Tim Turner ponders the role of injuries in determining the fate of players – and clubs
During the period last winter when the Watford communications team were churning out news stories about injured players like dispatches from a battlefield, there was one that could easily have been missed amid the snapping of multiple hamstrings. On New Year’s Day, it was announced that Tom Dele-Bashiru would miss the rest of the season due to an ankle injury.
I felt for him that day. Four years into a six-year contract, the 23-year-old has still only played 11 games for Watford, in two short spells that were both ended by serious injuries. Ironically, when we sent him out on loan to Reading to gain more experience, he managed a full season; he played nearly four times as many games for them as he has for us.
The injury saddened me because, from the little I’ve seen of TDB, I’m convinced he’s a player with huge potential. A speedy midfielder with attacking flair and an eye for goal – what’s not to like? But I worry that one more bad injury could spell the end for his promising career, at least at the highest level.
He wouldn’t be the first player this has happened to, and he won’t be the last. Most of us spend our working hours sitting in front of a computer, where the closest thing to an industrial injury we’re likely to get is mild eyestrain or a touch of backache. So it’s sobering to think that a footballer’s career can be ended in an instant by a bad tackle, the momentary overstretching of a muscle, or even just getting their studs caught in the turf. That’s it: game over. Fifteen years of training, and now you’ve got to find a new purpose in life. I can’t imagine what that feels like.
For those whose injuries are serious but not career-ending, there’s the challenge of returning to action while wondering if the muscle or ligament that let you down before is going to do so again. Remember when Roberto Pereyra suffered a knee injury halfway through his first season with Watford? When he came back the following season, he was visibly tentative, not quite trusting his body. And maybe he was right not to, as he had six further spells on the sidelines during the rest of his time at Vicarage Road. For my money, he never quite recaptured the verve he displayed in those glorious first few months.
Then there are the careers that never quite take flight. Think of Tommie Hoban, who was on course to establish himself as Watford’s first-choice centre-back before an Achilles tendon injury in January 2013. Although he was soon back on the pitch, another injury followed, and then another… Altogether he made just 54 appearances for Watford, spread over nine seasons. He barely doubled that total, mainly with Aberdeen, before finally throwing in the towel in 2021, at the age of 27.
Even the most successful careers can be spoiled by injury. One of my all-time favourite Watford players, Nigel Gibbs, only played 33 games over four seasons after sustaining a knee injury in 1992, which he then aggravated in his comeback game. Without that, he would have smashed Luther’s all-time appearance record of 503, rather than finishing just eight short. (Then again, there was the season when he was fit but inexplicably kept out of the team by Gerard Lavin – but Glenn Roeder’s selections are a topic for another article.)
Kenny Jackett, too, would surely have challenged Luther if he hadn’t had to retire at the age of 28, having already racked up 428 appearances. Of course, he went on to become a successful manager at pretty much every club he went to (apart from Watford), illustrating my final point about football injuries: the end of one career can spell the start of another, no less risky, but generally with less chance of spending prolonged periods in physio.
Take the Lincoln City left-back who suffered a freak injury in a game at Northampton in February 1972. In his autobiography, he says that he was preparing to take a free kick, but ‘just before I struck the ball, my right foot clipped the ground and my whole leg collapsed under me’. The doctors diagnosed a serious hip problem and said he’d be lucky to play again. Fortunately, he’d already taken his coaching qualifications, and the rest is history. That’s at least one injury that Watford fans can be profoundly grateful for.