Beth Mead says she is rediscovering the joy of football after a year shaped by loss and grief. The last time Mead played at Wembley, her mother, June, was still alive to see it. Wembley was the scene of Mead’s greatest triumph, when England won the Euros and she finished as the tournament’s top scorer and best player. What followed was the toughest year of her life, as she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament and then lost her mum after a long battle with ovarian cancer.
But on Friday, Mead has the chance to return to Wembley and make her first appearance for the Lionesses in 385 days. It is another significant milestone, both in the resumption of her career as a footballer, and in her grieving process. While she has required emotional resilience, Mead is proud of her journey and believes her mum would be too. “Growing up I would say I was mentally quite weak,” Mead says. “I’d like to think the things I’ve dealt with have made me a stronger and better person.”
Injury not only robbed the 28-year-old of a place at the World Cup, it also took away an outlet in which to process the loss of her mother. Instead of having that focus, Mead was limited to a repetitive cycle of rehabilitation, a routine she got through along with her Arsenal teammate and partner Vivianne Miedema, who was sidelined along with Mead after rupturing her ACL a month after she did. There were dark moments during rehab but Mead says those bad days feel in the past now she is back on the pitch and doing what she loves.
On Sunday, Mead scored her first goals since returning to the pitch, in Arsenal’s 3-0 win over West Ham. She dedicated both to her mum, and it was a moment she had waited 11 months for. If that finally provided some closure, returning to Wembley is set to as well, even though it is the place where they shared some of their happiest memories. As with scoring her first goals, it can be a reminder that her mum is not there to see them and that can make it difficult as well.
But Mead is back and the Lionesses have been lifted by her presence ahead of a pair of must-win fixtures against the Netherlands and Scotland. England manager Sarina Wiegman didn’t want to rush her return and said the forward needed more time when she named her squad for last month’s double-header against Belgium. But as Mead got minutes off the bench, and then got starts, the confidence returned. “I’ve been feeling more like myself again,” she says.
Instead of being in Australia with the Lionesses this summer, she was at home watching the World Cup on TV with captain Leah Williamson, who suffered the same injury four months after Mead. If missing the World Cup was cruel, having to watch as England narrowly lost the final to Spain was just as hard. The match was a tough watch for them both. “We struggled,” Mead admits. “We just want to help the team do the best that they can do. We got that taken away from us.”
How England are in need of the return of the Euros golden boot winner. Defeat last month to Belgium left the Lionesses in third place in their Nations League group, with top spot required to secure a place for Great Britain at the Paris Olympics next summer. (England are the country nominated to qualify for the Olympics on behalf of Team GB). But England, who have lacked a spark in games since the World Cup, must now beat both the Netherlands at Wembley and Scotland at Hampden while hoping other results go their way.
Mead, who missed out on the 2020 Olympics after she was controversially left out of Hege Riise’s Team GB squad, famously sparking the form that led into the Euros the following summer, is as motivated as anyone to get the job done. Now she returns to the Lionesses with a renewed perspective, taking to each training session with a sense of fresh enthusiasm. “I feel like a kid again,” she says with a smile.
After all, the thought of returning to England was Mead’s motivation during rehab. Now Wembley also offers a meeting that perhaps Mead could not have dared to hope for during the dark days: the chance to face Miedema on the pitch when the Lionesses host the Netherlands, now both players have recovered from their ACL injuries. Even thinking about those moments with the people who lived and breathed what Mead went through during rehabilitation is enough to make her emotional.
“I think it’s a nice moment for both of us,” Mead says. “It’s a hard journey – who does their ACLs at the same time? We’ve seen the good and bad days from each other. But I’m proud of my journey and I’m very proud and happy to have had the support around me that I’ve had during this time. I feel very lucky and blessed to have had that.”