Alan Hutton describes it as a journey "to hell and back", seven months lost to injury and a reputation as one of the brightest young players in Britain to build all over again. In the last year he has seen two of his best friends banned for life from playing for Scotland and watched while Harry Redknapp has rescued Tottenham Hotspur's season without him.
It was 14 months ago that Hutton made his Spurs debut against Manchester United, arriving in the Premier League as the £10m poster-boy of Scottish football. At different times that day he marked Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez as they changed positions, the latter only securing a draw for United with a last-minute goal at White Hart Lane. Two games later and Hutton was at Wembley winning the Carling Cup against Chelsea and falling out of nightclubs with Ledley King.
It was a whirlwind start but as Spurs face United at Old Trafford today, Hutton's modest hope is that he might play at least some role, probably from the bench. He has played just once for Spurs since 12 November, the comeback against Newcastle on Sunday. The previous five months he was plagued by a fracture to his right foot that has required surgery and a long, tedious recovery period. He knows he has to persuade Redknapp of his worth and he is anxious to get started.
"Horrendous" is how Hutton describes the weeks and months working on his own in recovery. Having played 15 games last season after his move from Rangers last January, he came back for pre-season and began to experience discomfort in his foot. Scans showed a fracture and he missed the whole of pre-season, not playing again until 19 October when doctors assured him that the break had closed up.
Only when he started playing again did Hutton realise it was more serious. "I went to full training on the Friday and then I played Stoke away on the Sunday. That was basically the first hard thing I had done since the season before. I played 90 minutes in my first three games and I could feel it again. I was saying to them it was a wee bit sore but we thought it was maybe the cold, things like that."
It was not the cold: the fracture had re-opened and after playing against Argentina for Scotland the pain was so bad that Hutton had surgery. When he looks back now he recognises that he came back too quickly in October and the intensity of seven games in 24 days was too much for him. He also concedes that he was not at his best during that time – he lost the ball to allow Emmanuel Adebayor to set up a goal for Robin van Persie in the 4-4 draw against Arsenal at the Emirates.
"When the manager came in, of course that was the main reason why I wanted to come back and play," Hutton says. "That's why I'm saying I didn't do myself any justice. A new manager comes in and right away you want to show them what you can do and I was desperate to get back because of that. It was a hard learning curve for me but it if happened again I wouldn't push myself.
"For me the injury was a nightmare. All those recovery sessions. I was swimming in the morning and then I came back and did maybe a gym session, running session, weights. I was in the whole day working hard. I did that for the three months to get back the first time and then when it happened the second time I knew I had to do it all over again. But this time to start with I was in a cast and I had crutches for six weeks. It was like going to hell and back, especially with a new manager in place and me sitting at home doing nothing."
Hutton has been fit for a while now but he has found it hard to break into the Tottenham team: his first game back since the injury was for Scotland in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands last month. That international break was dominated by the nocturnal drinking session of his former Rangers team-mates Barry Ferguson and Allan McGregor whose eight-hour binge after the Netherlands game – and its epic consequences – gripped Scottish football.
Dropped for the Iceland game, Ferguson and McGregor – both good friends of Hutton – made V-signs at the television cameras as they sat in the Hampden Park stands. Their punishment has been severe. Fined, suspended and transfer-listed by Rangers they have also been banned from playing for the national team again. Even one month on, the scope of the punishment gives Hutton pause for thought.
"They were silly, they were daft but they have owned up to it," he says. "They are close friends of mine and they have taken their punishment on the chin and I think they just want to move on, they have said sorry for what they have done. What they have been given [the punishment] is really strict, they have learned their lesson. It was a surprise but I don't think in their eyes they knew that it would come to this. I don't think they would have thought of the consequences that followed. But they have said sorry."
The issue of footballers drinking, especially during the season, is a tricky one. Hutton clearly likes a night out – the pictures of him with Spurs team-mates after the Carling Cup final last year would suggest that. But can a British footballer, brought up in our boozy national culture ever completely abstain?
"I don't see a problem with having a drink in the right situation at the right time," he says. "I am not saying 'Go out and have a drink the night before a game' – of course not – but if you are off that's fine. I remember when Paul Le Guen came in [as Rangers manager] he was like, 'these are the rules and if any of them are broken, that's it' and it was really strict. It was beyond anything.
"You think we have grown up in a certain culture and a certain atmosphere and he comes in and goes: 'Bang, I want to change it all'. A lot of the players were saying, 'Hold on a minute we can't do this as easy as that. We can't become the players you want us to be overnight.' It doesn't work like that and that's when a few of the boys said 'I don't want to be part of that'. That's when we started doing not so well."
With Redknapp, Hutton feels that he knows where he stands. He stresses more than once in our conversation that he signed a five-year contract with Tottenham last year and he intends to make a success of his time at the club. "I'm not putting down Scottish football but if you want to improve you have to go to a better league and the English Premier League is one of the best in the world, if not the best," he says.
And will he be the same player after so long away? "Oh definitely, I'll be the same player, there is no question of that. I broke my leg in 2005, I have been there and done it and fought my way back. I believe in myself and I believe in my ability."
The Tottenham Hotspur Foundation aims to 'Create Opportunities that Change Lives' for children and young people in the community, and Alan was rewarding graduates from the Haringey Playing for Success scheme run from the Spurs Learning Zone at White Hart Lane.
Redknapp hails 'unbelievable' Ferdinand
Rio Ferdinand stepped up to take a penalty last Sunday – and missed – but spot-kicks aside, Harry Redknapp sees precious few, if any, flaws in the Manchester United and England central defender these days. Of course, Redknapp, when he was the West Ham United manager and Ferdinand a raw, teenage prospect at the London club, likes to explain how he foresaw his ascent to becoming one of the best defenders in Europe a long time ago.
But he was not alone. He had sent Ferdinand out on loan to gain first-team experience in the Football League at Bournemouth, and Redknapp, the Tottenham manager since last October, takes up the story. "Rio was 17. United saw Rio play and a scout had said he was unbelievable. They tried to sign Rio from Bournemouth. Martin Edwards [then United's chairman] rang Mel Machin up [the manager] and asked if they would sell him. He said, 'He doesn't belong to us but I'd like to sell him!' So Martin then rang me up and said, 'How about £1m' and I said he hasn't got a price – he'll be the best in Europe – and in the end they had to pay £30m for him."
Redknapp faces his old charge this afternoon although he probably won't see him in midfield, where he once deployed him for West Ham against Wimbledon – "where he murdered Vinnie Jones," said Redknapp. He added: "Rio makes a massive difference. He's equally as important as Cristiano Ronaldo, as great as Ronaldo is. He shores it up at the back."
Redknapp, who will be without defender Michael Dawson, will probably not be trying to win games next season with the services of David Beckham, linked this week to a possible move to Spurs later this year. "It's a million-to-one shot," he said.
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