We had a really good youth team that got through to the F.A Youth Cup Final against West Ham in front of 15,000 people and my form was good. Others also thought I was playing well and I was fortunate enough to be selected for England Youth V Scotland at Roker Park (Sunderland’s old stadium) with my good mate Simon Webster in a few weeks time. Unbelievably we both fell foul of injury and illness. I had a nagging ache in my groin and as weeks progressed it got more painful. I saw the specialist and he diagnosed a hernia which needed operating. ‘Webbo’ was very ill from yellow jaundice and if he wasn’t as young and fit as he was matters could have been a lot worse, so unfortunately, we both missed out on what really could have been a major stepping stone in our careers.
When my hernia op was complete and I started to train, I felt a similar pain in my other groin that ended up developing in to another hernia and the specialist operated for a 2nd time. Altogether I was out 5 or 6 months but my recovery was good and my groins felt supple and strong.
It’s hard to explain to people or players who haven’t experienced long-term injuries when so young. When you are growing up at a club, you are judged every day; your ability; strength; fitness; growth and personality are questioned all the time. People are forming opinions on you as to whether you will make it or not and at a time when you don’t even know yourself. You are trying to make it in the most competitive business at the top level while having all the normal teenage problems. Your body is changing from boy to man, boy’s acne becomes a nightmare, sex is constantly making your hormones do somersaults and discovering alcohol can be lethal. Now add serious long-term injuries to this and it all becomes a slight problem. Being injured is a prison term whereby you are forgotten and banished from normal service. Coaches and Managers forget you exist because you are a non-commodity and there are plenty of non-lepers to worry about. When you are fit, you are always in the frame to progress and when you are injured it is a backward step. So, as a footballer if you are fortunate enough to steer-clear of injury, you stand a great chance. The one thing injury does for you though is it gives you a chance to discover yourself to find out what your strengths and weaknesses are and to develop an inner toughness to handle life better.
I moved nicely from Youth Player to Reserve Team in the Combination League and was really enjoying my football on a 6 month injury-free run. I had just turned 19 and for the first time in years everything was gelling together as it does when you play consistently week in and week out. I was at my strongest, fittest, my touch was spot-on and my mind was as sharp as ever. My Coach gave confidence to me which was the main ingredient to playing well and now I was experiencing a feeling that players get a few times in their career. I will try and describe this feeling as best for people who haven’t felt it.
It’s almost euphoric whereby your whole being combines with itself to produce exceptional things. Your mind and body become one and you don’t think about what you are doing, it’s just automatic. You are a yard quicker in legs and brain and everything you attempt seems to come off. You could strike a ball over 50 metres to feet or score outrageous goals, so when you are in this rich vein of form you must make the most of it because in my experience this seems to be when injury occurs. It is because your body is so finely tuned and running at its peak that you tend to do more things, similar to an athlete at his/her prime pulling muscles in major events. It is a great sensation to feel in total control and your mind is so alert to its environment that this becomes euphoric.