Sent Her Forward exclusive
A year ago Danielle Carlton was sidelined with a serious knee injury while her Gillingham side snatched a narrow win at Brighton to take a huge step towards the Premier League title – an honour they eventually just missed out on.
A few months on and the midfielder was part of the enormous exodus of Gillingham players who followed their manager, James Marrs, to Brighton – even though she was still some way short of a return to playing.
Yesterday, the 23-year-old made her Super League debut, for Millwall Lionesses, having enjoyed a remarkable renaissance since returning from injury to make her Brighton bow in November.
It’s a comeback story of almost fairy-tale proportions, given the nature of the setback – a tear in her posterior cruciate ligament that abruptly ended what was to be her final season with Gillingham 12 months ago.
And it’s one that should inspire other footballers with serious injuries – of which there are far too many in the women’s game.
Another of those to accompany her to Brighton was former Gillingham club captain Vicky Ashton-Jones, who missed virtually the whole of last season after damaging her anterior cruciate ligament – a more common injury among footballers.
And they joined several more players already at the club queuing up for treatment in the physio’s room.
I had a lot of catching up to do and bits and pieces that I needed to learn – and relearn – Danielle Carlton
Carlton said: “It was a really long journey for me, but everyone helped me settle in and I really felt part of the team. Not only have I overcome a long-term injury and improved as a player, I made some really close friends.”
She said she moved to Brighton because she felt – as so many others have said – that continuing to work under Marrs would help her continuing development.
“James had spoken to me about the set-up at Brighton, which sounded really positive,” she explained. “I had developed a lot under James’s coaching and thought the best thing for me would be to continue alongside him and some of the other girls.”
Carlton acknowledged that there was still much for her to do, even after returning from injury and making her Brighton debut.
But she felt she had been making progress. “I think Brighton was technically the best team I’d played in,” she added. “I’d like to think I fitted in quite well. I had a lot of catching up to do and bits and pieces that I needed to learn – and relearn.
“But I managed to earn a starting position, which I was really happy with. James was generally complimentary – always constructive, of course. But I know he wouldn’t have had me in his team if he didn’t think I was ready or good enough to be there.”
So why did she leave? With Brighton on a different plane this season from last, and the club just a handful of games away from a possible Super League place, the talented player might have been expected to continue her development at the Marrs finishing school.
The youngster chooses her words carefully, but has no hesitation in praising the regime she leaves behind.
“I just think it is time for a new challenge. The travelling to Brighton (from her home in Kent) was becoming a bit of an issue for me, as well, and ultimately I would like to test myself in a WSL2 team.”
But her departure – after just establishing herself as a first-team player at Brighton – did seem a bit sudden.
“I would say I’m leaving on good terms. I have always had a lot of time for James and still always will do. The physio and strength-and-conditioning department also played a really big role in helping me with my rehab, so I’ve thanked them for everything they did for me.
“And I’ve spoken to Tracy [Doe, the club’s élite women and girls football manager], who has been brilliant for me and who does so much work behind the scenes for the girls and club. So there are no hard feelings across the board at all.”
She also seems pleased that the bulk of her former team-mates have wished her well, too. “I know I’ll stay in touch with most of them,” she added. “I really do wish them all well. They deserve the best, and I hope they get it.”
Carlton, a tough, but cultured midfielder, who is comfortable in a variety of roles, had come to the attention of Millwall’s dynamic new young manager, Dan Mlinar, during a friendly between the two clubs at the start of the year.
Carlton said: “I got in touch with Dan once I’d left Brighton, and it just went from there, really. We had played Millwall in a friendly a couple of months back and I think he spoke to James about me then. I knew from the game that Millwall had a strong squad, individually and collectively. I knew some of the girls from Millwall already, which has helped me settle in.”
She says she is under no illusions about the size of the challenge of breaking into the Super League club’s first team – or of staying there.
But she was thrown in yesterday at the first opportunity and played the full 90 minutes of her first Super League game as the club extended their unbeaten start to the season with a 0-0 draw at bottom club Watford.
She told Sent Her Forward: “I was very nervous, but I think anyone would be. The game was not great but I think it didn’t help that the pitch was horrendous and [had] hardly any grass on it. Everyone fought ’til the end and we had chances to kill the game off, but it just didn’t happen.”
Carlton said she was “chuffed to bits” to play 90 minutes in what she describes as a very good side. And she felt overwhelmed at the support she received.
“The girls at Millwall have made me feel very welcome, and everyone was great today with me.”
She added: “There’s a really positive atmosphere around the camp and training has been really good. The girls are all very technical and hard-working, and training is always of a good intensity.
“Dan has been brilliant with me since I signed and I’m looking forward to playing under him.”
Of course, with her former club going so well and in with a great chance of reaching WSL2 themselves next season, Carlton could find herself renewing acquaintance with some familiar faces sooner than she might have expected.
“It will be strange to come up against Brighton if that is the case, but that’s all part of football. They have a strong team at Brighton and I’m sure it would be a tight game.”