Football: Woe betide the walking wounded

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The Independent Online
Just one week into the League season, strange things are already afoot. Sheffield Wednesday, written off as relegation fodder by one of their own players (who shall remain nameless), have won their two opening games. Rangers, dismissed as Champions' League no-hopers by everyone south of the border, put seven goals past Alania Vladikavkaz, away from home. Millwall win at home. David Beckham scores the goal of the season in the first game of the season, from 60 yards. And Duncan Ferguson starts the season, fired up and injury-free.

About time too; for a strapping 24-year-old Ferguson seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time on Everton's treatment table. However, the "Tartan terminator" aside, a bigger surprise so early in the season is how many teams have an injury crisis.

Liverpool are without Scales, Ruddock, Redknapp and Jones (can you remember a time when Rob Jones was fit?); Leeds are so injury-stricken that the club shop now sells vitamins; at Arsenal Platt and Adams are still out, along with the two new Frenchmen who, according to Stewart Houston, are in "rehab" (a slightly non-PC word at Highbury); and, most astounding of all, Chelsea and West Ham each have almost a whole team on ice.

It makes you wonder what the players have been up to during the summer (Ruddock, we know, has been dieting furiously and now looks a shadow of his former self). But, call me naive, are players not meant to return at the start of the season with weary legs rested and batteries recharged rather than limp back like a battalion of walking wounded? We mere mortals don't go back to work suffering from Delhi Belly or a raging hang-over from too much cheap French plonk on holiday.

Then there are those players loosely described by commentators as "not yet 100 per cent match fit". After Chelsea's game against Middlesbrough, one reporter noted that Gianluca Vialli was "10 per cent below match fitness", which was ludicrous. Was he simply excusing Vialli's below-par performance?

So why so many casualties at a time when the facilities to treat sports- related injuries are continually improving? Indeed, on Thursday the Professional Footballers' Association announced it was funding a scheme enabling up to six players per week to be treated at Lilleshall's Sports injury and Human Performance Centre (with the aim of reducing the number of pros, currently around 50, who retire annually through injury). Perhaps the clubs push the players too hard, too soon. After all, in a survey in FourFourTwo magazine last season 70 per cent of players revealed they had been asked to play when not fully fit.

John Green, the West Ham physiotherapist, says the answer is simpler. "You can put our injuries down to clumsiness on the part of the teams we played pre-season. For instance, against Yeovil Ludo Miklosko had his finger dislocated by a late tackle, putting him out for three weeks, then someone stamped on John Moncur's ankle. So we lost two first-team players in 10 minutes. Also, the grounds have been hard due to all the warm weather and the pre-season games are very concentrated." That's an understatement; West Ham teams played 16 pre-season games in 20 days.

So how do fitness tests asses match fitness? Green explains: "The fitness test for a striker isn't the same as for a full-back. You tailor the test to the player: a series of exercises to judge the different components of their game; stops and starts, twists and turns etc, and see how they come through it." For the trained eye, in other words, it is essentially a gut feeling. Green believes such tests are fairly standard throughout football. However, he claims the big problem is the standard of physios, which "differs vastly" - and alarmingly - from club to club.

With this in mind, the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists was founded last season to promote higher standards within the profession. Among its 120 members is Arsenal's Gary Lewin, now seconded to the new England regime. Lewin made a study of the injuries sustained by players and found that while muscle and tendon injuries have reduced significantly since the 1960s (possibly due to better warm-ups, fitness levels and medical advice), joint injuries have increased, probably due to the more physical nature of the modern game.

Of course medical advances have meant that today's players have a far greater chance of recovery. Brian Clough was forced to give up the game because of cruciate ligament damage - in those days referred to simply as a dodgy knee. John Salako, Robbie Elliott, Ian Durrant and Paul Gascoigne are among those who have recovered fully from identical injuries in recent years.

Sometimes, however, players can recover almost in defiance of modern medical science. Brian Law, a Queen's Park Rangers defender, quit the game in 1991 with an acute ligament problem, and decided to trek across the Himalayas. Having walked nine hours at a time for 10 days without even so much as a blister in sight, he returned to England and after trials was offered a contract by Graham Taylor at Wolves.

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