Derby’s Shaun on the blood, tears and sweat shed to get back on a pitch
PROPPED on a hospital bed an hour after his lower leg was reduced to a useless sack of bone and cartilage, Shaun Barker stared into the abyss.
“That was the worst moment,” says the 32-year-old Derby defender. “I had an hour or so where I was completely inconsolable. I couldn’t speak to my wife, I couldn’t speak to my dad. I just shut myself away while I tried to come to terms with what I was facing.”
What he faced was beyond every footballer’s worst nightmare. An accidental collision with Rams goalkeeper Frank Fielding during a derby against Nottingham Forest in March 2012 had all but obliterated Barker’s right knee.
Officially, the diagnosis was a dislocated kneecap, complete rupture of the medial, posterior and anterior cruciate ligaments, a torn lateral ligament and a serious chondral defect. Unofficially, Barker was regarded as a write-off.
“What I did was pretty much unheard of,” says the former Blackpool man. “The top half of my leg was held on to the bottom half by skin alone. Everything else was ruptured, snapped or separated. I knew nobody else had ever really come back from it. I knew everyone thought I was finished.”
But remarkably, Barker defied those odds. On February 11, he played 45 minutes for Derby U21s, his first game in almost three years. Last week, he completed his second full 90 minutes. First-team football is now a genuine goal.
It is a journey that tested Barker’s body and mind to the limit, put his wife Bec and six-year-old daughter Eleanor through hell. Yet one which he always believed would end on the grass of Pride Park.
“Those first hours were dark,” admits Barker, also dad to ten-monthold Blanche. “But when I spoke to Andy Williams, the surgeon down in London, he wasn’t fazed. When I saw that he believed I could play again, that was all the encouragement I needed.
“I remember walking around positive and smiling. I heard people saying ‘I don’t think Shaun realises how serious this is’. They thought I was in denial. But I wasn’t – I just had to keep that belief, even if no-one else did.
“I remember seeing the surgeon after 18 months and when I looked in his eyes I could see even he wasn’t sure if I’d make it back or not. But I told him to stick with me. I told the physios to stick with me. I told them all I would do it.
“My first year-and-a-half was just trying to get back to a decent day-today life. For 18 months, I couldn’t stand up for more than five minutes without my knee becoming swollen, hot and painful.
“I couldn’t play with my daughter, who was three years old. I couldn’t kick a ball around or pick her up.The only saving grace was that I couldn’t cook dinner, because my wife is a much better cook than me!
“It’s funny – people know I’ve been out for a long time but they don’t realise what Bec’s had to go through. I was on rehab machines for 12 hours a day for nearly five months. I was on crutches for another six. I couldn’t do basic things for nearly two years. It completely changed my life and hers. She’s been incredible.
“That’s why that first game back was such an emotional day. I left the house in the morning and as we stepped out of the door, I looked at Bec and we kind of nodded at each other in appreciation of where I’d got to. Without saying anything, we both acknowledged it was a huge day.
“When I came off after 45 minutes and kissed my wife and daughter – that’s one of the best moments of my life and probably the proudest I’ve ever been on a football pitch.”
Barker believes his battle through the dark times was aided by his unconventional childhood in Trowell, Nottinghamshire. Parents Dawn and Stuart became foster carers when he was just three years old and have since opened their doors to an incredible 180 children.
“They were all different ages, all different abilities,” recalls Barker. “We had kids that were autistic, down syndrome, special needs. Some came with drug or alcohol problems, others had suffered family abuse. It was really tough to see the lives that they’d missed out on. That’s what our family try to give them back.
“It makes you grow up quickly. From a young age, part of my job as a brother or sister was to help out these kids and be responsible for them.You learn how fortunate you are to be in a loving family and when things go against you – like this – that kind of perspective really helps.
“A lot of them have kept in touch. We see them on occasions when they come round for parties or Christmas.
“It’s always good to see them doing well – and to realise what a difference our house made to them. What my parents did was remarkable.”
And inspirational. Determined to carry on their good work, Barker spent much of his time on the treatment table simultaneously setting up a charity, the Shaun Barker Foundation, aimed at laying on free activities for disadvantaged kids in Derby.
“It’s got three main areas,” says Barker, an avid vinyl collector who has also set up a business designing fashion wear for several Football League clubs.
“One is social care, due to my parents. One is arts and culture because that’s the route I’d have taken If I hadn’t played football. And the other is sport in the community because football has given me a good life.
“I’ve been lucky to earn good money and now I want to help grass- roots football as much because some kids do had – money for subs drove me round everyw “Setting everyt really kept my ball and so m want to he almost be time job.”
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“Six months ago, I cou kick a ball,” says Barker spent time training at Sh
h as possible n’t get what Is, a dad who where. thing up has mind off foot-many people elp that’s it’s ecome a full- but not quite. , football his primary Now, only one for the man that captain’s o. uldn’t train or r, who has also heffield United under former Rams manager Nigel Clough. “Even three or four weeks ago I was uncomfortable twisting and turning. Now, I feel like I did before – attacking balls, being aggressive. I feel ready for the first team, here or elsewhere.
“I’d love to play for Derby again but that’s not up to me. I’ve only got three months left on my contract and, whatever happens, I hope people have seen that I can still play football and that I’ve still got something to offer.
“I can head the ball, I can tackle, I can do all the basics as well as before. All I need is the fitness and sharpness. At one stage, it looked like I had no future in football. Now, I’m excited about what it holds.”
LEADER: Shaun Barker in action for Derby before his injury. Inset, from left: Barker is injured against Nottingham Forest, his knee after surgery, in rehab and with his daughters Eleanor and Blanche MULTI-TALENTED: Barker’s range of Derby t-shirts and, inset, his foundation’s symbol