The saddest sight of the month had to be that of Owen Hargreaves trying to prove his fitness by posting videos of his training sessions on the internet. It was proof of what most footballers know – that the greatest asset they can possess is not pace, vision, skill or intelligence, but luck. You can have all of those other attributes but if you’re unlucky with injuries, they are worthless. Every time any footballer goes on to the pitch, he is rolling a dice and risking an injury which can cost him his career.
Hargreaves was at the peak of his powers when he joined Manchester United in 2007. Aged 26, he’d been England’s outstanding player at the 2006 World Cup and was one of the best holding midfield players in the world. Yet within months, a knee injury had wrecked his United and England careers.We would all love to see Hargreaves find a decent club and prove himself again as a first-team player, but the odds have to be against it and the best years of his career have been lost.
I was lucky with injuries on the whole – until it came to the 1966 World Cup. Seven months before the tournament, on Bonfire Night 1965, I started feeling ill and thought I had flu. The next day my mate came over with a couple of pints of medicinal Guinnesses, but this was the worst thing for me because I was soon diagnosed with hepatitis, meaning my liver was in a bad way. I was actually only out for six weeks or so, the longest lay-off of my professional career, but I experienced after effects all season and, in truth, I don’t think I was ever the same player again.
Then, after the final group game of the World Cup against France, I came into the dressing room and found my left sock was full of blood and my shin badly gashed. I don’t know how the injury occurred. I didn’t even feel it happen, but I’ve still got the scar. I was ruled out of the quarter-final and semi-final, and then I missed the final, too. But despite such a huge blow, I have to say I was lucky compared to Hargreaves and many others.
Ken Shellito, who joined Chelsea the same day as me, had just made his England debut as an excellent attacking right-back when he suffered a serious knee injury that meant he ended up as a one-cap wonder. Brian Clough was only capped twice when his playing days were ended at the age of 27. His knee injury would not have been career-ending with the advances in medical science of a few decades later. But back in my playing days it was not rare at all for players to be finished at an early age.
John Lyall and Malcolm Allison were two others I knew whose playing days were over by their early 20s – Big Mal contracted TB and had to have a lung removed. Going back a few more years, Derek Dooley, a centre-forward as strong as an ox, had to have an infected leg amputated at the age of 24. And, in more recent times, Steve Coppell, Kevin Beattie and Manchester City’s Paul Lake were among those who were cut off in their prime.
And these are only the ones we know about, because they had already made names for themselves or went on to be successful managers and coaches. There are hundreds who fall by the wayside because of injury, kids who could have been world-beaters but never got to play professionally. Kids who had it all, except for the phone number of Lady Luck.