The long hours in the gym, on an exercise bike or carefully stretching on the mat, were hard but it was the quiet times at home, when Carl Cort had time to think, that were the worst. Mooching around on his own, resting and recuperating, his mind wandered and wondered: would he ever be fit again? If he did regain fitness, could he still do it? Was he good enough?
These are terrible questions for a sportsman to ask of himself, especially a goal scorer to whom confidence is the elixir from which all flows. But they were inevitable. When Cort joined Newcastle United for £7m in the summer of 2000, he was regarded as a future England international. This billing appeared accurate when he marked his home debut with an impressive fourth-minute goal. Twenty-eight minutes later Cort felt his hamstring twinge and a shadow fell on his life.
The hamstring took almost a season to repair, then came other injuries beginning with his knee and ankle ligaments. In three-and-a-half seasons at Newcastle United Cort started just 19 Premiership matches. It is approaching three years since he completed a first-team match and nearly two since he scored a goal.
In the circumstances it is hardly surprising Wolverhampton Wanderers' board was split when David Jones wanted to invest £2m of their limited funds on the 26-year-old striker. The new chairman Rick Hayward overruled his father, Sir Jack, and Jones got his man. Now the questions Cort asked himself are being asked by everyone else at Molineux. Is he fit? Is he good enough? This afternoon, when Arsenal visit, may not be the best time to judge but Wolves do not have time to be patient.
Injury is the spectre that haunts every footballer. Every player knows he is one bad tackle, one awkward twist, from retirement. Ask Steve Coppell, Pierluigi Casiraghi or Paul Lake. Or, indeed, Cort. For though none of his injuries were career-threatening individually, cumulatively they endangered his professional future.
"I would consider myself a confident person but being out so long with injuries, and then not being selected in the first team squad, does knock your confidence," he said when we met on Thursday. It affected me physically and mentally. My family were in London so I was going back to a house on my own and all sorts of things go through your mind. I got to the point where I doubted myself - 'are you really good enough?' and things like that. It is hard to keep yourself going. I needed to have people around to talk to, to take my mind off football.
"When you have a serious injury you have to work twice as hard, sometimes three times as hard, to get back. It is really difficult. It is hard mentally knowing what you can do and not being able to do it. And a hamstring injury is one of the most irritating you can have. It is very unpredictable. Unlike a break you are never sure when you are going to come back. I became difficult to live with. I was getting frustrated, short-tempered, certain things were everyone else's fault and things like that."
At this point I wonder if I should ask whether it prompted the tempestuous break-up of his marriage. Are we not now all interested in celebrities' private lives? But we are sitting in a dark corner of the pavilion at the Wolverhampton lawn tennis and squash rackets club where the Wolves use the gym facilities. With the dim lighting and Cort's low, sometimes hesitant, always thoughtful voice the interview has taken on the feel of a confessional.
Cort was never an extrovert. At Wimbledon he was one of the quiet ones who kept their heads down when the Crazy Gang were on the rampage. Joe Kinnear sent him on loan to John Beck's Lincoln City. Not to teach him about football, but to toughen him up. It is thus important not to misread his quiet demeanour, but even so, I have rarely met a player so apparently short of confidence, and so prepared to discuss it. It seems rude to intrude into his personal life. I am more inclined to try and gee him up. Does he have a motivational video to watch when the doubts enter his mind, one which highlights his goals?
"I do have some from way back," he said, adding with a wry laugh: "Newcastle had a player profile tape for every game but I haven't had one for a while. I watched some of a tape not so long ago. It does gives me confidence to see me scoring goals and playing." Wolves' faith has also given him a lift. "There were a number of clubs wanting to take me on loan but Wolves wanted to buy me. That showed they had confidence in me and they'd been after me for a while so it wasn't as if I was a panic buy.
"As soon as I heard, I had no choice but to go for it. Before I had thought about staying and trying to prove myself at Newcastle. I do feel disappointed the ways things worked out. But I had to leave. I had to start playing football. I don't hold it against Newcastle. At a big club like that, if you get injured, there will be people who are probably as good as you who can take your place and that's what happened."
Cort made his Wolves debut at Portsmouth last week, lasting 67 minutes though manifestly off the pace. He is in football's Catch 22. He is fit, but not match-fit. The only way he can get match-fit is to play. But until he is match-fit his contribution is limited because, admits Cort, it is not just his ability he has questioned. He also doubts his body. "I am a bit wary and sometimes hold back," he said. "My injuries have been muscular rather than breaks so heading and tackling is fine, it is the stretching and lunges. In the heat of the moment I will probably do it but it is worrying given the injuries I've had. As the games go on my confidence will rise and that will get better."
Not that his self-belief is completely shot. The recent change in eligibility rules means this England Under-21 cap is now eligible for Jamaica, but Cort has not given up hope of representing England. "I know within myself I can score goals and perform at a higher level but I have to show it at club level first. Hopefully I'll bring some height, pace and goals to the Wolves attack," Cort said.
At Wolverhampton railway station there was a poster advertising the local paper. Featuring mug-shots of Wolves' transfer window signings it heralded a "new dawn". The arrival of players like Cort, Ioan Ganea and Paul Jones, the change of chairman [Sir Jack saved Wolves and deserves a place in the Pantheon but his son has injected much-needed vitality], and recent results have lifted Molineux's autumn gloom.
"The spirit is high," Cort said. "Individually we are not as good as the top sides but we have a lot of heart and fight in the side and sometimes that can get you through as against Manchester United. Arsenal will have to earn victory."
Cort grew up an Arsenal fan, admiring Paul Davis, Ian Wright and the way they ground out their victories just as he now appreciates their pace and flair. At 14 he signed for Wimbledon, as did younger brother Leon who now plays in defence for Southend United. At 19 they sent him to Lincoln. "Wimbledon knew what they were doing," Cort said. "I didn't learn anything on the football side but it made me realise the need to be more aggressive. I'm told Beck was a good footballer but his management methods... it was a fight basically. I did more weights and strengthening work than football. My last game was at Carlisle. He made us take cold showers before the game. They wanted me to stay to the end of the season but...."
With that it was time to go house-hunting. What Cort needs most though is not a mock-Georgian mansion or a converted barn but a run of games, and a goal. His last, against Everton in March 2002, was described as "stunning". "Now," he admits, "I'll settle for a tap-in, anything." You take his leave hoping that he gets it, and soon.Reuse content