During the 1997/98 season, my first in England, I was unlucky enough to suffer the first serious injury of my career whilst with Chelsea. It happened in a training session, and no one even touched me. I turned on my right leg to shoot at goal with my left, and my right foot got caught in the ground. When turning the rest of my body, I tore the cruciate ligaments in my right knee.
Obviously, any footballer runs the risk of getting injured, but you don’t realise how much you suffer from it and how hard it is to come back until it happens to you. Back then, I was 29. Below, I am going to explain how I got the news of the injury, the operation and the recovery process.
“We’re operating tomorrow”
After speaking to the doctors, physios and the manager Ruud Gullit, I was told by the manager that I was “going to Antwerp, Belgium to see Dr. Martens”. So off I went.
The Chelsea physio and I arrived one morning for a consultation and sat for a moment in the waiting room. I remember when we went in, the doctor asked if two students who were spending the day with him in the hospital could sit in on the consultation, to which I replied, “no problem”.
Doctor Martens also asked me how the incident happened and then checked my right knee. He said it was without doubt a “torn cruciate ligament”. I wanted him to check again and asked him to compare it to my other leg, he nodded and let the two students check my knees. This only confirmed the diagnosis.
Right away he told me that it would require an operation to fix, and once I agreed, he said: “tomorrow morning at 7, here in this hospital”. I obviously left the hospital distraught, as the worst possible outcome had been confirmed.
The operation in Belgium
I left with the physio, and suddenly the physio said to me: “I’m sorry, but I need to go back to London”. So, I was left there alone, walking around the beautiful city of Antwerp, worried, sad and even a little scared as they were going to operate on my cruciate ligaments the next day.
I should add that my wife was in London with my two children, one who was 2 and the other 4 at the time, which meant she wouldn’t be able to come anytime soon. Luckily, she spoke to her mother, who quickly flew to London so that my wife could come to Antwerp.
I never speak about the night I spent alone in Antwerp… It was awful.
The next day, I went into hospital at 7 am, I went to the reception desk and told them I had come for a knee operation. They took me to my room, came to shave my right knee and a little later they took me into theatre.
There were more people near theatre waiting to go in, so I started to panic and told the nurses I was having a knee operation, just in case they got it wrong and I left with no appendix! I was scared, nervous and cold, so I didn’t know what else to say!
All I remember is them putting me onto the operating table, the anaesthetist saying something funny and the next moment I was asleep.
When I woke up later, in bed in my room, the only thing I remember is that my agent at the time, Paul Hodgetts, was sat there. It sounds strange, but I was so pleased to see him, his gesture really meant a lot to me. My wife arrived that afternoon, and after 4 more days in Belgium we went back to London in my agent’s car.
The hardest part begins
After the operation, rehab began. This was the hardest thing I had to do in my career. I remember the whole process, from not being able to raise my leg, to the boring swimming sessions I would do in a pool near the training pitch.
It was a very long and hard process, and I went through some difficult times. You don’t feel like you’re getting anywhere until you get back on the pitch.
It’s worth noting that in times like these, you depend completely on those closest to you. They have to help you all the time, they have to put up with your dark humour, etc. I don’t know how I would have done it without my wife, she was the key to my recovery.
The turning point came a month into the rehabilitation process when the doctor advised me to start pedalling on a bike. As the injury happened in October, the staff at Chelsea had accepted that I would make my comeback during the following preseason (July), but in my head I thought it was possible to come back and play before the end of the season (May).
The club told me not to worry and not to start training with the bike, but I wanted to follow the doctor’s advice. I decided to phone the doctor, and after an interesting conversation he said to me: “You’re a Premier League footballer, go and buy yourself an exercise bike and start pedalling at home. You must have the money to buy one, surely?”.
All the effort pays off
So, I went to buy an exercise bike. I used it a lot at home and my knee started to improve. After two months I started to swim in the pool with the help of the massage therapist, Terry Byrne. I went with him every afternoon to a nearby hotel to use their pool for rehab.
After three months I started jogging, and as Doctor Martens predicted, I returned to play five and a half months later and played in the semi-final and final of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, winning it for the second time in my career.
It was hard. So hard. But at the end of this long journey I got the best possible reward by making my comeback and winning a European title thanks to a goal from the amazing Gianfranco Zola. We won 1-0 against Stuttgart.