Valencia over the moonwalking for his United return
Nasa-developed treatment helped the tough Ecuadorean winger come back from a serious ankle injury
You take what feeble reassurances you can from those deadening moments when the football has stopped, the stretcher is on, an oxygen mask is out and the crowd has fallen to a hush. When Antonio Valencia was carefully carried from the Old Trafford pitch eight months ago, his faint, raised right arm seemed to be some form of defiance against the fate he had been dealt.
It was actually something far more fragile, we now learn. The pain which left the Ecuadorean laid out on the wet Old Trafford grass – and had those present conjuring images of Alan Smith, the United player who never really recovered from a similar fate – was too great to acknowledge the parting ovation. Valencia simply wanted his daughter, Domenica, to take some comfort and the tattoo on his right arm bears her name. "So I wasn't actually signalling to the crowd," he reveals. "I wanted to show her and reassure her I was going to be OK. That's the reason I did it..."
We are only just discovering this because Valencia – shy to the point of awkwardness and so unprepared for the culture shock of his move to United from Wigan Athletic two summers ago that he drove his rather battered BMW 3-series through the Carrington gates – does not tend to go in for public acts of reflection. But the memory of those heavy minutes after the innocuous challenge by Rangers' Kirk Broadfoot in a Champions League group game last September are too fresh to put aside. "At that moment I could think of nothing but the pain – I just wanted it to go away," he recalls. "I was stricken and I remember just lying and waiting for the doctor to tell me what was going to happen. I didn't feel sick or dizzy, because I was given oxygen straight away and then an injection. Then the pain started to subside."
After the pain came the contemplation of a double break and dislocation of the left ankle, with a minimum six-month recovery time. "You start to think about the other players who have had that type of injury and they've never really recaptured it; never really got back to the level they were at before," Valencia says.
His presence back in United's first team is testament to the 25-year-old's strength and to the fact that he was effectively walking on the moon in mid-winter. Valencia's constant companion for three months was Carrington's underwater treadmill, initially designed by Nasa to replicate the sense of weightlessness in space, which he explains, means "you can put in the same physical effort that you put in on the field without putting any strain or weight on your leg at all".
Yet no sports scientist could quell the fears washing through his mind when he awoke in Manchester's Whalley Range hospital the morning after the injury. He turned to United's club chaplain John Boyers in the dark moments – "his kind words gave me more inspiration" – and a certain Scottish football manager marched up the hospital ward, with assistant Mike Phelan in tow, that morning after. "The manager didn't really set me any targets," Valencia says. "They just said, 'Look, these things happen in football, don't worry, take it easy, take all the time in the world, all the time you need, and everything will be fine'. It meant a lot."
After the tedium of Spanish television during home confinement, came minor breakthroughs. "The best time was when I first went out running with the physio. It hurt a little at first but I knew it was a good thing." Then, 45 minutes on the field in the FA Cup victory over Arsenal in March. "A lovely, warm feeling."
Which brings him to today, waking up in Marylebone's Landmark Hotel, with the right to feel confident of a starting place in tomorrow's Champions League final against Barcelona. The facility with which Valencia has slotted back into the side after half a year out led Michael Carrick to say it was the sharpest he's ever seen anyone after such a bad injury and bears out the theory that tough backgrounds breed hungry achievers.
"It's right to point out that there are lots of characters in this squad, but whether people are from a comfortable background or tough beginning, I don't know," he reflects, though his hometown of Lago Agrio in north-east Ecuador makes the uncompromising childhoods of Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra seem like a picnic. A flood of refugees from the cocaine wars raging across the nearby Colombian border has made kidnapping a serious problem.
It is another product of the school of hard knocks, Wayne Rooney, who said that Valencia's supply line makes the Ecuadorean's name the one he most wants to see on the team sheet. "I say the same about him as well," Valencia replies. "It is nice to hear those words and I'm very grateful to Wayne but I look for his name on the sheet as well. The manager always starts with the goalkeeper and goes from right to left. So I am mentioned quite early on but then I have to listen out to see if Wayne is mentioned as well. It works both ways."
His last-minute preparations are calm. He has faced Lionel Messi twice before, in World Cup qualifiers, and emerged well enough, he reflects: "I just go into the game calmly, concentrated and focused on the game ahead." Luis Antonio Valencia has travelled a long way in eight months.
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