CHRIS DUNLAVY

Our re­porter ex­am­ines the bat­tle ahead for Derby’s Will Hughes

The Football League Paper - - INSIDE: -

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.

Ex­celled

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?”

Trust

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.

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