Jay DeMerit has always been a player with an acute sense of his own good fortune. Having come to England to seek his fortune six years ago with $1800 in his pocket, and starting out with Southall Town in the ninth level of the pyramid, he has never demonstrated the sense of entitlement that led Joey Barton to describe his fellow professionals as "knobs" this week.
DeMerit's Watford side may be facing Chelsea in the FA Cup for the second successive season, but when the US defender steps out at Stamford Bridge this afternoon, he will do so with a sense of profound gratitude. This isn't just another big game; it is proof that he has put behind him the very real possibility he would never play again.
The injury that almost bought him down was terrifyingly banal. "It just started with an innocuous piece of dirt that got under my contact lens and cut my cornea, cut the surface of my eye," he said. "It got really badly infected within 24 hours and I lost 70 per cent of my vision. I would have had blurred vision for the rest of my life if I had not had a transplant."
This went beyond the usual footballers' injuries. "The initial fear was never mind playing again, I've got to see," DeMerit said. "But the good thing about an eye injury – if there is a good thing – is that your legs still work and your body still works. I was able to come into the gym and do some fitness work on the bike, which really helps in terms of coming back and your recovery. Then it was just a matter of getting in as soon as I could to get the procedure done, and the hospital at Moorfields has been great as far as the care they've given me."
The initial surgery, he said, was not too bad as he was under general anaesthetic. Far worse were the stitch adjustments, where he could see the needle coming into the eye. "I had to retrain, not just my brain, but both my eyes," he explained. "I had laser surgery in my left eye so I wouldn't need contacts again. I've had two stitch adjustments to my eye, where you can manipulate the shape of my cornea to see a little bit better every time. Now I've got perfect vision in my left eye and my right is still a bit off but the combination of the two I can see just as well as I could before. At the moment I still have full stitches around my eye and it's a bit strange. It gets a bit sensitive in the sun, but fortunately it doesn't show itself too much at the moment and it's dark by three o'clock."
In a World Cup year, of course, all injuries take on an extra significance, but DeMerit is confident that half a season is more than enough time to get himself back to peak form. "For me and any player the World Cup is the pinnacle of our profession," he said. "It's something that every player wants to do and not every player gets a chance. I'm just hoping I can keep myself in the squad, get in the camps and stay healthy."
The USA's performances in the Confederations Cup in the summer, where they beat Spain on their way to the final, have only whetted the appetite, particularly with England as their opponents in the first game. "You can only build on performances and experiences," DeMerit said. "Living here I know the standard that England fans hold their team to. I don't think the expectations are too high: they should be among the best teams in the world. But it is something that teams like us can feed off."
His own performance in the semi-final, when he dealt authoritatively with the series of crosses that Spain were reduced to hitting towards Fernando Torres, he rates as the best experience of his career – along with Watford's play-off final victory over Leeds. Does that give him the confidence that he can handle anyone? "You hope so. You have those thoughts in your head when those performances happen but I'm under no illusions about who I am or who Torres is. Those type of challenges are what I thrive on, the same as the Chelsea game. Those performances are what it's all about."
This afternoon DeMerit will have to handle Nicolas Anelka, who is back after a calf injury in the nick of time as Didier Drogba, Salomon Kalou, John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien head off to Angola for the African Cup of Nations. Anelka scored a hat-trick against Watford last season, although as DeMerit points out, Watford were ahead in that game with 15 minutes remaining. "When you change sides and lose your players to the African Nations and things like that, and you've got guys coming in who haven't necessarily played a lot this season, there are all sorts of advantages you can find and try to use ahead of a game like this," DeMerit said. "We need to find as many little advantages as we can to give ourselves a chance."
In his six-year rise from hobo in search of a club to conquering partial blindness to ready himself for a World Cup, taking chances is what DeMerit has done best.