Swollen to more than double its normal size, and with streams of purple, green and yellow bruises forming from my mid-shin right up to my groin, I glanced down at my left leg and thought to myself, ‘Jesus, there is a chance I could die today!’
Every movement was painful, simply laying my hand on my thigh to feel the heat emitting from it was a tortuous experience. Any pressure was too much. My poor leg was not up to the tasks I was asking of it, simply standing me up and taking my weight so I could walk to the kitchen to make some breakfast.
The swelling had begun from my knee and worked its way both north and south on my leg. The bruising had passed from the front of my knee at the point of impact, right through to the back of my entire leg. It looked like a bloodclot was a real possibility, and with my lack of medical expertise, it was enough to give me the fright of my life.
Perhaps we have grossly misjudged this one lads.
That was my sorry state on the Saturday morning, two days after my first visit to the spiritual home of my youth, Powerleague 5-a-side football centre.
This story begins in England in April 2021. The country had been in lockdown for several months due to the covid pandemic, and finally we were allowed out to return to some form of normal life.
Having been locked inside for too long, me and my friends were keen to get together and let off some steam.
With most of us off work on the government’s furlough scheme, and with nowhere open to go out and socialise, the boys had begun to get a little restless.
Those with wives and children had grown sick of the same family settings and were desperate to get out and enjoy some laddish banter.
Those of us who were single and locked down alone were simply desperate for some human interaction.
One of the bi-products of the lockdown experience, was the rise in football discussions in the old ‘boys from school’ Whats App group.
Premier League football was on television everyday during the height of the pandemic, so arguments about the game were rife. Lacking any stories from the weekends, or plans for the summer, we had nothing else to talk about.
It is probably fair to say, that nostalgia got the better of us during this time. We reminisced about the great United team of the 1990s, and the brilliance of the Invincibles in the early 2000s.
Soon enough we were talking about our own sporting triumphs. We had our own heyday alongside the likes of Beckham, Keane and Scholes, Bergkamp, Henry and Vieira, on an amateur level of course, but it didn’t feel like that to us, we were were legends!
Somewhere along the way, it was proposed that we should bring back our own glory days as soon as we get the chance.
And so, it was decided. We are going to start a Powerleague team as soon as this lockdown is over – and that’s exactly what we did.
That takes us back to the moment I was wondering if this injury was enough to finish me off.
The pain was unbearable, and I knew I needed an expert medical opinion.
It was the Saturday morning following my first game back at Powerleague in more than 15 years and I had picked up the worst injury of my life.
Having gained some support from a friend, I visited the NHS drop-in centre and was relieved to be told there were no broken bones. The chances of a bloodclot in my leg were considered so remote, it was OK to send me home for some rest. An MRI would follow where the real extent of the damage could be determined.
I suppose I felt relieved. There is nothing better than hearing a doctor tell you that your injury is not going to threaten your life, and I needed to hear that to be able to relax.
Sitting at home a few hours later, trying to find a position that was not too painful to rest my leg I was conscious of the one piece of advice the doctor had given me.
“If there is a bloodclot on your leg, then you will be able to feel it in your lungs, if it is painful or difficult to take in a full breath of air, then call 999 immediately.”
The same words kept ringing in my ears all night long, as I repeatedly tested my lungs and their capacity before eventually falling asleep.
How on earth did it come to this?
Well, let me put some things into perspective.
Me and my friends had been a real quality Powerleague side in our late teens and early twenties. Without being shy about blowing our own trumpets a bit, myself and a couple of others were real good players, and the rest were all solid triers and reliable assets to have in the team.
As we prepared for our first game together in more than a decade and a half, we were confident. We were kings of this place before, and we can be again!
Don’t get me wrong, with us all closer to 40 than 30 now, we did know that we might not be the devastating force of old, but we were confident we could hold our own and at least be competitive.
What happened next was a bit of a blur – literally!
Our opponents lined up against us and we looked them up and down, trying to gauge what sort of challenge we had set for ourselves.
