It was not until June in Colorado that Andy Johnson heard the words he had been praying for in the clinic of the acclaimed knee surgeon Richard Steadman. Having studied the scans of Johnson's right knee, Steadman turned to him and said, deadpan, "Andy, I'm afraid you are gonna have to go back to playing soccer."
At Fulham's training ground another five months on, the memory of that conversation still brings a smile to Johnson's face. The knee injury that claimed nine months of his career has healed and the one-time England striker is in the squad tomorrow against Manchester City for what he hopes will be only his second start for Fulham since January.
The attention will be upon Mark Hughes facing the club that sacked him 11 months ago but the significance for Johnson is enormous, too. These were the big games he longed to be part of during his long rehabilitation when he was forced to watch Fulham's monumental run to the Europa League final with his crutches propped up behind his seat at Craven Cottage.
At 29, he is yet another player who owes his career to the pioneering work of the famous Steadman, who developed the surgical process that was used to rebuild Johnson's right knee so badly damaged by a tackle from Blackburn Rovers' Christopher Samba in January.
"Don't get me wrong it has been a horrible time," Johnson says, "but during that time I concentrated on the things that I wasn't able to do in football. I tried to stay as positive as possible because if you get into a negative frame of mind it can only lead you one way to depression, getting sad and you end up behind miserable around the house and that is not what I want to be around my sons. I have tried to be as positive as possible.
"Missing out on Fulham's success was the hardest thing of all. It was not that the team was doing so well, it was not being involved in it. I cannot praise them enough. I was so pleased for Zoltan Gera who got player of the season and it was well deserved. Bobby [Zamora] as well, who I am very close to, had a fantastic season having had a bit of stick the season before. I just hope he can get fit so he can get back in the England squad.
"I went to all the home games [in the Europa League run]. I was nervous. When you can't actually affect the game you get nervous. I don't really get nervous in the games I play in. When I play I get anxious for the game to start. But when I was watching I felt nervous just because they were big games. Juventus at home – and we had to win. The boys were fantastic that night."
His comeback was a substitute's appearance against West Bromwich Albion on 23 October and since then he has come on four more times, finally getting his first start in Saturday's draw against Newcastle United. Naturally he is desperate to start at Craven Cottage tomorrow.
Johnson's injury problems last season did not begin at Ewood Park on 17 January. Even before then he had hurt a collarbone in the early rounds of the Europa League and then damaged his groin against Everton. He now believes he came back from both injuries too early and by the time he was caught by the Samba challenge, his body had become vulnerable.
"I don't think he [Samba] even meant to do it," Johnson says. "I went past him and he went to tackle me and slipped. It was unlucky that my leg was planted and I hyper-extended my knee. I have had loads of battles against Chris Samba and I speak to him after games. He's a top man so, no, I don't hold grudges like that. It's not like it was a malicious challenge or two-footed. He didn't go over the ball, it was an unlucky challenge and my knee got caught in just the wrong situation.
"Funnily enough we lost three of the players in that game. Paul Konchesky did his ankle and was out for seven weeks, Clint Dempsey did his knee as well and was out for two and half months so it was a bad day for the boys. But that's football."
An England striker who won eight caps under Sven Goran Eriksson and Steve McClaren – although he has never been selected by Fabio Capello – Johnson has the even-tempered attitude of a man who has done a lot of thinking in his time out. Later on he admits that there are bad tackles that need eradicating but it is the one by Wolves' Karl Henry that ended Zamora's season that he is talking about.
"It was something that Murph [Danny Murphy] touched on. I don't want to go into that but I do think there are some reckless challenges going on now that need to be clamped down on a little bit. It has cost Bobby his England place and half a season when he is in the best form of his career. I'm not saying that was a reckless challenge [from Henry] but it was unneeded and from behind when he was running away from a player."
As for Johnson, he says he is as quick and as hungry for success as ever but admits that it was a close thing at times. His injury was a micro-fracture in his cartilage which he says "is ending a lot of people's careers". The condition occurs when the cartilage wears down to the bone. Johnson had always had problems with that knee in the past but, were it not for the Samba challenge, he would not have required surgery.
