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How football's suspension could help Laura Rafferty's bid to return from injury and help Northern Ireland

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Laura Rafferty

Laura Rafferty

Laura Rafferty

The date is almost seared on Laura Rafferty's brain - August 7, 2019.

Just a normal Wednesday to most people, but to the Northern Ireland defender it's the day when her football career was suddenly put on hold.

Now there is another date on her mind, one that until recently seemed a target that she wouldn't make.

Coronavirus and its impact on the football season could turn into a positive situation for Brighton and Hove Albion star Rafferty as she battles back from cruciate ligament surgery.

June 5, when Northern Ireland are due to face Belarus in their next Women's Euro 2021 qualifier, is what the 23-year-old is working towards and if the Women's Super League season kicks off again, a campaign that looked to be over before it begun could have a happy ending for one particular player.

"August 7, I remember it well," she says.

"It was literally the last kick of the game in training. I hyperextended my knee and snapped the ACL. I didn't realise what I had done until the swelling got worse and worse.

"I had surgery on the same day that Northern Ireland played Norway in the first qualifier and I travelled up to Wales for the second one a few days later to support the team.

"I've been out for six months and the stoppage is a bit annoying because I have been back on the pitch. I'm back running and doing some dribbling with the ball, although I'm still a couple of months away from being able to play.

"The thing that I am able to take from this is that it doesn't feel too different to the last six months for me.

"Apart from going to a gym, rather than doing it in my back garden, it's pretty similar. I haven't been able to train with a group anyway.

"I am coping well and the time being put back isn't the worst thing for me because, fingers crossed, if the season is going to be completed then I can hopefully be involved.

"At the beginning, I was told it would be the end of May before I would be back - basically the full season - but if the season was to begin again, I might get to play.

"I've always had the June qualifiers in mind. I knew that to be in contention, I would have to have some games under my belt. That's still my main aim."

Born in Southampton to parents who were both from Belfast, the toughest part of being out has been having to watch her international team-mates.

It is the performances of Kenny Shiels' girls - particularly the recent games in the Pinatar Cup against Iceland, Ukraine and Scotland - that have driven her on, with an increasing desire to pull on the green shirt once she is fit enough to do so, especially with qualification for the European Championship finals a realistic goal.

"When you get excited about something and it's taken away from you, it's tough," she adds.

"It's a whole new campaign, a group that we have a chance in, and with the manager, coaches and the squad that we have, it's hard to take not being involved.

"Hopefully come June I can at least come and train - and, if things were to go well, be involved in the games.

"I have watched every game, the recent ones in Spain as well.

"They did so well and I can't wait to get back with the girls.

"It's made me itch even more to get back. In a way it's good that it's tough for me to watch, because it means I care and it will be worth it when I get back with a smile on my face."

Belfast Telegraph