They were young! That was the one characteristic that stood out above all others. Skinny, spindly young lads, probably somewhere between 18 and 21.
OK, so we might not be as quick as them, but we are certainly bigger and stronger, and our experience should make up for our lack of fitness and stamina. Let’s play.
As our younger opponents kicked off the game, we could all see immediately that we were in a bit of trouble.
They glided through us with ease and knocked the ball past our goalkeeper straight from kick off.
We restarted the game and gave the ball away immediately. Once again, within seconds our goalkeeper was picking it out of our net.
What was happening?
I look back on it and laugh, as I analyse it. These young fellas could play a bit, but they were nothing special. In our heyday they would not have got near us on the pitch, but this was a very different story.
We could see them passing the ball between each other, and running round us, but could do nothing to stop them.
The information was taking too long to pass from our eyes to our brains to our bodies. By the time the message got though to our legs and feet to move, the players and the ball had long gone.
It was like watching a film one frame at a time, and always being behind everyone else in the theatre.
It was embarrassing, humbling, but most of all comical.
As the one member of our team who had still been playing football up until the lockdown break, I felt a sense of responsibility to give us some hope.
I placed the ball on the centre circle to kick off and simply smashed it at goal. I found the bottom corner.
BANG! 2-1! That’s what I do!
In truth, I probably chose to shoot in desperation, not believing that we, as a team, would be able to keep the ball long enough to mount a genuine attack and get into their half.
However, that goal did change things to a certain extent as it lifted the belief amongst me and my friends, and probably gave our young rivals a bit of a shock which allowed us a little more respect.
Our team performance improved and I managed to nick another couple of goals to give the scoreline some degree of respectability at half time.
We were still undoubtedly second best out there, but at least we had salvaged some pride.
The second half featured an incident which I have still not gotten over, certainly not from physical point of view.
Full of confidence after my first half hat-trick I found myself in on goal again. I was just preparing to rifle a shot into the far corner when some young lad from the opposition gave me a little nudge to knock me off balance.
I entered a world of pain.
All my momentum and power crashed through my left knee as I bounced off the 4G artificial turf and crumpled into a sorry state on the ground.
As I struggled to lift myself into a sitting position I knew I was in trouble. The pain was immense shooting through my leg and seemingly into my soul.
The young hatchetman who knocked me down was quick to offer his hand in apology and I sportingly slapped his hand in acceptance but more to get him out of my face than anything else.
I wanted a moment to assess what had just happened.
My team-mates helped me to my feet, and I limped off the pitch feeling very sorry for myself. I rolled up my tracksuit bottoms to inspect my knee and was not too disheartened by what I saw.
The flesh had been ripped open over my kneecap, but it was nothing that I hadn’t done before.
A few bumps and scratches are all part of the game, right?
Not like this, the pain was too much.
Foolishly I got to my feet and tested my weight out on the damaged leg. It didn’t seem too bad, and I bravely returned to the pitch to soldier on. This point of the story is not too relevant, I just wanted to include the fact that I did manage to poke in one more goal with my horrific injury.
Hoping I might be able to run it off, my ignorance was bliss.
The following morning the swelling and bruising had emerged, but it was the Saturday when I realised just how bad it was.
On my visit to the hospital, I was signed off work for six weeks, issued with a set of crutches and told I would need an MRI scan to fully assess the damage.
I couldn’t move without the crutches and could barely fend for myself for the next few weeks. All I could do was sit and wonder if I would ever play football again.
By the grace of God, the MRI results came through that there was no ligament or structural damage. I would be back!
It took me 12 weeks to recover, and I was delighted to get back out on the pitch and score a goal on my comeback game. There should really have been a fanfare for the occasion, but it seems no one was quite as interested in me and my recovery as I was.
Back on the pitch playing I was, but only as a shadow of my former self. Whatever turn of pace I ever had was long gone, and the scar tissue that stubbornly remains under the surface of the flesh around my knee restricts any ability to twist, turn, sprint and stop.
