2022 was a mixed year for Kayleigh van Dooren. The FC Twente midfielder added three trophies to her collection: the Eredivisie Vrouwen, the Eredivisie Cup and the KNVB Women’s Super Cup.
She had made her Netherlands debut aged 22 and had started the 2022/23 season with six goals and five assists in seven starts.
Then, in late November, her year took a turn for the worse. The Sports Gazette sat down with Kayleigh to talk through her rise to the national team, a catastrophic injury and what the future holds for one of the Netherland’s most exciting young players.
Kayleigh (left) cycling with the Netherlands national team
Girls Against Boys
Like many, Kayleigh’s football career began in the back garden with her father. At the age of five, she had the ball at her feet: “He would pass me a ball and I would pass it back…that’s how I got my first contact with football.”
Those early training sessions in the garden must have paid off because Kayleigh stood out at every youth level. She would represent the Netherlands from the under 15’s all the way to the senior team as part of the KNVB setup.
The KNVB selected the best youth players in the country, and part of the training regime pitted the boy’s team against the girls in a training match.
This experience would help mould Kayleigh’s game as a creative midfielder: “You would have 11 players that are physically weaker, so tactically and technically we would have to compensate.”
Kayleigh on the ball against ADO Den Haag
FC Twente and the Leeuwinnen
Aged 18, Kayleigh would sign for Eindhoven giants, PSV. After three years, she would join FC Twente who had just won their seventh Eredivisie title in 12 years. Success like that is difficult to say no to.
“I didn’t feel ready yet to go abroad, I wanted to go to Twente and win the league in the Netherlands and work my way to the national team.”
This proved to be the right decision. Eight months after she signed for Twente, Kayleigh was called up to the Netherlands squad for the 2022 Tournoi de France and she became part of the famous ‘Leeuwinnen’.
“I was not thinking about anything at all, as everything happened so fast that week…when I heard that I was going to play, my parents stepped in the car, and they drove to France!”
Playing for her country was far from an inevitability though. “From those 11 starting players, only one or two are at the top level so you think back and feel like it’s a big honour to be on this stage.”
At 22, Kayleigh already had a career that would be the envy of most professional footballers.
Kayleigh entering the field in a friendly against Costa Rica
A year of pain
In a 9-0 drubbing of Excelsior, Kayleigh went down after a heavy challenge. “I felt my knee, and I thought okay let’s get this pain down. And then I’ll play again.” The severity of ACL injuries often isn’t immediately felt, and Kayleigh was convinced that this wasn’t a serious injury.
Injuries to the ACL, a key ligament in the knee joint are amongst some of the most severe sporting injuries and can keep athletes side-lined for up to a year. Kayleigh was in a state of disbelief when the doctor broke the news: “When the surgeon said that, I thought maybe this is someone else’s MRI… I just didn’t believe it.”
“I left the hospital and searched for 10-15 minutes to see where my car was, I was completely lost.” This setback had a profound effect on Kayleigh: “It made me realise that it does have an impact on me. I’m not as calm as I think I am.”
This injury meant that Kayleigh would miss the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. “It’s like a dream falling into the water… it’s something you can’t take back.” Kayleigh watched from home as the Dutch team lost to eventual winners Spain in the quarterfinals.
Jackie Groenen reacts as the Netherlands go out to Spain
ACL injuries in the women’s game
Another player that missed the World Cup was international teammate and star striker, Vivianne Miedema, who suffered an ACL injury a month after Kayleigh. Highlighting the need for more research into the effect of the busy football schedule on women’s bodies, Miedema said: “Imagine having four ACLs at Man City [men’s team] this season – there would be a massive thing about it.”
Kayleigh adds: “the women’s body is not made for such a high amount of training sessions and matches… we are not robots.”
Despite other high-profile female footballers like Beth Mead and Leah Williamson missing the World Cup because of ACL injuries, very little scientific research exists to explain why women seem to be more adversely affected than men.
Vivianne Miedema suffering the ACL injury that would keep her out of the 2023 World Cup
The recovery and the return
Kayleigh credits her boyfriend for his support throughout her long road to recovery: “He’s like a psychologist for me… seeing him supporting me so well during that time really confirmed our relationship.”
Netherlands manager, Andries Jonker has also showed his support during her time on the sidelines. “During my rehab, he asked me how I was doing. That gave me a good feeling as well.”
Kayleigh also extended her contract with FC Twente this summer, further showing the support for her at the club and the belief in her ability. “You get a lot of confidence from that; you don’t have to worry about which club you will be at or what your situation will be.”
Kayleigh models her game on Arsenal midfielder Martin Odegaard. “I really love his playing style, but also how he leads the team as the captain.” Like Arsenal, FC Twente have had an unbeaten start to the season, with Kayleigh expected to return to playing in the New Year.
“I just want to want to play again and just enjoy the game. And I think everything will follow from that.”
If the first six years of Kayleigh’s professional career are anything to go by, the next six should be very exciting indeed.
Kayleigh wheels away as she scores against SC Heerenveen