel like the players there were so good with me.
“They helped me to train every day and made sure I was focussing on myself rather than other things that were out of my control. I’ve now learnt through the players that were there that if I don’t believe in myself no one else will.
“That’s built up over the last three years – where I’ve not really been playing much – to being the person that I am today and going into Reading and actually saying ‘I believe in myself and I can do this,’ which is a really good place to be in.”
“I remember the day after my surgery just crying”
You can’t get away from how serious an ACL injury is and for players it’s a mentally tough place to be when you have to recover from one.
For Cooper it was no different, particularly when it happened as she was riding the top of the wave straight after the Spring Series.
“It was tough – I’m not going to lie,” she says.
“I went from being ‘she’ll get called up to the next England squad’ to ‘she’s out for a year’.
“That hits hard. I was very lucky – well I wasn’t lucky – but I did it on the first game of pre-season, which was behind closed doors and that was frustrating in itself.
“Two weeks later Emma pulled me aside, had a chat and basically said ‘look, if you work hard, there’s no telling where you’re going to end up’.
“That kicked me on, and kept me fighting, and the girls obviously won the double that year. I played 10 minutes of that season; I think in the last game. For me it was something that kept me fighting – ‘I want a bit of this, I want to be part of that squad and I want to play’.
“But it was literally from high to low. I remember the day after my surgery just crying, I think my mum was with me bless her!
“It was horrible to have it taken away from you but, again, it’s another moment where you realise, when you get back, you’ll never take it for granted.”
“My sister is basically the other half of me”
Cooper’s younger sister Catherine is a key person in her life. The two of them were teammates at Gillingham and Brighton and they talk to each other all the time.
After Cooper sustained her devastating ACL injury her sister found herself in the exact same position just a couple of weeks later – only without a professional setup to help her.
As a result Cooper and the rest of the family had to launch a crowdfunding campaign for her surgery ahead of her joining the police force.
“My sister is basically the other half of me,” Cooper says.
“We literally talk every single day and I don’t know where I’d be without her – so let’s just give her that credit. If she listens to this, she’ll laugh!
“She’s just an unbelievable support for me and she’s just one of those people who will tell you straight no matter what.
“If you’re having a bit of a bad day and you start moaning, she’ll say ‘stop moaning and do something about it’.
“She’s one of those types of people and I always take the mick out of her that she’s got no emotions. She’s very ‘this has happened, let’s deal with it’ and she’s great like that.
“When I did my ACL, she was absolutely gutted for me because she knew what had gone on in the Spring Series and stuff like that.
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“She was still playing at that point, so it was all very emotional for me, and she was like ‘don’t worry, we’ll get through it’.
“Literally two weeks to the day I remember her ringing me on the way back from her training session and she said, ‘I’ve done my ACL’.
“I went, ‘don’t be so stupid, it’s just in your head’ and she said that she thought she’d actually done her ACL.
“Obviously it was different because I was at Chelsea in a professional environment. I got my surgery like that because they were so good there, they looked after me really well.
“She was at a club that didn’t and for her she was about to start her training to go into the police force.
“She was like, ‘I need the surgery’ so she couldn’t wait for the NHS because she needed it done in order to start her police training. We ended up having to crowdfund for it and luckily a lot of people put some money towards it. Then my grandparents and parents ended up paying for the rest.
“She was quite lucky but that next eight months, when we were both going through rehab, was very different but very much the same.
“I was going through it in a professional environment, she was going through it on her own, so a lot of the stuff I was doing I was passing onto her.
“My old physio Aaron at Chelsea was really, really good in helping give exercises to me that I could then give to her. But the support that she gives me, and still does, is unbelievable.”
Interview: Alasdair Hooper
Words: Alasdair Hooper
All music in this episode is courtesy of Dan Henig