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Kevin Strootman interview: ‘When the doctor told me I was never going to play football again, I thought, oh... f***’

Exclusive: After two years of knee surgeries Strootman is back and sat down with The Independent ahead of Roma's Champions League semi-final first leg with Liverpool

Jack Austin
Sunday 22 April 2018 17:45 BST
Strootman is back and fully involved again after a nightmare few years
Strootman is back and fully involved again after a nightmare few years (Getty)

As Andriy Shevchenko plunged his hand into the bowl to pick out the balls containing the names ‘Liverpool FC’ and ‘AS Roma’ there were many left still scratching their heads as to how theirs, rather than those of Manchester City and Barcelona, were there at all.

Liverpool are there after tearing apart Pep Guardiola’s defence, but Roma join them after the most unlikely of comebacks against Barca, overturning a 4-1 deficit after the first leg with a 3-0 home win. But that comeback is perhaps not the most unlikely – or significant – one seen in the Italian capital.

On 10 March 2014, a 24-year-old Kevin Strootman, linked with an impending move to Manchester United, suffered a devastating cruciate knee injury. He would miss the World Cup and the next eight months of football. He returned in November that year, but only for eight weeks, before two more knee surgeries. It was then he was told he would never play at the top level again.

“I had the first injury and then I came back a couple of months and then I had the second and then a third without playing,” Strootman tells The Independent at Roma’s Trigoria training ground after completing another full session – something he was told wouldn’t be possible just two years before.

“It was nearly two years that I didn’t play and that last injury was the most difficult for me. I was coming back from the operation and I did the recovery for six or seven months and then I had to have another surgery. That was a really difficult period. I thought ‘maybe I’m not coming back.’ People told me I wouldn’t play at the highest level anymore.”

Most players, given their drive and competitiveness to get to such a high level of football, would insist throwing in the towel isn’t an option, but when doctor after doctor tells you that’s the most likely outcome, doubt does creep in. And it was no different for Strootman.

“When the doctor told me I was never going to play again for 90 minutes, yeah, that’s when you think: ‘Oh... f***.’ That’s really difficult. But I’m glad that I proved he was wrong. I didn’t do the surgery and think I’m going to be top again, no, it was a risk, but I took the risk.

Strootman suffered the first of his career-threatening knee injuries in 2014 (Getty)

“I feel great now and for games like this in the semi-final or the quarter-final against Barcelona… I was told I would never play again at this level, but this is one of the highest levels you can play as a footballer.”

He missed 675 days which is, to put it into perspective, 127 days more than Santi Cazorla has missed for Arsenal with his current injury. Roma stuck by him throughout and he is paying them back this season, taking on a more technical role rather than the aggressive, hard-tackling one which earned him the tag ‘the new Roy Keane’, or ‘Er Lavatrice’ – translated as ‘the Washing Machine’.

The two-legged tie to knock out Barca – the team most tipped to end Real Madrid’s recent dominance of the Champions League – is what all those months of rehabilitation, those banishing of dark thoughts, were all for. And his, and Roma’s, reward for this? A reunion with Mohamed Salah and a two-date duel with Liverpool for a place in next month’s final in Kiev.

Salah left Roma for Merseyside last summer with a reputation as a dangerous but, by Strootman’s own omission, wasteful forward. The 41-goal (and counting) Egyptian is not the player he remembers frustrating the Stadio Olimpico crowd too often with spurned chances last season.

“I’m not surprised at how well he’s doing but just at how easy he scores the goals and how confident he is in front of goal with the ball,” the Dutchman adds of his former teammate. “Here he did a great job and did a lot of great assists and goals but he missed a lot of chances especially one-on-one with the goalkeeper. I am surprised by how many goals he has scored so far but not how he plays. Here he was a nightmare for opponents and in England he is doing the same.”

Strootman is surprised by Salah's goals for Liverpool (Getty)

Jurgen Klopp has built his team around Salah, but it is his consistency of finishing which has really dumfounded critics who questioned the impact of his move to Anfield last summer.

“Now he has so much confidence and he just creates the chances himself and finds it easy in front of the goal. I think it is confidence which is the main difference. It did a lot when he played here but now you see if he has a chance and he misses it, the next time he knows he will score. He is doing amazing also with the national team, he did a great job, I think he is the king there now and they want to vote him for president and everything. I just hope in the two games against us he loses his confidence.

“We have special tactics [for Salah] but I’m not going the share it! Italian defence, that is what I’m hoping for.”

Strootman is 28 now and recently returned the loyalty Roma showed him by signing a new five-year contract in Italy. Prior to his injury, if you were to believe the rumour mill, he was verging on a move to United, to fill the chasm left in their midfield for far too long. David Moyes was said to be interested, as was Louis van Gaal, his national team boss, when he took over at Old Trafford.

“I never talked with anybody,” Strootman reveals of the mooted move to Manchester. “No, no. There was a lot of speculation but to be honest I only spoke with Roma. There were some clubs who showed interest but it’s always like that. They always say they are interested but at the end they don’t do anything so it’s nothing. I never talked about leaving Rome. They [the media] said some club was really close to signing me and they want me really bad but I’m good here.”

Strootman’s concentration is no longer on missed transfers, or even on his injuries, they are just the troughs on his path to his next peak. Liverpool stand in Roma’s way of playing for a first trophy in 10 years, and only the second in Strootman’s career and are deservedly the favourites. But Barcelona were the favourites in the quarter-finals, and that carries a warning for the Reds too.

“There is always a surprise in the Champions League. Always,” Strootman smiles ominously. “And we have surprised everybody.”

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