Yana Daniëls talks about her unexpected return to football

Belgian attacker on playing for both the Red Flames and the Vixens

Yana Daniëls talks about her unexpected return to football
Credit: Getty/Catherine Ivill/AMA

At the age of 22, Yana Daniëls had called time on her playing career after sustaining another knee injury during a routine Cyprus Cup camp, her last contribution the opening goal in a placement match against South Korea.

Told that she would most likely never play again, the attacker got to work on her rehab, looking forward to a career as a video analyst for the KVBV, determined to stay in the realms of the sport she loved.

Following on from her successful rehab the attacker dusted her boots off and dipped a figurative toe back in the pool, then 24 she signed a short-term deal with RSC Anderlecht. Her performances in the Super League enough of an indication that she was back to her vintage best and ready to go to the 2017 European Championship, but as a player no longer one of the technical staff.

Daniëls' road back far smoother that she might have anticipated, given the chance to feature in all three of the Red Flames group games, she soon completed a move to WSL 1 side Bristol City, fulfilling a dream to play outside of Belgium and the Netherlands.

Gloomy prognosis

Not just a regular knee injury, Daniëls underwent multiple surgeries to correct the injury.

It way complicated, I tore my LCL three times and when I tore it again it wasn’t possible to just make it again because it was already torn so they did a different kind of surgery. So they broke my leg to put it in another position and take the pressure away and I needed three surgeries in a year. It took me two years and three months to get back and I’m so happy I’m back.

Refusing to let her love for football go, the attacker found a job with the Belgian team before giving herself another chance to perform on the pitch.

Because of the breaking thing… it’s complicated because the position of your whole body is different, and they usually do it with old people so it’s not quite something they do with younger people especially not sports people, so they said the chance that you can play sport again is really low – especially at the high level. They said just focus on rehab and walking straight again, just normal things in life. That’s what I did so I didn’t think I was going to play again but I was on the team staff for two years – as a video analyst – so that was really cool, I thought that was how my passion for football would be in the future. But I missed playing so I tried again… it’s hard to let it go if you love it.

An unexpected offer from Anderlecht saw Daniëls given a chance to get her levels back up, her progress more than enough for Red Flames coach Ives Serneels to give her the nod ahead of the Euros.

I signed for Anderlecht for five months, from February to the Euros and then after the Euros I got lucky that Bristol wanted me. I never thought or dreamed that that would happen.

A snowy return

After so long on the sidelines, the attacker’s first appearance back was in heavy jeopardy as the snow fell in Belgium, the moment she’d been dreaming of very nearly delayed.

I was so stressed! I remember my first game back, I was supposed to come on in the second half but it was snowing and they were talking about cancelling the second half because it was so bad and I was almost praying like, “Go on, let it be.” But the game went ahead, I came on and scored directly and some tears popped in my eyes.

Having caught Serneels’ attention, the coach called Daniëls up for a pair of April friendlies, her first start in 25 months against Scotland enough to catch the eye of another coach. Though not on the scoresheet for the 5-0 rout in Leuven, the Anderlecht player had done enough to impress Bristol City boss Willie Kirk, her move to the Vixens confirmed ahead of the Euros.    

It’s amazing, it’s sick. The difference between Belgium and England is so big, it’s physical, it’s so quick and it’s hard so it was a big step for me especially because I had only played for five months with Anderlecht. I adapted really quickly because all the people are really friendly, I love playing… I always dreamed of playing outside of Belgium, so I just wanted to do it so badly and I’m glad I did it.

Far from being the only Belgian in Bristol, Daniëls was soon joined by Standard player Julie Biesmans and defensive stalwart Lorca Van De Putte.

I’ve known Julie for years and the same with Lorca, I think I’ve known her for 12 years and Julie ten years and when I signed I didn’t know they’d come too – Julie didn’t have a team yet neither did Lorca but when I heard I was so happy. It’s so cool to have friends as well, you can fall back on them if football isn’t going well, you still have friends on the side. In the beginning it was really helpful that they were there and now we always have one day a week that’s a Belgian Day where the three of us go away. But the English players are all so nice and I’m glad that I’ve made some new friends there too.

More used to the flat plains of Belgium and the Netherlands, the move to the West Country has given the attacker more chance to stretch her legs off of the pitch.

It’s a beautiful place! I love to travel and the nature in England is so nice, a lot of times I go hiking, I’ll put my walking boots on and take my tent with me and go camping. I enjoying the football but I’m also enjoying life there as well.

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Back in Red

Despite having started three matches for her country after her return it wasn’t until Daniëls returned to Cyprus that she enjoyed her first full 90 minutes since her injury, a full 1085 days having elapsed between.

I didn’t realise, I enjoyed it, I always enjoy playing for the national team but I was gutted about the result – we need to win those games – but I’m glad to hear I played 90 minutes.”

Following on from the loss to the Czech Republic, Daniëls’ next start saw her net her first for Belgium in almost three full years, her delicate header winning the match for the Red Flames five minutes from time ensuring they finished the tournament fifth.

Experiencing her first major tournament, the attacker made sure to soak in as much of the atmosphere as possible, making a hat trick of cameos as the Red Flames bowed out after the group stages, the two sides who progressed from Group A going on to contest the final.

The Euros were like… in my head I was going to go as a video analyst and I was looking forward to going because I was in the staff and for the two years I had been doing the analysis for the Euros so I did the whole prep’ from the other side. But when I was a player I didn’t expect a lot because it was just something in my head I didn’t think would happen any more so at one point I was there and just enjoyed every second. Of course, you always want to play more and stuff but at that point I knew I wasn’t on the level yet that I wanted to be but I felt that if I were to come on I’d give 100% and I could bring something but I knew I had to take a few more steps. I enjoyed it so much but I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t on my best level yet but I knew that it takes time.

Forced to revaluate things after her injuries, Daniëls’ priorities have changed, whilst still looking for glory, the attacker is just grateful of every minute she gets to play   

It sounds weird but when I was younger I had so many goals that I wanted to achieve, I wanted to play in different leagues and score a lot of goals and assists and whatever but after all those injuries (six knee surgeries in the last five years) my mindset has changed a little bit. Now I don’t look too far in the future because you don’t know what will happen. So my goal is just to feel stronger every day, so I don’t have to be scared to see the thing I love go away so I just want to enjoy every day; every game, every training whether it’s for Bristol or Belgium – definitely I want to win things, I want to play Champions League again and stuff but I’m not going to put that down at the top of my bucket list because you never know what’s going to happen; I just want to play the game.

Whilst there aren’t a huge number of desert island around Bristol, if she should ever find herself stranded there are three things the Vixen would be sure to take,

A fishing rope and a hook so I could fish and definitely one special person… with a hook and a rope.”