Monday 22 January 2018

No pain can compare with the agony of not playing

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

'You still get paid, don't you? So how bad can it be?' I heard those words many times through several lengthy spells out injured. Players are often accused these days of not understanding fans and being unable to relate to how they feel. Questions like that from supporters made me think they didn't have a clue about how footballers think either.

Richard Dunne has yet to play this season due to persistent injury problems since the European Championships. His team-mate Eric Lichaj spoke last week about Dunne's low mood and the efforts of the Aston Villa squad to keep him upbeat. Two unsuccessful groin operations were followed by surgery on his hip in America last week.

The most optimistic outlook is for Dunne to be back on the field by the end of January, well in advance of his contract expiring in June, and play his way into somebody's plans for next season. But when you've had several setbacks and missed every target date you've been given to return, optimistic is probably not what you'll be feeling.

The idea that high earnings offset the frustration of not playing is only held by those who have never played. Maybe it's hard to appreciate the enormity of the loss when you've never experienced being involved on a good day. Actually, even the bad days are more appealing than being out injured.

The banal predictability of life in the treatment room is a world away from the everyday experiences of being with the first team. And if you've been out for long enough with no clear timeframe for a return, as Dunne is experiencing now, a healthy salary does nothing to bridge the gap.

Like any player who has gone through it, Lichaj said he understood Dunne's frustrations. I grew very tired very quickly of hearing sentiments like that when I was injured. Feeling understood and supported is of little use when all you want is to exercise without pain.

You long for the familiarity and the buzz that comes with the chaos of a match day. The highs and the lows are planets apart, but you don't know which is coming your way when you walk down the tunnel. It's a far cry from the joyless repetition of life in the gym, particularly when there's no clear sign of progress.

The very worst experiences I had on a field were preferable to sitting alone on a machine in a gym unsure of when I would be fit. Boosting the morale of a footballer who can't play football is harder than you'd think. Lichaj didn't elaborate on how he and his team-mates proposed to cheer Dunne up, but they have a job on their hands either way. There are many and varied ways to do it, obviously, and though they are all well-meaning, not all attempts at helping players through rough times are successful.

I remember one experience I had trying to help one of the younger Irish players at Millwall. After a lengthy chat about his situation with a couple of the academy staff, I said I'd help out in any way they thought I could. He was very homesick, wasn't playing well and didn't mix that well with the others.

I suggested he stay with me for a couple of weeks to get him out of his shell a little, but the staff member had other ideas. He advised me to take the player out, get him drunk and take him to a prostitute. The lad was 16 at the time, and I declined.

There were efforts made several times by others to break the monotony of my life in the treatment room also. None involved prostitution, that's worth mentioning first, but most involved alcohol. Rarely did it have any lasting positive effect, and now

that I know the damage drink does to the recovery of injuries, looking back it wasn't any help to me at all.

What could be adding to Dunne's despair is that his place in the team no longer looks assured when he eventually returns. Reports suggest the club would be willing to offload him in January but it's difficult to generate interest if you're not on the field. Malaga was one club said to be monitoring his situation, as was Stoke City, but neither would sign him until the injury is sufficiently healed.

And following Paul Lambert's comments earlier in the month that neither he nor the medical staff had seen anything like Dunne's injury before, you see how daunting a task Lichaj and his team-mates have before them.

Early reports suggest the operation was a success, but Dunne's last two attempts at a return were very brief. With such a persistent and complicated injury, remaining positive and cheerful is virtually impossible. His team-mates can give it their best shot, but returning Dunne to his usual self can only be achieved by getting him back onto the field. That's the way it will always be with professional footballers.

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