Despair of idle dynamo
The most painful experience Steve Stone has endured at the City Ground this season was not the moment, eight minutes into the East Midlands derby against Leicester City on 7 September, that his left knee buckled and his patella tendon ruptured. Returning on crutches for Nottingham Forest's next home game, against West Ham two weeks later, was too much for him to bear.
"I couldn't go to my seat," the 25-year-old recalled. "I sat at the bar in one of the lounges watching the game on television. I just sat there and got one beer after another. I got absolutely smashed. I was so depressed I couldn't believe it. I don't like watching games but I didn't think I would be like that." Stone was lounging in a bar as he recounted this latest tale of a tippling football star. His knee, however, was the only thing that could be said to be smashed. This bar was in a health club in Stone's home town, Gateshead. He was refuelling with coffee and pasta after a two-hour workout in the gym.
That he was driven to stronger drink one Saturday afternoon last month was a mark of his professionalism. He had been overwhelmed by the reality of life on football's long-term casualty list. A seat in the stands is no place for a midfield dynamo. Stone forced himself into one when Forest entertained Derby eight days ago, and he will reluctantly do so again tomorrow night when Everton visit the City Ground. For England's find of last season, uncomfortably sidelined already for seven weeks, the rest of the 1996-97 campaign will be more a pain in the backside than a pain in the knee.
"The mental side of being injured is much harder than the physical side," he said, his crutches propped against the table and his left leg resting on a stool. "Physically it doesn't hurt that much. But it wasn't much fun sitting in the stand watching that match against Derby. I was twitching at every move. But you're helpless, sitting there, and it's worse when your team are going through a sticky patch. That's the most frustrating thing.
"Mentally you've got to prepare yourself for the length of time you're going to be out. I was out with broken legs three times before I was 20 and I thought I would be okay this time, but I've been worse. I've been murder to live with. I'm sure my wife wants to disown me, and I can't blame her. I've even tried taking up the guitar, just to keep me occupied. I'm absolutely hopeless."
Spending a week on Tyneside, with his family and friends, at least afforded welcome relief from being the insider on the outside at the City Ground. "You're there to play football and if you're injured you're no good to anybody," Stone said. "I've started going to the ground 10 minutes after the lads have gone training so I don't actually see them going off. That's a nightmare. That's when you feel low.
"I don't mind being there when they come back, though. Having a crack in the dressing room - that's all right. But I'm stuck there in the afternoon when everyone's gone home, doing stuff with the physio."
Stone works on his upper body every day in the gym and has been able to start flexibility exercises on his leg. But he has been told to forget about playing until the start of next season. "They know what I'm like. If they'd given me an opportunity to try to play this season they know I would definitely go for it and maybe rupture the tendon again. If that happened, I'd be out for even longer and they'd have to put carbon fibres in and all sorts.
"Being patient is going to be difficult, I know. When it gets round to six months I'll be able to run and feel as though I could play. But they won't let you play for another four months after that. That's the time when it's going to be really hard."
Watching Glenn Hoddle shape his England team will not be any easier for Stone. He had to fight long and hard for the international chance he grasped 12 months ago. England's rising star before Christmas, he sparkled in his wide-right role, scoring against Portugal and Switzerland at Wembley. Substitute appearances followed against Switzerland, Scotland and Spain in Euro 96. But Stone fears his unlucky break may have put him out of the England picture for good.
"Glenn has been in touch to ask how I am and to invite me to train with the squad when I can do a bit more. It was very good of him but, to be honest, getting back into the squad will be really difficult. I think it might even be asking a bit too much. At this stage I can't look any further than just getting back playing again. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
With that, England's midfield gem polished off his pasta, grabbed his crutches and headed for the sauna. His first steps were uncertain. But at least Steve Stone was heading in the right direction, down the long and lonely road to rehabilitation.
Athletics: David Sharpe
Agony of the long run
David Sharpe rocked back in his chair and laughed. "The kids I coach haven't even heard of Cram, Coe and Ovett, never mind me," he said. It was a reminder that the golden era of British middle-distance running is not even a fading memory for most teenagers.
"I took some of Crammy's medals and my European silver to a school in Hull a few weeks ago," Sharpe continued. "The kids asked, 'Who's Steve Cram? What distance did he run?' And they were secondary school kids, 15-year-olds."
Ten years have now passed since the last of the nine summers in which the Great British triumvirate gathered their harvest of 11 major championship titles and 17 world records. Sharpe, a world-beater in his teenage days as Cram's prodigiously talented young training partner, was supposed to pick up the golden thread. Instead, now aged 29, he has been left feeling the sharp pain of what might have been.
"To be honest, my shins are killing me now," he confessed. The morning after the night before, he was already paying the price for a hard seven- mile run with his club-mates, his fastest since attempting his latest comeback. "I've been training harder than I have for a while, but I couldn't even walk when I finished last night, my shins and my calf muscles were so sore.
