All footballers dread injury but the anxiety is greater once they reach their thirties. Questions arise: Will I lose pace and mobility? Will I be replaced in my absence? Will I come back at all?
Thus the relief on Steven Gerrard's face as he left the Amex Stadium on Wednesday night was understandable. Gerrard had only played for 15 minutes, and aside from one break he did so at low tempo, but he had survived his first match back in a Liverpool shirt without alarm.
Gerrard had a fitful campaign last season suffering a hamstring injury playing for England in November, then requiring a groin operation in March. That was only supposed to rule him out for a month but an infection set in which eventually required treatment in hospital.
"The last six months have been a roller-coaster, but it's behind me now and I'm looking forward to getting match fit and trying to get back in the starting line-up," he said after Liverpool's 2-1 Carling Cup defeat of Brighton.
"It's been a long time, too long really. I'm not the best at watching games when I'm out injured. I tried my best to attend most of the games, support the lads and try to be an influence, but it's been tough. It was fantastic to be out there in the kit again."
Gerrard added he hoped to play against Wolves at Anfield tomorrow, but manager Kenny Dalglish is wary of rushing him back after such a long lay-off. Dalglish made clear he was going to ease Gerrard back into action slowly and may be inclined to limit him to 30 minutes from the bench. However, Liverpool's next match is the Merseyside derby at Goodison a week tomorrow. Gerrard will be very keen to play in that, but it is no place for a player working his way back to fitness.
"Hopefully he'll get ready soon for a full game now," said team-mate Dirk Kuyt, "but he was out for a long time so he might need more time to play a full game."
Following the trip to Everton, Liverpool go to Old Trafford, but in between those tumultuous matches England play their final European Championship qualifier in Montenegro. Fabio Capello has said he is keen for Gerrard to return to England duty, but no one expects Liverpool to encourage that.
Dalglish has no great need to rush Gerrard into action as he has options in midfield following the summer arrivals of Charlie Adam, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson. He clearly has choice in attack too after the excellent performances of Craig Bellamy, Maxi Rodriguez and Kuyt at Brighton. Watching from the sidelines Gerrard, who has made only six starts under Dalglish, has been impressed with the returning manager's first nine months.
"I've been really happy with what I've seen," he said. "It's been frustrating being out, but it's also been nice to see the lads progressing well. The signings have been good and, from top to bottom, everybody at the club is smiling. Take away [Sunday's 4-0 defeat at] Tottenham and it's been exactly what I've been hoping for."
Dalglish was reluctant to commit himself as to where Gerrard will fit into his reshaped team. The most obvious place would be in the hole, ahead of a central midfield pairing of Adam and Lucas, but that is where Bellamy shone at the Amex. Given Luis Suarez will start most major games, that would also raise a question mark over Andy Carroll's involvement.
Then there is the enduring Kuyt, whose ability to produce consistently good performances in a variety of positions makes him hard to omit. "I like to play every game," said the Dutchman. "It doesn't matter what competition, but it's good to have competition in the squad. That's what you need if you want to challenge for trophies."
The first target is the Carling Cup. Liverpool have not won a trophy since 2006 and are yet to play at the new Wembley. Dalglish's selections suggest he aims to rectify those two omissions as soon as possible. "The manager said before we went out at Brighton we want to be one step closer to a major cup final," said Gerrard.Reuse content