June 9, 2021
“When I had my second concussion, I ticked every single box to go back on that pitch and play. Within two minutes I had two seizures. Surely that is not enough?”
After calling time on her career last summer at the age of 31 following three concussions in the space of 18 months, Freya Holdaway is determined to help the next generation of footballers.
The former Crystal Palace and Northern Ireland defender suffered her first concussion in pre-season in 2018, which was the “classic egg but it wasn’t too sore”, however her second the following April after a bang to her temple was “a bit more sinister”.
“I came off, sat down with the physio then I passed all the tests, but I took a minute before I got up and walked around the pitch.
“Halfway round I was like, ‘I don’t feel very well, I don’t feel good’, and then I passed out. I ended up having two seizures on the side of the pitch.”
After taking the remainder of the season and the following pre-season off to recover, Holdaway returned for Palace for the start of the new campaign. A third concussion in October made her question her future in the game.
“The goalkeeper kicked the ball out of her hands and I went up and it came off my head. I was like ‘that didn’t feel great’, but I finished the game because I didn’t want to come off because I headed a ball.
“Weeks after things weren’t right. My ears were ringing and I ended up taking a month off work because looking at a laptop for eight hours a day was giving me excruciating headaches.
“It got to the point where I was sleeping for 12 hours, that’s just not like me but at the same time I clearly needed it.”
After taking more time out of the game, Holdaway returned for Palace in February 2020, however that was to be her last match before the Covid-19 pandemic hit and, although she didn’t know it at the time, the final game of her career.
Holdaway added the Covid-enforced break from football led her to make the decision to hang up her boots.
“That break from not heading a ball in training or games between then and June, it’s difficult to explain, but I started feeling so much better.
“I felt more settled and my head was in a good place. It was just one of those, how could I go back to playing knowing how much better I felt? It was the best I felt in two years.
“In hindsight I wasn’t really ok before that, but at that point in time not being ok became my normal.
“It was difficult but once I made the decision it was almost like a relief. I’ve had a really good football career and football has been so kind to me, so why would I jeopardise that and potentially put myself in an even worse position than where I’ve been?”
More research is required
Since retiring, Holdaway has got involved with the SCORES Project, which studies the impact of neurodegeneration on professional footballers, however she stresses “there is not enough research out there”.
“My passion is trying to get women involved in the research. I understand it is difficult for some who don’t want to know, but all I ask is people, especially females above 40 who have played at any level, get involved and help take care of the next generation.
“Women are twice as likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s anyway, and footballers are three times more likely to suffer those diseases on top of that. Even heading a ball can be damaging, it’s frightening what can happen.
“If this was any other industry in the world, health and safety would get involved and say you can’t do it, so why is it not happening in football?
“It’s like bungee-jumping or boxing, you understand the risks and if you still want to do it then it is a personal choice. It needs to be as transparent as that in football.”
International call-up an accident
Born in England and raised in Wales, Holdaway had given up her dream of international football however a conversation, only by chance, changed everything when Calum Best, son of legendary Northern Ireland footballer George, was attending an event at Crystal Palace.
“I was talking with my team-mate Ciara Watling (who also players for NI), and I said in passing my grandfather was from Belfast.
“She couldn’t believe I hadn’t mentioned it before. She said I should give Alfie (Wylie, then-manager of NI) a call and see what he has to say. He took a huge punt on me but it was completely by accident, that conversation may never have happened.”
Holdaway jokes that “everyone says I’m British so I’ll play for anyone” but she thinks her international call-up “was meant to be”. She won 12 Northern Ireland caps and her final appearance was in the 2-2 draw away to Wales in Euro 2022 qualifying, a result which set up a path for a first-ever major tournament for Kenny Shiels’ side.
“My grandfather has been my number one fan since I was five years old, when I could first kick a ball,” she added.
“For me to put on the NI shirt for him, it brought many more emotions for me than it would have putting on an England shirt.
“That’s what was important to me. He watched my last game in Wales, even if we didn’t know it at the time, but it was quite fitting.
“I’m really proud to have been part of that whole qualifying campaign, but the fact it ended in the country I grew up in, with my grandfather being able to watch, he’s now 92, not many people get to leave on that sort of note.”