"All I need is four months of training. If I can do that, I can run 1min 48sec indoors and then look to the track season next summer. But I'm not going to get depressed if I can't. If it gets to the point in the next fortnight where I can't train, I'll have a few days off and try again."
The surgeon's knife and the doctor's needle have immunised Sharpe to the hurt of disappointment and frustrated ambition. Four years ago he won the World Cup 800m race in Havana, beating the Olympic champion William Tanui, and ran his fastest two-lap time, 1min 43.98sec, quicker than Ovett managed. His athletics life since has been a constant battle to overcome injury. Surgery has cured Achilles tendon trouble but not the shin soreness that prickled as he spoke in the office at Monkton Stadium.
It was at the Jarrow track, where Sharpe now works as a sports development officer for South Tyneside Council, that he first showed his paces, towed along in Cram's wake on training nights with Jarrow and Hebburn Athletics Club. In 1986, at the age of 18, he won the 800m title at the inaugural world junior championships in Athens. Two years later he was the European senior indoor champion and in 1990 he took the silver medal behind Tom McKean at the European Championships in Split.
"I was getting better every year. But I can remember Crammy telling me, 'You're going to get injured sooner or later.' He was right." Peter Coe was not so accurate with his prediction that the Geordie with the golden hair would assume Seb's mantle as the world's top 800m man. "Sharpe has to be the No 1 contender," the father and coach of the world's fastest 800m runner asserted. That was in 1987.
"It was nice of him to say it, and at the time he was right," Sharpe said. "But if you have a year out, then a second, a third and a fourth, it becomes much more difficult. If I hadn't got injured and had all of my shin trouble, I maybe would have gone to Olympic Games and world championships and won medals. But at least I had four or five excellent years. Some people haven't even had that.
"I'm 29 now and I know this will probably be my last chance. If I can't get back on the track next year, I can't see me training as hard as I am now again. Whatever happens, I don't think I will run 1:43 again, not after four years. But if I can get myself fit for next summer, I think I could get down to 1:46, and that's good enough for a British international runner these days."
As he left to wash the tea mugs, the forgotten golden boy started singing. What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? seemed an appropriate choice - if not for such a contented soul as Sharpe then for the long-lost pride of British middle-distance running.
Horse racing: Jonothan Lower
Jonothan Lower's world turned upside down on 15 August, when racing's rulers, the Jockey Club, turned down his routine annual application for the renewal of his jockey's licence. The reason was that the 29-year-old, No 2 rider at Martin Pipe's jumping stable, had unexpectedly developed diabetes after breaking an arm earlier in the year. And diabetics, though they are considered safe to drive a car, are banned from race-riding in Britain because of the risk of black-outs.
At a stroke, Lower's 11-year-career as a jockey was over. He is still allowed to, and does, ride and educate horses at Pipe's Devon headquarters, but he no longer has the opportunity to ply his trade in public. For a man who is a natural competitor that is gut-wrenching enough, but there is also the question of loss of earnings. Win percentages and presents apart, a jump jockey earns a basic pounds 84.80 per ride, of which Lower had 115 last season.
Lower's problems came out of the blue. He explained: "I had broken my arm in an accident on the gallops in May, and as I was recovering I noticed that I was very thirsty and weeing the whole time, so I thought I'd better see my doctor. He did some tests and diagnosed me as a diabetic, and put me on insulin straight away. He did not see, once I had learned to control my illness, why I should not continue race-riding. But when I saw the Jockey Club doctor and told him about it, he said that was it. Full stop. And the shock of learning that I was a diabetic was nothing to the heartbreak when it sank in that I would never ride in a race again."
Lower has been with Pipe, six times champion trainer, since he left school, and has played a crucial part in the stable's success. He always rode in the shadow of the stable's star riders, Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody and most recently David Bridgewater, but when he was given the opportunity to shine, he generally took it. His 263 winners from 1,195 rides produced an above-average 22 per cent strike rate, and included Cheltenham Festival wins on Sondrio and Kissair, and a treble at Aintree last March on Silver Shred, Tragic Hero and All For Luck.
Lower's skills have made him an invaluable part of the team at Nicholashayne, and it is to this role, an educator and test-driver of young horses, that he has returned, ironically just as the job as stable jockey became vacant with Bridgewater's departure.
He said: "I don't think I would be human if I didn't feel that life had taken a pretty shitty turn. I enjoy schooling young horses, but the knowledge that I will not be able to progress with them on the racecourse takes some of the edge off it all. I know I have had more opportunities than most jockeys, and have had some wonderful moments on the racecourse. The sensible half of me says I should be grateful for all that, and that my illness is not life-threatening. But the other half says bollocks, it's not fair."
Without his racing fees, Lower's income has dropped dramatically. "They say diabetes can be brought on by a shock to the system, but no doctor in the world would say that breaking my arm definitely did it, so there's no chance of insurance compensation.
