Kieran Gibbs: 'I thought Oh God, what is the doctor going to say? Is he telling me I can't play again?'
The fullback on his injury problems, his twin brother who plays non-league football and the joy of becoming a regular in an Arsenal team he believes can lift the title and end the club's long wait for silverware
Kieran Gibbs can recall the telephone call about his broken metatarsal around two and a half years ago, and what he still regards as "the longest 10 seconds of my life" when he thought that the club doctor on the other end of the line might be about to tell him his football career was over.
As he described those emotions at Arsenal's training ground, it was obvious the 24-year-old Croydon boy who has established himself as the club's first-choice left-back has had to come through some big challenges along the way. That broken metatarsal sustained against Standard Liège in November 2009 looked, he says, "like a bullet puncture" and later he would undergo a double-hernia operation.
On top of that, every time Gibbs has had a bad injury in recent years, it seems like Arsène Wenger has signed another left-back. Andre Santos arrived in the summer of 2011. When Gibbs tore a thigh muscle in January, Nacho Monreal arrived. Yet so far Gibbs has seen off the Spain international and, in arguably the best run of form and fitness in his career, will start against Liverpool this evening in the Premier League's big game of the weekend.
He is 24, and the sixth anniversary of his first-team debut against Sheffield United in the League Cup was on Thursday. He would have played more games were it not for injury and none has been worse than the metatarsal fracture that kept him out for nine months during which one complication followed another.
"There was one point when I had a scan [on the metatarsal] and I was just waiting for the doctor to say it was all clear," Gibbs says. "He rang me and said, 'Look we are having a bit of trouble, mate'. I just thought, 'Oh God, what is he going to say? Is he going to tell me I can't play again?' A million thoughts went through my head before he said, 'You just need another surgery and we should be able to get through it'.
"When he rings you and just tells you that, it is a long 10 seconds. I thought to myself, 'What am I going to do?' There is never a day where I don't think back to that moment and there's a chance I would not be playing. It makes me appreciate it so much more."
Gibbs accepts that he has had to carry around the perception of being injury-prone, in spite of playing 27 Premier League games alone last season, his best yet. He would also point out that the worst injury of all, that broken metatarsal in 2009, was a simple clash of feet when France international Eliaquim Mangala, then at Liège, tried to block his shot.
"There was a lot of pain but I was at a stage where the adrenalin was in me," Gibbs says. "When I tried to walk, my body was telling me I couldn't. I looked down and saw a hole in the boot and there was blood leaking out. I got in the dressing room and jumped on the bed. By then I'd calmed down by and the pain really hit me.
"They cut my boot off my foot. I looked at the injury for two seconds. It was a hole, an open wound. And then I closed my eyes until I was at hospital. I didn't look again. I was in so much pain. I was knocking back pills for fun.
"People say about me: 'He's a good player but he's injured a lot'. That's something that really frustrates a player, especially when the player in question doesn't feel like he is injury-prone. That is one of the biggest things I wanted to correct people on. I know I can play the amount of games needed. I feel like I have done that. Last season I did get one injury but I still felt that I can sustain playing at this level."
That metatarsal injury took two separate operations to solve, with the Dutch surgeon Niek van Dijk, who specialises in foot injuries, eventually taking bone from Gibbs' pelvis in order to fix his foot. Originally he had felt good after a few months and had been close to coming back into the team until scans showed up a potential problem which the second surgery has cleared up.
He required what turned out to be two hernia operations from November 2011 and, having signed a new contract last December, tore a thigh muscle just before the end of the January transfer window. In came Monreal, who kept Gibbs out the side for a while towards the end of last season, but it is the Englishman who is back in Wenger's side now.
Gibbs' association with Arsenal began when he was 14 and the academy at Wimbledon, which he and his twin brother, Jaydon attended, closed its doors. Both Gibbs boys were considered too small by many coaches, although Kieran has since shot up to almost 6ft. Jaydon was released and has since played non-league football at the likes of Chipstead and Guildford City until he was signed by Aldershot Town, of the Conference, in September.
Kieran has followed his brother's career in non-league, watching him play whenever he can. He describes his twin, a winger, as "the more flashy player... He's more mouth but he's a good lad." The difference in their fortunes in the game, however, is impossible to ignore. Do they ever discuss how one ended up playing in the Champions League and the other, until September, the Ryman League First Division South?
"Not really, we are different players," Gibbs says. "It's not like we are both strikers. Or both centre-backs. We have always been competitive. We were always fighting and arguing, as twins do. As soon as we left school it kind of stopped. When I left home was when we realised we actually had something that not a lot of people have, so we try to enjoy each other's company now.
"Arsenal asked us both to come at first. We were together at the club for a year. My brother was really small, quite significantly smaller. He has filled out now. I suppose he was always a good player. He was more of a winger-forward. His growth slowed him down. I mean, I was small but he was tiny. When I first went to Arsenal I was miniature compared to the players in that team."
When he was given a scholarship by Arsenal, Gibbs was put in digs with the Lansbury family, parents of Henri, now at Nottingham Forest, who has become a good friend. Curiously, he was never a left-back as a junior player and played his first game in that position when he made his first-team debut for Arsenal. Later that season, 2007-2008, he went on loan to Norwich City, who put him on an intensive weights programme.
He has been capped twice by England, and was called into the last squad by Roy Hodgson when Ashley Cole pulled out with injury. The England manager likes Gibbs and often cites him as the kind of high-level player he cannot find a place for, in this instance because of Cole's and Leighton Baines' dominance of the position.
As for Saturday's clash, there is no question that Liverpool's form represents the biggest test Arsenal have faced domestically this season. "It's still too early to say [whether Arsenal can the win title] but we have shown we are able to do it," Gibbs says. "But then we have shown that for the last season. It is about how consistent we can be."
He has been through a lot, the injuries, the competition and – back before he broke his metatarsal – the slip that allowed Park Ji-sung in to score the decisive goal in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester United in 2009. Now he says he is glad to prove that he can play consistently in an Arsenal team with a strong British core in which, at last, he finds himself a key figure, week in, week out.
My other life
I don't play golf so I'm going to say the TV series 'Breaking Bad'. We travel a lot and get a lot of time to watch things. That one has really stuck in my mind. I think it's genius.
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