Updated: Jul 21, 2020
You couldn’t get two more contrasting seasons then what CPFCW striker Ashlee Hincks has just experienced. In the 2018/19 season, her first for the club, she finished as our lead striker, top goal scorer and was voted the Player Of The Season. She had proven herself a key element of the squad, and would most likely have been one of the players that gaffer Dean Davenport would have been aiming to build his team around in the next season. When the 2019/20 season started however, all plans and hopes were thrown out the window. Just two games into the season, Ashlee suffered a serious injury that would not only end her season, but put the next one in jeopardy too.
So, when I parted ways with Back Of The Nest and decided to continue my coverage of CPFCW by launching Eagle Eye View, I knew that asking Ashlee for an interview was an absolute must. For me, Ashlee has a very important story to tell. Not only can she share with us what that first successful season was like, but she can also share with us how her injury has affected her, and give us all an idea as to just what a serious injury can mean in the women’s game. It is a subject that I believe fans need to know more about, our awareness needs to be raised. Too many of us just take for granted that in the men’s game, the financial set up and FA regulations put everything in place so that the players can get the best treatment and recovery time. In the women’s game, that is not quite the case. It is not the club’s fault. Every club wishes it could provide the very best care for its players, and CPFCW is no different to that. The problem is that the women’s game has not had the mainstream financial backing that the men’s game has had, nor the structure put in place by the governing bodies to help the clubs. It is just one of the many aspects of women’s football in this country that needs to change, to give our clubs and our players the support and backing that they deserve.
Now, I know that this article is not going to change the world, but at the very least, it could help raise that awareness amongst our fans, and possible future fans, as to just what our players go through. So, I approached Ashlee about an interview, and was thrilled when she said she was happy to take part. Not only so that we could raise the awareness, but so that the CPFCW fans could get to know one of our standout players better and enhance that connection between the stands and the pitch. The rest of this article, is that interview, and I hope you all enjoy reading it, just as much as I did getting to carry it out.
Now, as an author myself, I know that the best way to start a story, is at the very beginning. That beginning was in the summer of 2018, when Ashlee joined the Eagles, who were about to embark on their first ever campaign in the newly revamped Women’s Championship. I asked Ashlee, what made her choose to join Crystal Palace?
“I had spoken to a few clubs after I left Millwall and was looking for a new challenge, but the right challenge. Upon my first conversation with Dean(Davenport) I was sold, everything the club were looking to achieve was exactly what I wanted. At the time the club was still in the third tier and I joined in the hope I would help Crystal Palace gain promotion to the Championship.”
As Ashlee mentioned, when she joined, CPFCW were still in the third tier of the football pyramid. We had applied for a spot on the newly reorganised Championship but been controversially denied. So, all preparations were being made to push for a promotion season in the third tier, when with three weeks to go, Doncaster Belles dropped out of the Championship, and we were moved into their spot. With the short notice leaving us somewhat unprepared for the higher level, I asked Ashlee what the atmosphere was like in the squad, as they prepared for the tough challenge ahead?
“The atmosphere amongst the players and staff was excitement. We knew we had prepared and put together a squad that would have challenged for the league in the third tier but lacked the experience possibly needed for the Championship. Having said that, the squad we had, we knew we were capable of perhaps performing higher than what was expected of us. With no relegation that year it was a chance for the girls who didn’t have the experience to go and gain that with nothing to lose.”
Inexperience at that level was one thing, but as Ashlee said, the season would enable our players to gain that experience and grow with each game. However, another issue to blight our season in 2018/19, was injuries. Along with Ashlee, we had three other strikers in the squad, in the form of the always passionate Nikita Whinnett, newcomer Kallie Balfour and returning record goal scorer Gemma Bryan. The problem was, repeated injury issues made it difficult to get all four of them on the pitch at the same time, or even consistently for a game or two. I asked Ashlee if it was frustrating not being able to form a solid strike partnership with anyone?
“I found that the hardest for me personally. I was often stranded and had multiple strikes partners. Injuries are part and parcel of football and it’s just about adapting and playing as well as we could. For me, my job is to score and create goals, and that’s one thing we didn’t do enough of in the first season. Unfortunately, the majority of games seemed to be played in our half of the pitch mainly defending and trying to build a solid defensive base.”
One of the unique things in the Women’s game currently, is that even in the second tier of the league pyramid, the majority of teams are part time, meaning their players have full time jobs away from football. I remembered reading an interview when Ashlee first joined, in which she stated that if we got promoted to the WSL, where the requirement is for a club to be full time professional, then she would have to leave, due to her other job. It is a concept that is alien to fans of the men’s game, and so I asked Ashlee what it was like to be helping the club push for something(promotion) that she would not be able to then be a part of?
“For me, even though if promoted, the likelihood is that I wouldn’t be able to continue at the club, it never changes my ambition on getting the club as high as it can possibly be. I always go into every game and every season wanting to win. I think as a Crystal Palace player that is what we should be doing whilst representing this club.”
While promotion did not happen that season, with Palace finishing 10th, Ashlee finished the season as top scorer and a clear leader within the team. Not only that, but when Steve Parish held a joint end of season awards night for both CPFC and CPFCW at the Croydon Boxpark, Ashlee was deservedly named Player Of The Season. I asked her what it was like to receive the award at the end of season showpiece in the Boxpark?
“To win Player of the Year in my first season with the club was an amazing privilege, especially at Boxpark with the men’s awards in front of the fans.”
