Rowlands takes long and grinding road to recovery
QPR midfielder keeps eye firmly on the future despite recurring injury woes, writes Daniel McDonnell
MARTIN ROWLANDS is a fighter. Needs to be. Otherwise, he would probably have accepted defeat at the hands of fate by now, and packed in life as a professional footballer.
Quitting, however, is not in his nature. That's why this morning and, indeed, every morning this week, the the 31-year-old will make the journey to QPR's Harlington training ground, in the shadow of Heathrow Airport, to engage in the painstaking process of rehabilitation.
In the sporting world, they call a torn cruciate ligament the lonely injury so, at this juncture, Rowlands, is no stranger to solitude. He suffered the dreaded setback twice during the year of 2009. Add that to a broken leg and three medial ligament tears, to name just some of his career problems, and the London-born midfielder has endured more strife than the average footballer.
Yet there is precious little negativity when he discusses his plight, the reality, that he won't play a match of any consequence until July at the earliest. While his peers around the UK approach the business end of the season with anticipation, Rowlands is aiming to begin jogging within the next three weeks. But there is nothing downbeat about his attitude.
"It messes with your head a bit," he says. "And it's hard, but you just can't think about what if this, or what if that because then you're living in the past. You can't have that attitude. I know it's hard. It's a long road, but I want to get back to my best and you've got to get on with the work to do that.
"You can't feel sorry for yourself. It happened."
He remembers the second tearing of the cruciate vividly, because it was a night that would be etched in the memory whatever the outcome. October 14, 2009 -- his first start for Ireland. It had been a whirlwind 10 days. Left out of the original squad for the World Cup qualifying group's double header with Italy and Montenegro, Rowlands got a late call-up and was introduced as a substitute for the final minutes of the 2-2 draw with the Azzurri.
The pleasant surprises kept on coming. With Glenn Whelan suspended for the Montenegro encounter, and Keith Andrews left out as a precaution in case he incurred a second yellow ahead of the imminent play-off with France, Rowlands was in the midfield engine room alongside Liam Miller.
The occasion was considered a dead rubber by the general public, but it marked an evening of major personal significance for the man from Hammersmith whose Irish roots lie in Wexford. His wife, who has a Mayo background, and other close relatives had made the journey to Croke Park for a proud event. They had little idea that devastation lay around the corner.
Just 38 minutes had elapsed when Rowlands nipped in at the edge of the Irish box to intercept after an error from Miller had gifted possession to the visitors. In attempting to clear, his boot got stuck in the turf and he felt an agonising pain. A familiar pain.
"When I went down, I knew it was the same as the first time around," he recalls. "That was obviously my fear. I didn't realise that I'd done a bit more damage this time. But I knew it was bad. The pain lasts for only 30 seconds or a minute, and even though I got carried off, I felt like I could have walked. The physios know though. When they came on, they tested the knee, and knew that something wasn't right."
Especially when you have a history like Rowlands. It's not uncommon for players with knee problems to suffer a recurrence of an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) issue.
This was a bit different, though. He spent that night in the team hotel before a morning trip to London to visit his surgeon, Andy Williams, who had operated the previous January when his knee buckled against Derby, bringing a season to a premature end 24 hours after learning that he was in Giovanni Trapattoni's plans for the February meeting with Georgia.
"He (Williams) was quite upset with what had happened after all the work we'd done the first time," reflects the patient. "Andy is a top surgeon, a lot of people use him and he couldn't believe it. He said it was a freak and just bad luck.
"The ligament was just snapped right in the middle. It wasn't like it had snapped near the top or the bottom where the surgery was. It was a clean snap. I tore two of the cartilages and this time I had a lateral reconstruction done as well, to reinforce part of the outside of the knee, so hopefully that'll never happen again."
The complications meant this would be a longer struggle than the first ACL hammer blow. Another season was gone and so, too, were his World Cup ambitions. He shared in the anger felt by those involved on that stormy night in Paris, although he was watching resigned to the fact that he wouldn't be going to South Africa either way.
