The first thing you notice about Paul Robinson as he enters the media room at Blackburn Rovers' Brockhall Village training ground is the purple bruising around his right eye. The former England goalkeeper picked up the shiner against Blackpool last weekend but he shrugs it off with a smile. What is a black eye to a man who had a brush with death?
The occupational hazards of goalkeeping pale beside Robinson's ordeal, which began last March when complications from a routine back operation left him with a blood clot in his lung. "It could have been a fatal situation," says the 34-year-old, who was capped 41 times by England.
When Robinson started coughing up blood five days after his surgery for sciatica his club doctor, Duncan Robertson, sent him to A&E. "They examined me and sent me home saying, 'You're all right, it's just where they've put the tubes down your throat from the operation'," he explains. "But that night I took a turn for the worse. It was like I had somebody stood on my chest and I was regurgitating a lot of blood.
"The next day I was in a lot of pain. Our lads were away at Cardiff, so I thought I'd best phone the doc again. He sent me to LGI [Leeds General Infirmary]. It was Easter Monday, and he spoke to a couple of doctors and made sure there was a radiographer there."
Robinson is grateful to Robertson, who "diagnosed it over the phone", though only later did he appreciate the full severity of his problem, an infarcted lung. "I was lucky that [the clot] stopped where it did. Mine stopped at the bottom half of my lung. They think it came from my legs or hip, and it had gone up. The bottom half of my lung was cut off until this clot moved and allowed the blood to go back down." Had the clot travelled further, he might have died. "They said, 'You'd have just gone'," he adds, slamming a hand on the table.
The road to recovery was long. He spent six months on the anticoagulant warfarin and says: "I couldn't really walk that far because I'd lost the bottom half of my lung. With the operation I was in a bit of a pathetic mess. Just going for a walk up the street to the shop was an achievement after two or three weeks."
It was a strange new world for a professional athlete, even with his lung "back to normal". He continues: "It was a hard time when I was given the all-clear to start training. I thought I'd catch up quickly but I was miles away. It was eight to 10 weeks from returning to being able to train properly and play a game."
After 13 months he eventually reappeared against Manchester City in the 1-1 FA Cup third-round draw at Ewood Park on 4 January. "It was unbelievable," he says. "It was brilliant to get back out there after such a long time and the reception I got was fantastic – not just from our fans but from the City fans. It's been the same with players we've played against in the last few weeks, shaking my hand and saying it's good to see me back. It's quite humbling."
Under Gary Bowyer's stewardship Rovers sit five points off the Championship play-offs. Robinson believes Blackburn have turned a corner after the traumatic first 18 months of Venky's ownership, which featured relegation and four managerial sackings.
"We seem to have a bit of stability in the club now," he says. "We've got a manager who the fans like, we've got a manager who the players respect and get on with, and you can see that on the pitch. We are slowly turning it around and I don't see why we can't push for the play-offs. Maybe it has taken [the owners] a while to learn the game but things look like they are changing."
His own recovery is the main reason why life is sweet right now. "I don't worry about anything any more. I'm not worried about what fans say to me, I'm not worried about what the papers say, I'm not worried if I have a good or bad game. I'm just enjoying being out there again and playing football."