Break a leg

Could there ever be a more ridiculous way to bring someone luck than by wishing them harm? Surely only the most perverse chain of thought would believe that wishing some good luck, is in fact bad luck and, as a result, decide that the only way forward is to double bluff the leprechaun.

Try telling that to Luke Shaw as he lies in a hospital bed, recuperating from that horrific double leg break, that we all seen so visually during TV coverage last week. Forget the fact that he is a very wealthy, ‘lucky’ young man. It’s the sort of injury that is more common than it seems, as up and down the country over the course of a season, many players suffer the dreaded ‘tib and fib.’ Snapping both the tibia and fibula shin bones is a career threatening injury, and even though he will be afforded the best medical help which the biggest club in the world can offer, his recovery will still be long, with huge mental and physical barriers along the way.

Mental strength and physical hard work during rehabilitation are the only way to get back to fitness from such an injury and to that extent, all the oxygen chambers and advanced medical science will help him no more than they would help the part-time player from the Conference suffering from the same, devastating blow.

The recovery position

High profile cases such as those of Luke Shaw and Henrik Larsson, only serve to highlight the vagaries and downsides of modern football. Injuries are the most difficult and frustrating side of the game for a player. Torn hamstrings, torn groin, torn calves and a torn quadricep (thigh) muscle. Torn ankle ligaments, a detached medial ligament, a dislocated kneecap, a fractured rib, a calcaneal heel spur and a ruptured plantar fascia (that’s the bit that holds the front and the back of the sole of your foot together), may sound like a chapter from the British Medical Sports Injury journal, but it is in fact a list of the serious injuries which I suffered throughout my career.

To say I was an expert would be stretching the definition to its limits. I was a walking episode of Casualty. You know that bit at the start when the innocent bystander crosses the road, and manages to get to the other side without mishap, and yet, you just know, something much more sinister is about to happen to him 10 minutes later, I was that man. I’m certain there were times they were filming me coming out of the tunnel and Charlie Fairhead was in the dug-out with the First Aid Kit and a magic sponge.

A lot of my career was spent recovering from injury, playing whilst struggling with injury or going through rehab until I got to the point where I was able to play again, ‘til the next injury.

Treatment rooms became my nemesis. They are lonely, difficult, mentally draining places where the daily double dose of shortwave and electro-magnetic pulses, become a ritual akin to that of a car battery being jump-started back to life, gradually regaining more power before finally managing to find the energy to motor into action. Albeit this was no 16-valve, twin cam, fuel injected, piece of athletic engineering. This was more like an old banger, desperately in need of repair and patching up, just so it could get through another pain-filled 90 minutes. It was a vicious, unforgiving cycle.

On track

The rehab has already started the minute the physio strides onto the pitch and straps the affected limb. Immobilising the break and encasing it in an inflatable splint to prevent further damage, is the first step on the road to recovery, providing of course, the relevant first aid men are capable of carrying the stretcher without as has often been witnessed, comical unforeseen mishap.

At that point the hard work really begins. Injured players are always first to arrive in the morning for their short spell of electro-magnetic energy, coursing through ruptured vials in order to aid the healing process. For a short while you feel normal again, a part of it all as the rest of the squad arrives for training and you can get in on the jokes and the banter for 30, glorious minutes and then it’s over as they head off to training and leave you to your very own solitary confinement. Months of it, gym work, strengthening, recuperation and double sessions without the hint of a ball. All so that on your belated return, the physical condition is there to allow you to get to performing at your best.

But the self-doubt creeps in and the inevitable two questions pop-up; Will I ever play again? Will I ever be the same player again? That’s when the mental side becomes a tougher test than the physical one. Watching your team mates, week in, week out, whilst sitting with a leg brace or whatever contraption the medical team have decided is the best way to protect your particular, damaged part of the body is difficult. Results may be good, but when you’re not contributing and playing, football clubs can be very isolated places.

Because that’s it you see; there is ALWAYS a doubt that you’ll play again. Even the strongest of players will have doubted themselves during the arduous months of rehab, pounding gym sessions and cycling contests against a bloody computer screen. Don’t believe all those players who say they never had any doubts that they would play again after a long term injury, because EVERYONE has doubts. It’s a human facet, whether it be Luke Shaw with the power of Manchester United’s medical department behind him, or the left back at FC United of Manchester, the brain doesn’t distinguish between the haves and the have nots.

It will be a long difficult road back to fitness, but the months of not seeing a ball, never mind kicking one are always worth it when you get to pull on that strip again, whether it be at the Allianz Arena, or Moss Lane, Altrincham.

Unlucky break

Through all those injury-laden seasons, I was ‘lucky’ to never have broken a leg. My ‘tib and fib’ were one of the few things that remained intact throughout my career, although there was one occasion when I was close enough to a player to hear the injury, rather than me having to feel it.

Edinburgh derby reserve games weren’t for the faint hearted. Young players scrapping to make a name for themselves, and senior pro’s revelling in the mini rivalry, determined to show they still had ‘it.’ On this occasion, Hearts had Sandison, Crabbe, Kidd, Neil ‘Chuck’ Berry and wee John Robertson among their ranks.

Robbo was a brilliant striker, a predator in the box and an absolute nuisance but one thing that was always overlooked about this wee man was that he was as tough as they came. He knew how to look after himself and was no shrinking maroon.

The game itself was a typical tight, tough affair and midway through the first half, Danny Lennon received a pass, only to turn and lose control of it, only slightly. At this point, as I’ve said on previous occasions, the player losing possession and now stretching for the ball, is the one under threat and at breaking point as he now has to reach, with no momentum, leaving himself open to the full force of a head on collision.

This was not so long ago remember, when you could throw the kitchen sink at a tackle, without the worry, like now, of being yellow carded just for turning on the tap.

Robbo, threw himself into the tackle, playing ball first and then catching Danny high on the shin in the follow through. It sounded as though wee Danny’s shin pad had snapped, but quickly became clear that it had been something less obvious. The ball broke to the side, and being only five yards away, I ran to help him. Most of the team could see it was serious and made their way over, and my first instinct was lift his leg and take some of the weight off it, protecting him and trying to ease some of the pain. The bottom half of his shin stayed on the ground and the top half, moved independently. It was clear at that point, his ‘tib and fib’ had gone.

Incredibly though, but not surprisingly, the only person in the ground not to have noticed was the referee. Waving play on, the ball was played to Tosh McKinlay who took one look up and smashed an unstoppable chip from the halfway line, into the empty net. Almost every player in our team was making our way to the stricken Danny, and that included big Stevie Woods, who by now was on the 18-yard line and running away from goal, without a thought for anything other than his team mate.

The harshest ever lesson in playing to the whistle!

Thankfully Danny, like many others before him and Henrik Larsson after, was able to show the mental strength and physical desire to overcome such adversity and have a good career, both in a playing sense and latterly, in a coaching one. I’m sure Luke Shaw, will recover in time and go on to have a great career, both in England and in Europe. It will be a long road and he has tough times ahead, he will have every possible machine, and medical expert available to help him, but nothing will help him recover more than the power of his mind and the strength of his character. One thing is for certain, it will be highly unlikely that you hear that immortal, good luck wish, ‘break a leg’ anywhere near Old Trafford, any time soon.

My first book – TAXI FOR FARRELL: FOOTBALL BETWEEN THE LINES is now available to pre-order from All pre-orders before the November 1st release date will receive a signed copy and free delivery.

Some stories and video previews of the book are available to view online at:

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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