It was a period where his positivity was tested, although not as much as was suggested when reports circulated that he was on the verge of retirement. "Rubbish," he responds. "It didn't enter my head once from when I did. I would never think of that unless a surgeon said 'look this could affect your health when you're older'. And there's no way it could happen with this."
Nevertheless, it was a grim time, particularly in the initial weeks and months when there is nothing to do but sit and wait, with a leg brace in place and crutches in tow. Rowlands retreated into himself and decided to stay away from matches for a while. The pain was too raw. It was a necessary boycott that lasted for two months.
"It was frustration more than anything," he says. "I didn't want to be around a game at the start, but once I got over it and went to a match then you get back into it. There's been a sticky patch recently and a few things going on around the club but, look, it's a good club and we just need to be positive. Everyone needs to be positive."
Certainly, it's been a strange couple of years for QPR, with Rowlands, who is the club captain, going through his recuperation amid a typical period of chaos under the Flavio Briatore regime. When he was initially laid up, Jim Magilton was on borrowed time and his replacement Paul Hart has been and gone in the interim. Mick Harford is back in temporary charge, although, in the current regime, no managerial appointment could ever be considered too permanent.
For understandable reasons, Rowlands retains an affection for the people around the club who have stuck by him through his travails. In some respects, they set their stall out from the outset; when Rowlands signed for QPR from Brentford in 2003, he had a broken leg. Ian Holloway took a punt and the busy midfielder enjoyed a fine couple of seasons before the treatment table became an all too familiar part of his life.
"I think I've played around two or three full seasons here," he says. "It's frustrating because I just want to play. I'd love to see my career out here. I love the place and I love the club. They stuck by me through all of what's happened with injuries. They've always been positive with me, so I just want to repay that. I've got another few years left on my contract and I want to get back playing and get us promoted next year."
They're the ambitions that keep him going through his repetitive routine. He may meet his team-mates in the dressing-room and at lunch for a bit of banter, but while they head for the training pitch, he heads for the gym to do a circuit of leg weights and work with the medics on his range of movement and other essential stretching exercises. In the last month, he's been allowed to start swimming.
"It's all about building the muscles around the knee to get them strong," he explains. "Then I can start jogging in three or four weeks and when you do that, then it's another three or four weeks before you introduce the ball to do a bit of passing. It's just a gradual build up and once you don't get a bit of swelling or any reaction, you can keep progressing slowly on.
"The hardest part is the start. It is a mental test because I was out for six months, then came back for three and four months, up until October, and then you know you're out for nine months. So you basically have a year and a half out."
Nobody can get through that lay-off without an ambition, a light at the end of the tunnel. First and foremost, he wants to properly resume his skipper duties at QPR and then, all going to plan, reclaim a place in the thoughts of Trapattoni.
After winning three caps for Ireland under Brian Kerr in 2004, Rowlands disappeared from the international picture until he earned a shock recall for the Italian's first get-together in Portugal two years ago, where he made such an impression on the new boss that he was in line for a holding midfield starting role in the 70-year-old's first game in charge against Serbia. Step forward, fate.
"Ruptured ankle ligaments," sighs Rowlands. Typical. An innocuous training-ground challenge at Malahide was the scene of that misfortune. Whelan started that game and never looked back.
"The manager came in with a clean slate," says Rowlands. "And I just got on with the job of training and playing and it had a positive effect on the manager and that's great.
"He had a positive feeling about me, so I just need to get into pre-season now, get back playing and prove that I'm strong and ready and then hopefully I'll be in his thoughts. I know the Euros start in September and I want to be in his mind for that."
He is reassured by the manner in which the FAI have remained in regular contact. It would be easy, in the circumstances, to become the forgotten man but not a month passes without a call from either Dr Alan Byrne or the physio, Ciaran Murray. The sentiment is appreciated. Encouragement, rather than sympathy, is what he needs on the road back.
"I can't sit and whinge and moan about things," he declares. "There's a lot of people in the world who are a lot worse off and would love to be in that position that I'm in, doing the job that I do.
"The last thing I'm going to do is moan about it. I just want to get on with it."
It's the only way he knows. Without acceptance, there can be no recovery.