As Beth Mead stood on stage, golden ticker tape falling from the sky, amid a rapturous standing ovation as she was named BBC Sports Personality of the Yearthere were tears in her eyes.
Not of joy, but of a deep and crippling sadness that her mum June was not there for the glitzy bash back in December. That she was at home, in pain, suffering, in the final stages of a battle she could not win with ovarian cancer.
Mead still has the text message her mum sent her that evening. It is a reminder of everything, not just the emotions of that night, but what her mum, who died in January, meant to her.
“When I was on stage, I was conflicted,” said Mead, who had suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament injury a few weeks earlier that had put her participation in this summer’s World Cup in Australia in jeopardy. “It was definitely bittersweet.
“I was up for an award I had never dreamed I would be up for, so to win it was indescribable. The names that are on that trophy, I would never have aligned myself with. I didn’t think I deserved to be alongside there, I still don’t.
“I would have loved for my mum to be there with me, but she wasn’t. She was so ill at that point, but I knew she was watching. I’m so appreciative that she was there to see me do that; that she was there last summer when we won the Euros, but she wasn’t there that night and I knew she wouldn’t be for much longer.
“One of the last text messages she sent me came that night. She told me how proud she was, how ecstatic she was for her baby girl, how much she loved me and how proud she was of me and everything I had done.
“It’s nice to be able to go back and read that, it’s nice that I can go back and see it on my phone. To have that still, but it’s not easy either. I hear her voice…”
‘I went one way, my kneed went the other’
Mead suffered her knee injury at the beginning of December. She knew straight away she was in trouble, a crippling pain in her knee leaving her crumpled on the side of the pitch.
It was a crushing end to an incredible year. In August, she not only won the European Championship with England at Wembley, but also the golden boot as the tournament’s top goalscorer.
Her life had been transformed. Almost overnight, a shy girl from Whitby, in North Yorkshire had been turned into a superstar. But that knee injury did more than just end her season start a race to be fit for the World Cup, monthly updates that she will share with Telegraph Sport, it plunged her life into turmoil. It made her confront her family’s pain and sorrow head on.
“We were playing Manchester United at the Emirates, there was a big crowd and it was a big occasion,” Mead explained. “We were losing 3-2. It was the 93rd minute and I’m running after a lost cause down the touchline.
“I tried to keep the ball in play and I got knocked at the perfectly wrong moment. I went one way, my knee goes the other. The pain was excruciating for about 30 seconds. It was a pain I had not felt before, it was like someone had gone inside my knee and whacked it with a hammer.
“I was in agony. By the time I got to the dressing room, my mind was working and I was starting to get worried. What if it is this, what if it is that? I was in such a good place with my football.”
She really was. Mead had been a fringe member of the squad at the World Cup in 2019 and was left out of the Team GB squad for the Olympics in 2021. But she was superb last summer, scoring vital goals – the first of the tournament in a nervy win over Austria, a hat-trick in the destruction of Norway, the first in the semi-final win over heavily-fancied Sweden. Last week, Mead was voted second best female player on the planet at the Fifa Best Awards, largely on the back of her exploits at that glorious home tournament.
“I heard those words, it’s your ACL. The three letters you never want to hear as a footballer. It’s not three months, it’s not six months, it’s normally a good solid nine-month injury. You know it’s surgery. A lot of thoughts go through your mind, a lot of emotions kick in. I was very upset.
“Shortly after I got the news, I was surrounded by my teammates at Arsenal, they knew what my life was like away from football.
“I think the realization dawned that the one thing that had been an escape from all the trauma of my mum being ill, was gone. That was the scariest thought.”
‘I used sadness and fear and unleashed it on a football pitch’
Few people, other than close and friends and family, knew what Beth and her mum were going through. June had been determined to be there at the Euros and she was. It may sound strange to some, but it had partly been her mum’s suffering that had inspired her daughter’s successful year. She was angry at the world, angry at the way her career was going. And she didn’t have much time left to turn it around and make her mum proud.
“Football had been my escape, but it had also been my release,” Mead explained. “I had used all those emotions, all that sadness and fear and I had unleashed it on a football pitch.
“There was so much pent up emotion behind my form last year. I was angry at life because of everything that had happened to my mum, but for 90 minutes that fueled me. Every training session, it was a release where I didn’t have to think about all that. With the injury, even that was taken away from me. It’s been a little bit of an uphill battle ever since.
“She was my main driving force, she was the reason I started playing football. She took me to my first football session when I was six years old. She has put up with quite a lot from me you know. She put up a lot of crap and she pushed me through all of my hardest moments. She cannot push me through this one but I’m getting there.”
She is, but slowly. The 27-year-old has become an ambassador for Ovarian Cancer Action, a charity, to raise awareness and improve treatment in the “silent killer.” Her rehabilitation from the knee injury is also going well. She has a chance of making the plane to Australia.
“The universe works in weird and wonderful ways, but I do believe in things happening for a reason,” Mead continued, her voice cracking several times, but the words still came out.
“Not that I wanted this to happen to me, not that I needed a nine-month injury, but it has given me the time to sit down and reflect on everything that happened to me last year.
“I actually got so much precious time with my mum before she passed that I wouldn’t have got if I was playing and training. If I was fit, my mum would have wanted me to go into training, to get fit for the season restarting and the games coming up.
“I didn’t have that guilt of needing to be somewhere and her telling me I needed to be there. I spent those last few weeks with her, I listened to her and it was a very powerful time. There were some special moments and there were some really s—– ones, but I was there with her.”
Even though her mother died, she remains an integral role in Mead’s rehab, having been such a support throughout her career.
“My recovery is a mental as well as a physical one. My mum passed on January 7, basically a month after my operation.
“I think mentally she helped me even then, despite everything she was going through. She was in constant pain, the things that were going on in her body, but she was telling me to do the nitty gritty things with your knee now because you will pay for it later on if you don’t.
“She drove me on and the situation she was in. She didn’t moan once, she had so much going on, she felt so rubbish, so yeah, it put what I needed to do into perspective.
“What was going on with me was fixable. It wasn’t for her. I did that nitty gritty stuff and went home for a couple of months and it is paying off. I’m doing really well in my rehab, it’s paying off.
“My mum didn’t want me moping around feeling sorry for myself. I have good and bad moments, like. It doesn’t go away, your life grows around it. It is always there, but your body learns to deal with the loss of that person, even though I still want her there. It’s one day at a time.”
Beth Mead is encouraging people to take part in the Ovarian Cancer Action‘s Walk in her Name campaign.