I hope this game sharpness will return one day but time will tell, it doesn’t look too promising right now.
During my absence, my team-mates had gotten themselves up to speed and were valiantly fighting on against their junior opponents each week. With the help of a couple of younger loan signings, we were competitive in the league.
However, my visit to the hospital had been a sign of things to come.
Another of our players woke up one morning to find a huge bruise and swelling on his own thigh, and with the pulses of his heartbeat throbbing through the injured leg, he too had to seek medical assistance.
A whack he had received while playing had caused a bloodclot in his leg. The condition ran in his family but was brought on by the impact of a deadleg from a Powerleague game.
Six weeks out, and daily treatment to thin his blood were required to ease the clot and allow him to return to full health.
A broken finger was the plight of our poor goalkeeper who spends most weeks having the ball peppered at him from all angles for 50 minutes.
His bravery and quality were his downfall as one rocket of a shot caught his finger at an unfortunate angle and fractured the bone.
Our most gifted playmaker was the next man to fall, as he attempted to shimmy and feint his way through an opposition defence, he landed heavy and felt his knee twist in the wrong direction.
After screaming profanities on the ground for several minutes he was packed into a team-mate’s car to be dropped at the A&E department.
He too, needed several weeks off work while stranded on his crutches and is still awaiting an MRI scan to diagnose the full extent of the damage.
The final hospital visit was not one of my own team-mates, but in fact a younger opponent we faced.
As I slowly sidestepped him and moved up the pitch, I heard an anguished cry from behind me. The ref and other players ordered play to stop as we had another serious injury on our hands.
The poor guy was laying on the floor screaming in agony as his shoulder had dislocated itself as he fell.
This was after zero contact with anyone on the pitch, and just an awkward fall doing the maximum damage.
As one of my team-mates knelt next to him holding his hand and comforting him, we all looked at one another and asked ourselves, is this worth it?
The poor lad was carted off to hospital and sadly will never play again according to one of his team-mates who tells us it is a recurring injury for him.
All these injuries got me thinking about five-a-side football and questioning if we were stupid and naïve to go back at our ages.
Some can be put down to bad luck, such as our goalkeeper’s broken finger, and to a lesser extent our poor bloodclot suffering team-mate.
Our opponent who dislocated his shoulder apparently had this injury as ongoing issue, and besides which he is more than a decade younger than us.
However, although my own knee injury was unlucky, I believe some of the explanation, if not blame, can be credited to me.
I have been knocked over thousands of time when about to shoot on a football pitch, but never before has it resulted in an injury that required me to use crutches and need time off work.
I reason that my being overweight was the largest single factor in turning what should have been a nasty fall into a trainwreck of an impact.
When I was knocked down in my youth, it was only 12 or 13 stone landing on my knees, at 18+ stones now I fall a lot heavier, and don’t I know it.
It is not just the fact that I am heavier now than I once was. I am also nothing like as nimble, flexible or supple.
Similarly, our playmaker who is still on crutches now with his twisted knee, also takes a degree of the responsibility for his injury himself.
“I just turned up and started playing” he told us. “I should have warmed up and done some stretches properly.”
That message has now got through loud and clear to all of us.
In summary, I don’t believe we are too old to be playing five-a-side football at our age. This story began on our very first game, with most of our players a decade and more away from a football pitch.
Our fitness and touch has improved and our team has become a force in the league and promotion contenders.
But if you are out of the game for a while especially, the importance of warming up properly and doing plenty of stretches cannot be understated.
Six months of sitting A&E waiting rooms, crutches, X-rays, MRI scans and time of work has certainly given us all a wake up call that the elasticity of youth is a distant memory now.
This must have been how poor Michael Owen felt as he turned about 24.
Lifelong fan of the Premier League, looking on from the outside since 1999 waiting for Forest to return to the top table where they belong. Probably get promoted this season.