Over the last few weeks, there have been two good news stories to warm the hearts of anyone who cares about football as a sport and not an all-out war between partisan sides who harbour genuine hatred for each other.
Two footballers of elite level quality who have had heartbreaking injuries have come back to play vital roles in their respective teams over the last few weeks. And although it is, perhaps, natural for most people to roll their eyes to a certain degree at too much sympathy for very well paid young men complaining about not having to go to work for a few months, the curtailing of a life’s ambition should never be something to revel in. And, indeed, anyone who feels a tinge of sadness at those whose career ambitions have taken a hit should feel a particular satisfaction that they’re coming back in a World Cup year.
The two in question are Jack Wilshere and Ilkay Gundogan, both of whom have suffered severe bad luck, and are now coming into what would usually be described as their peak years. And football shouldn’t be deprived of their special talents.
What’s interesting about both players upon their return, however, is two interviews that both men have given in recent weeks.
At the start of January, Wilshere revealed his gluten free and vegan diet, extolling the health benefits of the switch, but more importantly the psychological effect it’s had on him, too.
There are always plenty of people who hear buzz words like gluten free and vegan and instantly roll their eyes, or are instantly suspicious. If that’s you, that’s fair enough: there are plenty of crazy fad diets and those who partake in them are often the bores and the pushers. But in this case, it’s the wrong reaction. For Wilshere, even if the perceived health benefits are just that – perceived, and not real – that’s beside the point. The point is his relationship with his body and the fact he’s conscious of what he’s consuming – if it makes him cope with injuries simply because he’s more in tune with his body, then it’s more than worth it.
Ilkay Gundogan, too, has been telling a similar story – not of new diets and changed life choices, but of how he, too, is a “different kind of player” off the pitch. The German told the Manchester Evening News that he’ll never be the same player he was before, but rather than claim that he’ll never reach his previous level, what the City midfielder was trying to say was that he, like Wilshere, is thinking more about the impact on his body of doing certain things.
“I remember when I was at Dortmund I would go outside and kick the ball into the goal straight away, taking free-kicks or something,” he told Stuart Brennan of the news outlet. “I would never do that now. When I see the young players doing that, I think ‘Oh my God, no!’ I won’t do it and maybe I couldn’t even do that. I need to get myself warm first and get ready to perform. It doesn’t matter whether it’s training or a game.”
That’s part of how injuries change footballers. But more importantly, how the player has to change himself. It’s one thing getting back to fitness again, but it’s a completely different thing to understand and realise that you have to be more aware of what’s happening with your body.
But that should extend into the next step, too. Surely that can’t just mean being more aware of your joints and muscles and what you’re asking them to do when you’re off the pitch or away from training – surely that has to be the same for what you ask it to do in games, too.
“The few times I’ve had dairy in the hotel I’ve had an upset stomach. But I just cut it out completely and I think I look better. I’ve certainly lost a little bit of weight. I’m leaner and probably a little bit fitter as well. I feel I can last longer” – Jack Wilshere
Wilshere and Gundogan have something in common with the way they play football. Both are central midfielders who play box to box, but both are more valuable to their clubs for their abilities to get the team forward and turn defence into attack.
But perhaps that’s what has to change. The movements required to play one-twos with teammates and jink your way through the opposition’s tackles are tough for the injury-prone, especially if it’s a weak knee or ankle we’re talking about. There’s also the all-action nature of a player like Wilshere, who endears himself to fans when he’s on top of his game because of his fearlessness in a tackle or his willingness to take a player on.
It’s not abnormal for players to change roles in teams as they get older, but the plight of players like Gundogan and Wilshere show the side of the game that doesn’t just have to do with tactics and fitness – there’s also a wider thing to think about, and that’s how to preserve yourself for the next game, too. We see that already with players who are a booking away from missing a crucial game, for example.
You can’t go out onto a pitch fearing injury. But what you can do is change your relationship with your body and the game you’re asking it to play in order to make sure that your game matches your adjusted physical ability. If that means learning a new role in the team, then so be it. For both of these players to come out and say as much in the space of two weeks is enlightening and interesting, and it should shed some light on what it takes for a player to come back from a long-term injury and actually thrive again once they’re back.
In a World Cup year, let’s hope that approach works for two players who could light up the competition in Russia this summer.