I had a few weeks off from football, but baby, look at me now!

Sent Her Forward exclusive

Composite image of Steph Carter, of Worthing LFC, and Sarah Wiltshire, with her baby, Alexa-Rose (Photos: Worthing LFC/Sarah Wiltshire)

Worthing’s Steph Carter and Wales international Sarah Wiltshire both returned to football within weeks of giving birth (Photos: Worthing LFC/Sarah Wiltshire)

Less than three months ago Worthing defender Steph Carter was having her first baby and Yeovil Town striker Sarah Wiltshire was preparing for a similar event which at the time was still a couple of months away.

On Sunday Carter completed a full 90 minutes to help her side into the South East Counties League Cup final 11 weeks after giving birth, while Wiltshire was a second-half substitute for Cambridge United, the Premier League South East Division One team managed by her husband, Steve Edwards, less than five weeks after Alexa-Rose came into the world.

Phenomenal achievements that I guess only those who have gone through the experience can truly put into context but which the rest of us can none the less appreciate must sorely have tested the physical and mental determination of these two marvellous ambassadors of the game (ambassadors because of the way they conduct themselves and play the game, I might add – not because they’ve had babies).

Carter, 27, was on the same pitch as a handful of other players whose amateur careers had been held in abeyance while they had children, all of whom must have marvelled at the rapid turnaround from hospital delivery room to football dressing room.

She gave birth to Ronnie on December 22.

Yet by February 26 she was back playing, having participated in a handful of training sessions. And on Sunday she completed all 99 minutes of Worthing’s gruelling cup tie with Crawley Wasps Reserves.

She said: “I anticipated being back earlier. I guess I under-estimated how long I would need to recover – plus [the thought of] leaving the baby as well…

My brain wants my feet to do things but my feet just aren’t quite as quick as they were – Steph Carter, Worthing

Carter, the former Lewes defender, is now a key part of the former Worthing Minors’ metamorphosis into an ambitious club keen to compete at the highest level they can.

They won the Sussex FA Challenge Trophy in their final season as Minors a year ago. But while Carter was with the squad who retained the trophy – now as Worthing Ladies – last week, she was frustrated to have missed out on playing, through ineligibility – and was relieved to have got her chance on Sunday to help steer her team to another cup final.

“After having to miss out in the [Trophy] final, I wanted to play on Sunday,” she told Sent Her Forward. “I was totally prepared to play 90 minutes, but I didn’t think I would be able to get through it. But the more time went on, the more I felt I got into it.

“Sunday was a hard game. The pace was a lot faster and physically a lot tougher, too. That’s the standard we want to be playing at week in, week out, though.”

Carter returned to training less than a month after giving birth to Ronnie – “The labour itself was long – three days – but I had him naturally.

“I have no fitness regime at all other than I like to get out on a long walk every day with the baby.”

The club captain finally returned to the pitch in Worthing’s rare home defeat to new league leaders Milford and Witley on February 26.

“It was a lot harder than I thought returning to play. Fitness-wise, I don’t think I have struggled that much. It’s the movements and changing direction that I have struggled with the most. My brain wants my feet to do things but my feet just aren’t quite as quick as they were, but I guess that will come with time. I hope.”

She added: “I’m very happy with the way things are at the moment. I haven’t had too much of a part on the pitch this year but I have been there on the sidelines up until Christmas and brought Ronnie to his first game when he was two weeks old.”

Carter aims to return to playing full-time next season. “Ronnie will be a little older, and I am really lucky that I have a fantastic husband and really supportive parents.”

Sarah Wiltshire in action for Cambridge United against Enfield Town, March 12 2017 (Photo used with the kind permission of Sarah Wiltshire)

Sarah Wiltshire played 30 minutes for Cambridge United 34 days after giving birth (Photo used with kind permission of Sarah Wiltshire)

Wiltshire, meanwhile, perhaps had more of a motivation to get back on the pitch – she is a professional footballer, a Wales international and Super League superstar – but I doubt many would have expected her to have embarked on the road back to peak fitness quite so quickly.

Alexa-Rose was born on February 6. Wiltshire was doing core exercises and light training two weeks later.

I felt a lot better than I thought I would feel – Sarah Wiltshire, Yeovil Town and Cambridge United

“The first 10 days after having Alexa-Rose was tough,” 25-year-old Wiltshire told Sent Her Forward.

“I didn’t think I’d be playing football or exercising any time soon. Weighing 7lbs 9oz, she was a lot bigger than I thought she was going to be, being small myself.

“But the body is an amazing thing and gradually got better day by day. She sleeps a lot in the day, which means she’s a night owl and keeping us up at night. But she only has to look at me and I forgive her.”

The former Watford striker says has not set herself a target for returning to the big stage – WSL1, which she sampled all too briefly during an unsettling spell at Manchester City.

“There’s not a date, exactly, in terms of returning to Yeovil. Speaking to Jamie (Sherwood, the Yeovil manager), he has said he would like me to play some part in the spring series. But there is no rush or pressure. I’d rather be back to my original fitness before throwing myself in at that level. But I’m very much looking forward to playing at Yeovil again.”

Wiltshire’s 12 goals last season helped the Somerset club to the WSL2 title and promotion to WSL1, which they clinched during her pregnancy leave.

She said: “It’s always been a goal of mine to play at the highest level and it will mean a lot to me getting to do that with Yeovil. We did so well last year and I hope we can do the same and test ourselves against the best teams in the country this season.”

The Super League club agreed with Cambridge that Wiltshire can play on loan, and she hopes to step up her fitness regime steadily over the coming weeks.

“I played 30 minutes [on Sunday],” she said. “I felt a lot better than I thought I would feel. Of course I felt rusty and far from my fastest, fittest, but I felt there was hope to getting that back at some point. Even though we lost (Enfield Town inflicted a rare defeat), I did really enjoy putting my boots on and playing.

“I felt fine today – I’ve have had no side-effects yet. I’m looking forward to getting back training.

“I guess I have to take it week by week. I’m hoping to get minutes every week.”

Of course, despite her apparent superwoman status, Wiltshire could not have achieved her amazing comeback and crammed in all the necessary training without help.

She said: “It’s very busy being a mum and I guess you end up having ‘mum strength’, with all the carrying and pram-pushing. I try to do a core workout every day to help get rid of my baby tummy.

“But I’m very lucky to have a great support system – my mum, dad and brother have all been great and given me a couple of hours’ respite to train. Steve is also great with her.

“I do miss Lexie a lot being away from her for a couple of hours to train.”

Though given the family football connection, it probably won’t be too long before Alexa-Rose Wiltshire-Edwards is cheering her mum and dad along from the sidelines.

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