Friday 20 September 2019

Gunners skipper Mertesacker maintains steely focus on long road back from injury

Mertesacker: "It really helped me to switch off completely and try not to watch every football game." Photo: Getty

Jeremy Wilson

It was while Per Mertesacker was back home in Hanover, just one week after major knee surgery, that his phone flashed up with a call from Arsène Wenger.

The manager wanted to talk about the Arsenal captaincy following the departure of Mikel Arteta and, having been confined to his bed at the start of five long months of rehabilitation, Mertesacker was fully prepared for another big blow.

"It was a tough decision and I would have understood everything if he had said that he needed someone nearby the team," says Mertesacker. "He knew how long I was out but he told me that he still saw me as a big figure for the club and that I was his first choice.

"I couldn't believe it. It was huge for me. I was really buzzing as it came at the time I didn't think it was going to happen."

Mertesacker suffered his cartilage injury during the final minutes of Arsenal's first pre-season game at Lens in July following what he thought was a routine pass. "There was fluid all over the place but it didn't hurt that much," he recalls.

The diagnosis was surgery and, for fully three weeks, Mertesacker was confined to a bed at his parents' home. "I couldn't do anything - I had a machine to help me move my knee and I couldn't walk or play with my kids," he says.

What got him through was a mixture of escapism and a rigorous focus on diet that meant drinking copious amounts of water and eating half as much as usual.

"I tried to take the best out of the situation," says Mertesacker (right). "It really helped me to switch off completely and try not to watch every football game.

"I loved the Olympics. I started reading (Stephen King) and saw my childhood friends. We played cards again like we used to do when we were 15. I lost 5kg. I wanted to be lighter to give myself maybe two or three weeks' advantage so that I did not have to spend time reducing (fat) first."

After six weeks, he returned to London and, yesterday, his delight was visible at being able to report that he was back running again outside.

"You lose almost everything muscle-wise so it needs patience but it is looking good," he says. "It will be new year when you see me hopefully back out on the pitch playing football."

An added feature of Mertesacker's recovery has been the time to reflect over what he calls "what has been done already and what lies ahead" in his career. The "priority" is a new contract and, having only just turned 32, Mertesacker believes that playing into his late 30s remains feasible.

"It is the target to convince people," he says. "If I cannot come back to what is demanded here you have to look around; find other things you have a passion for."

Mertesacker's interests extend well beyond football but you do not need long in his company to understand why his importance to the Arsenal dressing-room cannot simply be qualified on the pitch.

Today, Wenger and the players will give up a day's wages for the Arsenal Foundation and, on Monday, Mertesacker could be found doing yoga with young people with disabilities at the club's Inclusion Day. He has previously been a regular visitor to a football therapy programme for refugees escaping torture.

Mertesacker also once spent a year working in a mental hospital in Germany and knows the two-way benefit of community interaction.

"I wasn't that good at football aged 14 or 15," he says. "I didn't take it too seriously. My father said, 'You're not going to make it'. That took a lot of pressure from me. I took football like a hobby.

"Working in a mental hospital gave me a huge boost. On the one hand, I was training every day and seeing the glamour world - where everything was sorted - and then I would get the keys for the mental hospital, where everything was locked, and the people did not recognise me. I found I could help people who were not able to live without help.

"Doing something for others helped to not put that focus too much on football and to put things into perspective of how fortunate we are." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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