James Lawton: The unspoken fear that haunts every young man with the world at his feet

No footballer can go a day without wondering how quickly it could all be over
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Until last Tuesday night at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon, Momo Sissoko was one of football's most exuberant works in progress, a tangle of long legs and a big heart whose contribution to Liverpool was becoming increasingly important. Now he wonders if he will ever again have enough vision in his right eye to continue in the one hugely viable vocation of his life.

The hopes of Alan Smith, of Manchester United, are pinned on the vast improvement in medical science and the skill of surgeons since those days when footballers were cut down quite randomly in the prime of their lives.

No doubt both have reasons for optimism. Surgeons rescued the career of the great Sugar Ray Leonard when he was told that he should never go in the ring again after suffering a detached retina. Sissoko's recovered team-mate Djibril Cissé, who like Smith suffered a horribly broken leg, is another source of encouragement - and in recent years players like Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer and Niall Quinn all recovered from knee injuries which not so long ago would have sent them prematurely into the shadows.

But then whatever the outcomes for Sissoko and Smith, an old harsh truth has these last few days been restated along the fast lane of football.

It comes from the other side of the luxury and the self-indulgence which so frequently provoke the ire of all those for whom the game will always be no more or less than a fantasy.

It is that no footballer, not even such prodigies as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, can go a day without wondering how quickly it could all be over.

Such young men can never quite believe they have conquered the world because they know how easily it can be taken away. Perhaps not the money, now, with sweetheart contracts and insurance policies, but the core of their lives, the thing that makes them separate and charmed.

Ian St John, who spent a substantial part of his early career at Motherwell having his knee drained of fluid up at the hospital on Friday afternoon, then later at Liverpool was sustained by cortisone jabs aimed at nullifying the original damage, speaks across the ages when he says: "You always have to believe it won't happen to you, that someone isn't going to announce that you will never be able to play again, but, believe me, the fear is always there in the darker recesses of the mind."

How could it not be? At the age of 20 John Giles feared for the career that would take him to an FA Cup final with Manchester United and more than a decade of generalship at Leeds United, after he was tackled in a game at Birmingham City. He suffered a broken bone in his leg and ruptured knee ligaments and was out for four anxious months. Like his contemporary St John, he has been touched deeply this week by the fear and the disruption that came so suddenly to the lives of Sissoko and Smith.

"As a player it is something you never speak of," says Giles, "because if you do it is as though you are tempting fate, and if you think too much about it you know it will change you as a player. You will become too cautious, and that too could mean the death of a great player."

The list of ambushed careers is so long you scarcely know where to begin. Brian Clough, the most deadly of strikers, was cut down in his twenties and filled with the angst that would fuel his dramatic career as a manager.

Derek Dooley, another marksman, was infected by the soil of a football pitch, losing a leg and his heroic status. Denis Law spent what should have been his ultimate fulfilment - Manchester United's European Cup win in 1968 - fortified by stealthy drinks in a hospital bed, where he lay after an operation which failed to put him right.

Tony Green, a quick and finely skilled Scottish inside forward who is still cherished in Newcastle even though he didn't play a full season on Tyneside after emerging with Blackpool and Scotland, was finished in his mid-twenties. Modern surgery would no doubt have rescued him.

Green is a teacher now and works for the pools panel along with World Cup hero Roger Hunt, who says: "Tony was a great player. He never talks about what happened to him but I suspect he thinks about it every day."

Nobby Stiles' knees were ruined by the age of 30. George Cohen scarcely had time to savour his success as one of Sir Alf Ramsey's World Cup winners before his career was effectively ended in a flash.

He reported: "I was marking Peter Thompson of Liverpool when I got the injury which I knew was serious. Unfortunately, the sharpness of my concern was not shared by those whose job it was to provide diagnosis and treatment. The ball came from the Liverpool goalkeeper and was loaded with top-spin. I tried to get my body over the ball to smother it. But it dived more steeply than I expected and came four or five feet off the ground.

"My idea was to play it wide on the outside of my foot and as I did so I apparently, according to medical jargon, 'externally rotated' my knee. I felt the cartilage go and the pain was immediate and intense. I hit the ground screaming and watched the knee swell up at a speed which seemed unbelievable. I received a cold sponge - and stayed on the field another five minutes. It was stupid and futile."

In order to soothe the pain of loss, Cohen reflected that he probably got his World Cup chance only because of the shattering injury of a man ahead of him in the queue, Chelsea's fine full-back Ken Shellito.

As he fought to prolong his career, St John was said by one doctor to have the knees of a 60-year-old. He was touching 30 at the time. But then his greatest regret is not for himself but a team-mate at Motherwell, a darting little winger named Andy Weir who scored for Scotland the day St John made his debut in a victory over West Germany.

St John recalls: "I loved the way Andy played. He could cross the ball on the run as well as any player I've ever seen. He was knocked out in a clash of heads in the first half of a game at Third Lanark and had to be stretchered off. When we went into the dressing-room at half-time he was lying on a table. He had come round but he was terribly white and was waiting for an ambulance.

"Andy lived in a corner flat in the tenement building into which Motherwell had moved my wife, Betsy, and me. The following morning the club doctor knocked on our door and told us he had just visited Andy's wife and kids. Andy was still in hospital. The doctor told us, 'I want you be strong for his wife. Andy has about 24 hours to live.'

"In fact, after months in hospital, Andy pulled through. He had lost his hearing on the left side and he was never again the player he had been. He trained for a while, but you could see it wasn't going to happen. It was one of the greatest tragedies I ever saw in the game. He was a lost soul and I remember saying to Betsy, 'This is ridiculous, the club should be looking after him. They should send him and his wife and the kids to Majorca to get some sunshine. He's done a lot for Motherwell. They should be trying to build him up'."

Andy Weir wasn't sent to Majorca and soon he was in a wheelchair. He died young.

Sissoko and Smith occupy a different and infinitely more comfortable planet. They are underpinned by insurance and wealth. But what we maybe sometimes forget is that in their hearts they are not men of advantage or property. They are footballers, they are the boys of the autumn and the winter and the spring, and it may just be significant that both of them are of a kind: they are players of total commitment, of such passion that their yellow card count has from time to time been alarming. Yet the irony, and the unspoken warning to all types of players, is that their mishaps were not related to the vigour of their playing style.

Sissoko was trying to head the ball but connected with the Brazilian player Beto's boot. The Benfica man was booked but without heavy accusations from Liverpool. They saw it as essentially an accident.

Smith, even more randomly, hurt himself so badly while blocking a free-kick by John Arne Riise.

Both Sissoko and Smith - like Weir and all the other victims - simply paid the price that the game will always levy from time to time. They found themselves on the wrong side of the line that separates every player, whatever his skill and his wealth, from an unspoken dread.

James Lawton shortlisted for top awards

The outstanding work of James Lawton, The Independent's chief sports writer, has resulted in him being shortlisted for a series of major awards. In the Sports Journalism Awards, Lawton has been nominated as Columnist of the Year and Feature Writer of the Year, as well as for the most senior award, Sports Writer of the Year. He has also been nominated as Sports Journalist of the Year in the British Press Awards.

Two other Independent sports journalists have been nominated for major awards. David Ashdown has been nominated as Sports Photographer of the Year in both the SJA awards and the British Press Awards and Brian Viner has been shortlisted as the SJA's Interviewer of the Year.