Our reporter examines the battle ahead for Derby’s Will Hughes
DEEP down, you always know. The jar, the twist, the almost apologetic tumble followed by a frantic wave to the bench.
You can wait for the swelling to subside, for the results of scans and x-rays. But, really, you don’t need a doctor to tell you when a player has knackered their knee.
Everyone at the Macron knew what Will Hughes had done. The diagnosis – cruciate ligament damage, surgery and a six-month lay off – simply confirmed it.Yet as the Derby wonderkid sets out on the long road back, it was hard not to spare a thought for a man who is unlikely ever to find its end.
Had things worked out differently, Stuart Holden might have been facing Hughes in Bolton’s midfield on Saturday.
There again, probably not. Because without the knee injuries that wrecked his career, the 30year-old would have kept the Trotters in the Premier League.
Back in 2010, Holden was – no exaggeration – one of the best players in the top flight. Energetic, box-to-box, happy to win the ball or play it. He was even linked to Liverpool and Manchester United.
In the US, where he’d excelled at Houston Dynamo, the Scottishborn Texan was widely regarded as the next big star.
Then, during a match against Man United in March 2011, Jonny Evans leapt into a tackle that sliced open his right knee and fractured the end of his femur. Twenty-six stitches and an operation later, his season was over. He still won player of the year.
For Bolton, it was a disaster. Seventh that day, Owen Coyle’s Wanderers slumped to 14th, the start of a tailspin that eventually led to relegation in May 2012.
For Holden it was a catastrophe. Four years on, he has played just nine games, plus another eight for the USA. Two broken legs, two ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs), an operation to clear cartilage and a dislodged pin. Each comeback has ended the same way – on a stretcher, in tears. Holden has spoken movingly and eruditely of his battles, describing himself as “the kid that goes to Disneyland and can’t go on the rides”.
“It’s the good days that make it so hard,” he said in July, shortly after the expiry of his Bolton deal left him to face the future alone. “My body doesn’t yell at me in the morning, telling me to stop or that it’s had too much. It keeps me hanging on for one last chance.
“But the piling up of injuries has led to constant mental tor- ment and doubt. My body has done so much to lose my trust. It’s like a broken relationship if one person cheats. Once the trust is gone, can you ever really get it back?”
Holden isn’t sure that he can. Though Bolton have extended an open invitation to return, he has openly contemplated retirement. At 30, time is not on his side.
Hughes has no such problems. Though six months is optimistic in the extreme, the England Under21 man can be eased back and is young enough to recover – Alan Shearer was two years older than Hughes when he ruptured an ACL in December 1992, but by the end of the 1993-94 season had scored 31 goals in 40 games.
Hughes should be fine.Yet what Holden’s sad story reminds us is that ability like his should be cherished. Because it only takes one of those ugly, grimly familiar tumbles to turn the next big thing into the latest lost talent.