Top division football clubs cross their collective fingers during international fixture time. Having loaned out their most precious assets – their players – the hope is that they will return injury-free so that normal service can be resumed in the domestic league. It’s an honour to represent your country but it’s not risk-free and clubs pay the wages.
A growing list of individual injuries is obviously a major concern so early in a season and some managers are raising concerns at statistics for this season that already show a stack of the wounded (available to view at premierinjuries.com). Chelsea sit at the bottom of that league (ie
with the most players unavailable for selection due to injury), whilst Wolves are perched at the top with none … yet. Forest are third (and fortunate) in only – though he’s much missed – having Taiwo Awoniyi out of action. By contrast, their last opponents, Crystal Palace, have players falling like flies. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it,’ remarked their usually unflappable manager Roy Hodgson.
Numbers aside for the moment, injury in any sport, at any level, is distressing. It stops participants doing the very thing – paid or unpaid – that they love most. Injuries are frequently short-term and players are soon back in action but plenty require long-term care and rehabilitation and that can be an arduous road to recovery. Some careers come to an abrupt end.
Decades ago, playing village football one sunny September Saturday afternoon, we all heard the sound of breaking bone shatter the air. Young team-mate, Gary, yelled at the snap of his leg as it took on a new-angle shape. We rushed to his aid, tried to comfort him and waited for an ambulance. None of us had the stomach for the game after he was stretchered off and we played out the remaining minutes in subdued fashion. Months later, he appeared as a spectator on crutches and mentioned complications. A year later, he’d gained considerable weight, decided to ‘call it a day’, as he put it, and that was about the last I saw of him.
It was my first experience of seeing someone suffer a broken leg playing football in real life if I don’t count being witness to Forest’s Roy Dwight sustaining a broken leg in the 1959 FA Cup Final on our flickering, black and white television. Both occasions, though, have stayed with me. It’s a sad fact that promising football careers can be blighted or terminated by injury in the prime of life.
Brian Clough fell to that fate. A prolific goalscorer, with 251 goals in 274 matches, his playing days were cut short, aged 29, on Boxing Day 1962, as he raced on to a through-ball from a Sunderland team-mate, only to sustain a career-ending knee injury. And we can all recall Forest players in far more recent seasons who’ve suffered a short life as a footballer through injury.
These days, we talk of squads rather than teams, at the highest levels. Squad rotation aims to keep players fresh and opponents on their toes as to what line-up they might face. With so many permutations possible and personnel available, it’s easy to slip into thinking of players as pawns in the plan, overpaid and under-used. There’s nothing wrong with supporters having high expectations, but not at any price.
In the Premiership, players are highly privileged and earn eye-watering salaries and this can inure us to the fact that they are people as well as players. At the risk of over-dramatising their plight, players are not automatons to be used and abused by their paymasters. They have employment rights and clubs have responsibilities for the welfare and well-being of their employees. As has been said, players are a club’s most valuable asset and it’s in their interests to care for them, in the broadest terms.
Manchester United manager, Eric ten Hag, believes the current structure of professional football places too much stress on players. ‘Players can’t deal any more with this overload,’ he says, pointing to a lengthening injury list at Old Trafford. Meanwhile, on the blue side of that city, Pep Guardiola thinks players should come together to force a change to the schedule. Easier said than done.
We talk of a ‘high pressing’ game being favoured by so many teams of late. That means more running, more tackles, more interceptions, more statistics by which to measure the performance of players, aside from the usual close-up TV scrutiny and punditry. It means players need to be fitter and stronger than they were just a few years ago, never mind decades. And in the quest for success, isn’t it inevitable that clubs will push their players to the limit? Well, yes and no. Sure, they want the best and will pursue intensive fitness programmes alongside strategy and technical skills training but, when the list of sidelined players begins to grow, questions have to be asked about preparation for games.
It’s a long season and, whilst we do need to take a critical look at fixture demands and the ever-increasing size of competitions (meaning yet more games), clubs have to be very astute – and lucky – if they’re to complete a year without any significant injuries. A loss of key players can derail a whole season. So far, Forest have come through relatively unscathed. Fingers crossed it stays that way. Next game for the Reds? Luton Town, the same opponents as when Forest won 2-1 in that 1959 final with ten men. The same result will do fine.
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @NFFC Taiwo Awoniyi will miss a month of Forest action with a groin injury.