When Chelsea's Joe Cole gave in to self-pity recently and complained to a friend about the foot injury that has kept him on the sidelines for much of the season, the response was blunt: "I've got to drive a fork-lift truck for seven hours tomorrow. I'd rather be an injured footballer."
A fair point, considering that the friend was loyal enough not to add "especially on your wages"; but a long-term injury can test the character and the mental strength of any player. There must be times, when doing solitary in the gym, that a fork-lift truck seems an attractive option.
Like Cole, Dean Ashton and others, England's fourth-highest goalscorer, Michael Owen, is about to spend another international week on a literal and metaphorical treadmill, the blanket media coverage of the national team adding to the sense of missing out again. Owen's smiling appearance at a promotion for Umbro and Michelin in a Shoreditch night-club last Thursday (being Michael, it was 4pm, not 4am) suggested he was bearing up well after playing no more than half a dozen matches in 13 months.
Even such a naturally nice man did let the mask slip at one stage, when asked how lonely life could be for the long-term injured. "If you're on your own it is," he admitted. "You're in a corner of the gym thinking you've got three sets of this and then three of that. It's crap, really."
But young Owen - is he really 28 this year ? - did not appear 80 times for England, become European Footballer of the Year and play for two of the world's top clubs (plus Newcastle), by moping around and indulging in negative thinking. "I'm not a dreamer," he said. "I'm injured. I don't understand people that cry about it. I've been out for months and months so it's just a way of life at the minute.
"I've always been quite stable in my mind and everybody has their ups and downs in any walk of life. It's one of the hazards of football, injury. It's my turn now to be injured and you just have to be strong."
That cannot have been easy, when after missing the second half of last season with a broken foot he was pronounced fit for the World Cup finals in Germany, played two games there - poorly, to be frank - and in the first minute of the third one was left in agony with damaged knee ligaments.
His reaction was typical: "When I was lying on the bed in the stadium I was going through my phone and almost apologising to people. That was my automatic feeling, not feeling sorry for myself but for other people. I agree my preparation might have been better, not through my own fault but just through lying on my back for five months with a broken foot. Did anything like that contribute? No one will ever know. But I didn't miss one training session, I was clinically fit to play."
Although those injuries have absolved Owen of much of the bitter recriminations for the sad tale that was England's World Cup adventure, he is frank about admitting to the collective responsibility. "I think everyone knows we have got very good players in the England team and that we can do better than we've done," said Owen, who has yet to play for his two new managers, Glenn Roeder and Steve McClaren. "That's why everyone's so disappointed. We know we're better than that. The next process is showing it on a consistent basis. I've played in some great England performances but definitely not enough. I think I've played 80 times for England and I've come off not half of them thinking, 'We were fantastic today'. So that's the challenge. We need to play better."
Whether or not he has the chance to contribute this season will depend, he feels, on returning for Newcastle first. That is certainly part of the plan he formulated once over the immediate shock and pain of the injury players fear most these days. "Soon as I get injured, I'm one of those that asks, 'What have I done?' and, 'How long's that?' Then I work out what games I'll miss and get my head round when I can go on holiday, when I'll be walking, get a mental picture of the whole process and then after 15 or 20 minutes the depression's gone and I'm focused on getting back fit.
"You break it down to targets: get out of the [knee] brace, then Christmas is coming, then start to walk and get on the exercise bike. I woke up this morning and thought how lovely that it was February and it seems as if there's a light at the end of the tunnel."
Looking on the bright side of a ruptured anterior ligament is not easy, and managing to do so is a tribute to the power of positive thinking. If a fork-lift truck turns up at the gym tomorrow, you suspect Owen will be first aboard.Reuse content