In the circumstances, there was only one surgeon to see. "I asked him [Steadman] how many micro-fractures [procedures] he had done," Johnson says. "He told me he had done 3,800. When he said that I was like 'Cool, I'm in the right place.'
"Basically they prick your bone and it bleeds and regrows as a cartilage. It is a time-consuming thing, a healing process. Cruciates [knee ligaments] these days are pretty straightforward. You snap them or you tear them, and they get fixed. My one was a healing process and there was a chance it might not work. I had that doubt in my mind for a long time but there has been nothing in my rehab, no flare-ups, no swelling, that has made me think that it has not been successful.
"I think there are players who have obviously retired because of it. It is similar to what Ledley King did. I don't know how successful his was but I do know that he struggles to play a lot of games now. I have played all the practice matches and reserve games and not had any problems. I have come on in all the games I have been selected for and I started my first game last week so hopefully I will be fine."
Visiting the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado, was a reminder that not every player's career can be saved as easily. Johnson bumped into Owen Hargreaves a few times who continues to fight tendinitis. There were plenty of other famous names from world sport passing through, too. "I think he [Steadman] has just done Kobe Bryant's knee," Johnson says. "If it's all right for Kobe then it's alright for me."
"It is basically a ski resort and the hospital is at the bottom of the resort. So in the worst case you go down the slope straight into hospital and you're out in three days. He [Steadman] is not stupid when it comes to where he has built his hospital. He's definitely a businessman.
"He is big. I think he's a top surgeon worldwide and he has pioneered the micro-fracture [procedure] so there was no doubt in my mind that was who I wanted to see. If it wasn't going to work, or it wasn't going to be successful, I wanted to know that I had failed with the best than have someone else do it over here who is not quite so experienced and me thinking: 'what if?'"
The long days of rehabilitation in the gym were hard so Johnson changed the way he lived his life. A professional footballer from the age of 17, he found himself able, for he first time, to spend weekends with his sons Finley, seven, and Frankie, three.
"Everything changes. You miss the training and the travelling but on the flip-side I spent a lot of time with my family. I got to do things with my two boys that I don't get to do, like watching my eldest play football on a Saturday morning. I had weekends off because I was training so hard over the summer. We would go on hotel breaks just to spend time with them.
"I took them to school, picked them up. I turned a negative into a positive but at the same time I missed football a lot. I think if I had been single and didn't have kids I can see how players do go the other way. But I have great people around me, great wife, great kids, great management staff at Fulham."
Johnson's England caps came between February 2005 and September 2007 when he won the last of them starting for McClaren's England against Israel. For that period he was consistently picked in squads and was one of the five original players on stand-by for the 2006 World Cup finals. But he was left out of Capello's first squad and has never been picked again. The sense of rejection still rankles.
"I have ambitions to play for England especially now it is an open squad," Johnson says. "There are a lot of players getting in there on merit. The manager is not scared of choosing players from the lower division. His way is if you are playing well you get your chance which before three, four, five years ago it was a little bit of a closed shop.
"I did break into it when I was in the Championship but that was the season I scored 32 and I scored 21 in the Premier League the year after. I cemented myself in the squad for three or four years, didn't play that many games but I was always called up. Looking back on it now – I did appreciate it but maybe I didn't grab it with two hands as much as I would now."
His contract is up at the end of next season and he would like another one at Fulham but recognises that he will have to earn it first. After nine months out, he is not thinking past tomorrow and the game against Manchester City. "I have had a year out and it has been frustrating and disappointing but it is a man's game and these things happen to a lot of players. I am not the only person who has told this story. There are probably hundreds more. That's football."
My other life
During the rehab for my knee injury I must have watched every kids' film and read every kids' book in south-east London: Toy Story 1, 2 and 3; Finding Nemo, Lightning McQueen and Where's Wally?. I watched a lot of Entourage when I was house bound. I saw Taken with Liam Neeson, that was a top film. And I am an EastEnders fan.Reuse content