That season, it wasn’t just in the stats that Ashlee stood out. When I was working for Back Of The Nest, I used to run player interviews titled CPLFC 5BY5. Five questions were about the player, and five were about their teammates. Throughout that season, Ashlee had been the standout choice by her fellow teammates for two of those questions. The first, was the nerves of steel to step up and take a last-minute penalty to win a key game. The second, was who took the role of unofficial Captain, the leader on the pitch who didn’t wear the armband. Both show how much trust and respect that the squad had for her, and so I asked Ashlee if she was aware of the positive impact she was having on those around her during that season?
“With my experience, representing England, playing for Chelsea for 3 seasons in the WSL, captaining Millwall for 3 seasons in the Championship and having played abroad, I think naturally I bring leadership and that rubbed off on people. I play with passion and always try and lead by example. It’s nice to know your teammates have that faith in you and it’s always a responsibility I will happily take on. The biggest thing for me is having that respect for your teammates, it’s extremely important to build good morale.”
With her first season in the record books, the summer of 2019 saw a large overhaul of the playing squad as the club prepared for a second Championship season. Ashlee stayed at the club and was set to be a key part of our forward line for the 2019/20 season. Her dominant display on the opening day of the new season against Coventry served as a reminder as to why she was so important to the team. However, in the game away at Lewes, Ashlee suffered a serious season ending injury. I asked her to explain just what that injury was?
“I ruptured my ACL, tore my Meniscus and had a high grade two tear on my MCL. This is probably the worst injury you can get in your career.”
Now, in the men’s game when it comes to injuries, we have been somewhat spoiled. We know that if a player picks up a serious injury, they will be managed and treated by the club, who will pay for the surgery, rehab etc. This, of course, will enable quicker recovery time, as the process from diagnosis to surgery would be swift. In the women’s game, aside from the Professional clubs in the WSL, this just isn’t possible due to finances. So, with that in mind, I asked Ashlee what those first few days after sustaining the injury, involved?
“As you mentioned, in the men’s game the finances are there, unfortunately in the women’s game we do not have the luxury of private healthcare and speedy diagnosis. Crystal Palace did however arrange for a consultation with Dr Zaf, who is the clubs Doctor. He then arranged a private MRI for me within 3 days of the injury and by the 4th day I had the unfortunate result. On the men’s side I would have been in for an operation within a matter of weeks, but the surgery required was going to cost around £11,000 which neither I, nor the club could afford. I was placed on the NHS waiting list for the next available appointment for surgery. I got injured on the 8th September. I wasn’t able to get in for my operation until the 25th February, 6 months after my injury. With the rehab time being 9 months, you can see the importance of receiving the surgery as soon as possible.”
As a comparison, I asked Ashlee what kind of time frame she is looking at, from diagnosis to full recovery, and how the equivalent would be in the men’s game?
“Post-surgery the timeframe is 9 months, so the importance is mainly on receiving a speedy surgery, this is the biggest factor in the women’s game. Of course, post surgery they have the equipment, facilities etc that of course help, which we also unfortunately don’t have, but the main factor is the surgery timeframes. The WSL now have private healthcare and have done for a few seasons for the women’s teams. Hopefully soon this will be transferred to the Championship as well.”
With the world’s awareness of Mental Health growing daily, we have started to become aware that serious injuries can have an effect on the Mental Health of players. I asked Ashlee how she was coping mentally with her injury?
“At the start when the injury happened it was the waiting for surgery that was the hardest part, as I knew the timeframes post-surgery. So the longer you have to wait the longer it is before I am able to start my journey back to recovery. The hardest thing for me is I have had to do my rehab at home, alone. With Covid-19 hitting right after surgery it has been extremely hard not being able to see the physio and receive treatment. So those have been the hardest factors. Until now, going through it myself you honestly have no idea how mentally tough this particular injury is, and my hat goes off to anyone who has ever gone through it.”
With the surgery now behind her, I asked Ashlee at what stage of the recovery she was in, and if there was a possible timeframe for when she could get back out on the pitch?
“I am now 5 months post op and fingers crossed I will be running by the end of the week. My aim is to be back playing by October, that is the timeframe I am aiming for. The season kicks off fingers crossed in September so I will only miss a handful of games at the start of the season.”
As a fan, my next question was an obvious one. Would we see her in the famous red and blue again?
“100000%. I will be back better than ever!”
Lastly, I asked Ashlee if there was anything else she would like to add, that hadn’t been covered by these questions?
“Albeit I wasn’t able to have private surgery, the club have been fantastic to me. They hired me a game ready machine pre and post-surgery when it was needed the most and have always been on hand if I ever need them. I am now on the other side, 5 months post surgery and doing amazing. I just want to say a huge thank you to Dean, Paula, the chairman, Laila and all the players and staff for supporting me up until this point. I cannot wait to see everyone when lockdown ends and get back on the pitch and start scoring some goals!”
I know I speak for everyone when I say that we also can’t wait to see her back scoring goals for the Palace! As I wrap up this article, I wanted to take this moment to not only wish Ashlee the very best with the rest of her recovery, but to also say thank you. I wanted to thank her for everything she did whilst wearing the shirt in her first season at the club. I also wanted to thank her for taking part in this interview, and being willing to talk about such an important subject, sharing her experiences with us, when I imagine it is a matter she just wants to put behind her. I hope that for those who have read this, it has helped provide a little more understanding about the impact of injuries in the women’s game, and I hope that moving forward, the clubs get the financial support that they need to help with such matters.
All Photos Credited To Tara Hook Photography