The Injured Jockeys Fund has been a fantastic help, but that won't last for ever. I hope I can carry on working for Mr Pipe, but to be brutally practical about it, it will depend on how much he can afford to pay me to be what is more or less a glorified stable lad. I love horses, but I've got to live, and sometimes I feel I might be better off digging holes in the road for SWEB," he said.
There is still some slight hope. A precedent was set earlier this year in Ireland, where another diabetic, Pat McWilliams, regained his licence after satisfying the authorities there that he was in control of his condition. Lower, who gives himself four daily injections and has never felt a hint of a black-out, may take the same road when he feels stable enough.
"I must keep hope in my mind, but I won't rush into anything and will be guided by what my specialist thinks of my progress," he said. "I used to salute a magpie when I saw one, to bring me luck. But it clearly didn't work, so I don't bother any more."
Golf: Jose Maria Olazabal
Master's feet of clay
The scene was Augusta National, home of the Masters. The year was 1994. The Jacket was Green. And it belonged to Jose Maria Olazabal.
Olazabal was only 28 but his admission to golf's innermost sanctum had long been overdue. After a meteoric teenage career highlighted by victories in the British amateur, youth and boys championships, the Real Sebastian greenkeeper's son turned professional in 1986.
In his rookie season he was second on the PGA European Tour's order of merit, and the following year he made his Ryder Cup debut. Europe's captain, Tony Jacklin, provided him with a personal tutor named Severiano Ballesteros and the two Spaniards went on to form the transatlantic event's most successful partnership. Gradually, the pupil became the master, winning 22 titles worldwide. Further laurels, and more majors, were surely there for the taking. The world was at his feet - the feet which had danced the samba on the 18th green while celebrating Europe's Ryder Cup victory at Muirfield Village in 1987. But now those feet are clay.
After nearly 14 months of arthritis-enforced inactivity his once-glorious future is under threat even though he is still not 31, an age when most golfers are some way short of their prime.
Olazabal's last tournament appearance was at the Lancome Trophy in September 1995. The discomfort of negotiating the gentle slopes of St Nom-la-Breteche convinced him he would not be up to the Ryder Cup at Oak Hill two weeks later. And he has not been up to any serious golf since.
The trouble started a few months after his Masters win. The big toe of his right foot was aching and he had an operation to shorten it in February 1995. He returned to action less than a month later and at the end of April won the Perrier pairs title in harness with Ballesteros.
But the other toes, in both feet, began to hurt. He had an arthritic condition which usually attacks much larger joints, and struggled through barely a dozen events before starting his lengthy lay-off.
Since when ... nothing. Except regular, optimistic bulletins from his manager Sergio Gomez, that "Jose Maria" was aiming to return for such- and-such a tournament, only for the event to pass without the promised comeback taking place.
Olazabal was hitting the ball superbly in practice but could manage to play only 14 holes on the course before the pain became unbearable.
No prize money was being earned, so his only income came from sponsors Titleist and Lacoste. Even so, Gomez says Olazabal "is secure financially. He worked very hard for 10 years and invested wisely."
What Olazabal did miss, though, was competition, and whenever the majors came round his mood grew especially dark. Now, with no majors on the horizon for six months, the depression has retreated.
Olazabal is refusing to take pain killers (he has, however, undergone chemotherapy). But regular rehabilitation visits to Munich for treatment from specialists in football injuries have raised his hopes of returning to tournament golf next February.
"I'm feeling much better," he said recently. "I have a programme of exercises, physiotherapy, massage and daily treatment. If the doctors are right, then sometime next year - perhaps in the early part of the season - I shall start playing again, but I'm very happy at the moment. I think there has been an improvement, and that is the main thing. I feel good and I'm trying to be as fit as possible.
"I do my foot exercises for about two and a half hours every day for the muscles between the bones in the feet and then I do two hours' therapy. It's enough to occupy a full day. Apart from my exercises, I listen to music, go to the cinema and read a bit."
To that list of activities he could add all the golf he watches on television and the seven courses he has designed - the latest of which, La Ballena near Cadiz and Aravell in Andorra, are due to open next year.
He also had the chance to team up with Ballesteros again in the recent Perrier pairs event in Bordeaux, up the coast from his home at Fuenterrabia, but he turned it down because he would have needed a motorised kart to get around the course. "I feel the game of golf is a pure sport and I did not like the idea of using a buggy," he admitted.
Ballesteros, who will captain Europe when they make their defence of the Ryder Cup at Valderrama next September, is one of several players to have kept in touch with Olazabal by letter or telephone.
There is no doubt that Ballesteros would like to have him in his side, but Olazabal has waited too long to abandon caution. "The next Ryder Cup is not in my mind at present," he said. "For the time being it is out of the question. Of course, I was bitterly disappointed to miss the last one, but there was nothing I could do."
Except continue to believe in his eventual recovery. "He's never stopped practising and it's unbelievable how long and straight he is hitting the ball," Gomez said. "He could well come back even better than he was before." Ballesteros would not be alone in saying "Amen" to that.Reuse content