The long and winding road feature on Man Utd footballers coming back from injury or illness

There is also the threat of returning a different player altogether. Alan Smith, an all-action striker when he arrived at Old Trafford, was midway through his second term at the club when he suffered a career-changing injury at Anfield. Awkwardly blocking a free-kick broke his fibula and tibia while also, most devastatingly of all, dislocating his ankle. “It was something I had to come to terms with, the fact that I would never get back to the levels I was at previously,” he conceded, looking back on his 13 months on the sidelines. 

“I ended up with 50, maybe 60 per cent movement in my ankle compared to what it should have been. I knew I’d never get back to the levels I was at previously. 

You come back [playing], you’re on a high, you’re flying on adrenaline, but when you go home at night, you’re thinking: ‘This is not how I was before.’ Everything’s so much more difficult to do, even the simple stuff. Striking the ball with my left foot, I couldn’t really do it. You’ve got no power in it, no confidence in it. “You can’t do the stuff you want to do, and you start thinking: ‘I’m miles off, here.’ 

There’s that horrible realisation that if you’re one per cent off it at Man United, you’re probably gone. If you’re 10, 12, 15 per cent off it, which I was, you’re in a different world.”

Smith recuperated to the point that he was able to continue at Premier League level with Newcastle United for another five years, ultimately mustering 11 more years as a professional after his departure from Old Trafford. But, while the fiery Yorkshireman was able to salvage his career despite his injury ordeal, every player entering rehab for serious injury courts the risk that the process may not even resemble a happy ending.

“I came to Manchester United to help win the Champions League,” recalled Owen Hargreaves, whose dream start to life as a Red soon turned into a nightmare. “We were able to do that, I was able to play a big part, play 34 games and after the treatment I had in the summer [of 2008], I virtually never played again. For any young player to be 27, be at that point in your career, having so many highs, being central to United’s plans and England’s plans, and then virtually never play again and try to deal with all of that, was very, very difficult. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”

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