‘I was chasing the sun but Beard tempted me to come to England’

Jack Kavanagh hears how Julia Simic has adapted to life in English football

After an injury-blighted start to life at Rush Green, Julia Simic is finally establishing herself in the women’s team and is focused on helping Matt Beard’s team realise its potential in the Women’s Super League.

The number 10 only managed 11 appearances in last season’s WSL before her campaign was cut short with a knee issue and fans had to wait until January this year to see her return to the starting line-up. Injuries have been too common for the German international as she discusses the ‘bittersweet’ story of her career in an interview for Blowing Bubbles.

‘There were good parts, like when I played for almost the best team in Europe [Wolfsburg]. We nearly won the Champions League and won a lot of national league titles and I made it to the national team. 

‘But still, when I compare my career to others I have played with, I see what I could have achieved. ‘I’ve had a lot of injuries and I don’t take them as an excuse, but without them I might have gone a little bit higher.’

Simic’s career saw early success with Bayern Munich. Joining one of the most prestigious clubs in world football from her youth team was a dream come true. The increased level of exposure led to her being named in the senior national team’s squad for the first 2013 Euro qualification stage match against Switzerland.

But the promising start to her career was derailed by a serious knee injury she suffered aged 21. ‘I was so happy to finally be in the national team, but my injury happened during the first session, after 45 minutes.

‘It was a non-contact injury where I ruptured my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). I was turning and my foot got stuck in the ground, the typical way you rupture it.’ 

As a young player, Simic remained enthusiastic throughout the rehab process with Bayern supporting her as much as their resources allowed.  Unlike their male counterparts, Bayern are not the powerhouse of German football; instead the league is dominated by Wolfsburg, who have won the last three Frauen-Bundesliga titles. 

Bayern paid for Simic’s surgery but as the female team’s medical staff weren’t employed full-time, Simic undertook most of her rehabilitation away from her club.  Part-time injury rehab is an alien situation for men’s football, especially at a club with Bayern’s reputation, which speaks to the disparity of the female game.

After six months, an eager Simic was back in training, a timeline that she admits was too soon for an injury of this severity.  She scored in her comeback game but re-injured her knee shortly afterwards and was forced to spend close to two years on the side-lines. 

The psychological effect of this was arguably worse than the physical injury.  Having recently completed a gruelling rehab regime and being forced to repeat the process from square one wasn’t easy. 

‘This time it took longer, because your body needs more time as you’ve been out for so long,’ she said.

As spectators it’s easy to forget the mental side of serious injuries, and the non-physical side to the recovery.  After two non-contact knee injuries, Simic felt less trust in her knee. 

‘It’s not like I got brutally fouled, so you start to doubt your body making turns and changes in direction. 

‘I thought of my knee with maybe 90 per cent of my movements on the pitch, which isn’t helpful.  You think more about how you turn, coordination-wise to avoid injuring yourself again, getting out your head takes a long time. 

‘It needed half a year of full training and playing again before I trusted my body again, I think I’ve never been the player I was before.’

For a player who relies on deft turns and swift movement to support the forward line, lacking trust in her knee was difficult for Simic to adapt to.  Overcoming adversity has been part of her career since starting in the world of organised football. 

Looking back at the lack of female role models growing up, Simic continued: ‘Until I was 10, I wanted to play in the men’s Bundesliga – I just had a lot of fun playing. 

‘When you ask boys of 10, or 11 years you don’t dream of earning a lot of money. I had the same level of enjoyment when playing as every boy I played with, maybe even more’.

As a child Simic was motivated by the constant assumption that she would never be as good as the boys and being kept out of games by the other boys who were playing. 

‘As soon as I played with them, I proved that I was good enough, it was a constant battle.’ 

Times have changed since the early 2000s and organised football for girls is far less novel. The success of the Women’s Super League, Europe’s first fully professional female league speaks volumes for how much the sport has changed.

For those who aren’t familiar with the WSL, West Ham Women’s Football Club has outperformed the lads these past two seasons.  The team was founded in 1991 as West Ham Ladies, and they rose through the local leagues to reach the FA Women’s Premier League in 2004. 

In 2018 to commemorate the team’s debut season as a fully professional team in the FA Women’s Super League, a ‘forward-thinking’ name change was actioned. 

West Ham Ladies became West Ham United Women, as coach Matt Beard and Simic joined a team that ended the season in a respectable 7th position and finished the season at Wembley Stadium as FA Cup runners up.

Simic sadly didn’t play that day against Manchester City and arguably would have given the team the spark needed to break the deadlock after a goalless first half.  Unfortunately, it was City who came out swinging to begin the second half before romping to a comfortable 3-0 victory. 

Simic admits Beard was a key factor in her moving to east London in the first place because her original plan for her summer 2018 move was to somewhere warm.

‘I love the sun, I just wanted to use football to travel, learn a new culture and language. 

‘I wanted to go to Italy, Spain or Portugal, where the league isn’t as good as Germany or England.’ 

She famously got a convertible car in preparation for a move to an Italian or Spanish club, before Beard called her. The 42-year-old Beard’s allure comes from his credentials, cemented by winning back-to-back league titles for Liverpool FC Women in 2013 and 2014. 

Simic recounted their early conversation. ‘He Facetimed me and convinced me after 30 seconds on the phone. 

‘I didn’t want to go to England but I fell in love with the crazy football atmosphere here in England.’

Comparing the difference in the facilities between West Ham and what she’d experienced in the Frauen-Bundesliga, Simic was convinced.  ‘The pitches were a dream, compared to Italian, Spanish and Portuguese leagues. 

‘Most of the time you play on artificial grass, I saw the pitch at Rush Green, we have the best pitches there and a really nice gym.’

She was happy enough to play in a fully professional league, that she risked taking her new convertible to rainy old London.  Moving forward Simic is optimistic of her future at Rush Green and re-establishing herself in the first team after her 12 months of rehab. 

She wants to be back on the pitch and help move the Hammers achieve Matt Beard’s long-term plan.

*Julia was speaking with ‘Ramble Meets…’ host Luke Moore. The podcast is part of Football Ramble Daily’s new format of six shows a week that sees Luke and Andy Brassell have personable, intimate conversations with the great and good of the game. From those involved in the highest levels of football, to authors, journalists and pundits, Moore or Brassell speak to them each Wednesday about their careers and experiences.

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