The Preston loan capture on overcoming his injury demons
STANDING in the narrow, cramped tunnel at Bootham Crescent, Alex Baptiste tried to quell the butterflies careening round his stomach.
For Middlesbrough, the preseason trip to York in July was a stroll down easy street: a halfpaced, sun-kissed kickabout against a half-fit National League club. Yet, for their 30-year-old defender, it was a nerve-shredding test of character.
Twelve months earlier, almost to the day, Baptiste had stood in the exact same tunnel. Twenty minutes later, he was staring bleakly at its ceiling, his right leg grotesquely snapped and his season in ruins.
The 30-year-old, signed from Bolton only five days prior, had gone into a 50-50 with an opponent known as Triallist A, later revealed to be Teessider and Boro fan Danny Johnson.
Everybody heard the crack. Everybody hoped it was a shinpad.
Baptiste even attempted to clamber up in pursuit of the loose ball, only to collapse when his shattered limb folded into the turf. Ashenfaced medics needed only a glance to diagnose a double break.
“I don’t actually remember what happened,” says Baptiste, who has now joined Preston on a seasonlong loan without playing a competitive game for Boro.
“I know it wasn’t a bad tackle, just a freak accident. People always ask me if I’ve watched it again but I haven’t and I don’t plan to, either.
“It was bad enough at the time, looking down and seeing your leg at a different angle.
“Beyond that moment, I don’t remember anything. Not the pain, not what people said. I guess you’re just in shock.” The subsequent 12 months have been tough, not least because Baptiste hadn’t completed a planned relocation to Harrogate.
Forced to abandon the move, he returned to his home in Blackpool and spent the early stages of his recovery marooned on the sofa 130 miles from Middlesbrough.
“I couldn’t do anything at all for the first eight weeks,” he says. “The only instruction was to keep my leg up. My day was basically get up, sit on the sofa and stay there until bed time.
“I watched a lot rubbish TV. I did a few series on Neflix...and Football Manager. I got through so many seasons. I don’t think I ever want to play it again!”
Boro boss Aitor Karanka sent regular texts and Baptiste is full of praise for the support he received from the Teessiders.
Yet it was Blackburn and their erstwhile boss Gary Bowyer who proved the real lifesavers, offering their former player the chance to step up his recovery in Lancashire.
“They rang up and said I could go in three days a week, instead of trekking all the way to Middlesbrough,” explains the former Blackpool man, who spent the 201415 season at Ewood Park.
“At Boro, I knew nobody. At Blackburn, I already knew all the lads, the physios and the staff. To be in an environment like that was just what I needed.
“Just to let me in the building, when I played for another club, was an unbelievable gesture and I can’t thank Gary enough for sorting it out.”
Of course, while Baptiste was grinding his way back to fitness, his new team-mates were gunning for promotion, eventually sealing their place in the top-flight after a dramatic final day showdown with Brighton.
An emotional Karanka would later dedicate the victory to Baptiste, but it didn’t make up for missing out.
“That was heart-breaking,” admits Baptiste, who was part of the Blackpool side that won a memorable promotion to the Premier League under Ian Holloway in 2010.
“Everybody wants to be part of a
squad that goes up and my chance was taken away.
“It was hard watching, but that’s football, isn’t it? Horrible things happen all over the world and there are plenty of people with bigger problems than me.”
For Baptiste, the comeback started with an 11-game loan spell at Sheffield United. Then, after returning to pre-season at Rockliffe, that date with destiny at Bootham Crescent – only his second appearance in a Boro shirt since that calamitous debut.
“It was hard before the game,” admits Baptiste, who played the first 45 minutes of a resounding 6-0 victory.
“Sitting in the changing room, all the memories coming back. I didn’t enjoy it all to be honest.
“The first ten or 20 minutes, I was worried, holding back a bit. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking ‘Please don’t let lightning strike twice’.
“But before long you get into a rhythm and all the nerves melt away. Even so, it was a relief to get through it unscathed.”
Getting into the Boro team, however, has proved rather more difficult. Karanka has spent £5m on defensive recruits this summer, leaving Baptiste out in the cold.
So, when Simon Grayson, the man who signed him for Blackpool way back in 2008, came knocking, the Premier League was ditched – for 12 months at least.
“I was in the squad for the first two games and didn’t get on,” he says. “Third game, I didn’t make the 18. The day after, I went to Brett Ormerod’s testimonial and was speaking about it to Glynn Snodin, the assistant manager at Preston.
“On deadline day, I got a call from Steve Agnew, the assistant at Middlesbrough, saying Preston had come in.
“He said Aitor wanted me in the 25 but that he’d understand if I wanted to get out and play games. With the quality they’ve brought in, I knew that was the best option.
“It’ll be great to finally play under Simon. He actually left for Leeds a couple of months after I joined Blackpool, so I never got a chance.
“My aim is just to play regularly again and do my best for Preston. But I feel like there’s unfinished business at Middlesbrough.
“The club have been fantastic to me and it would be nice to pay them back.
“Hopefully, what I do here will earn me that chance.”
HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: Alex Baptiste is eager to get back playing on a regular basis PAIN: Baptiste is carried off with a broken leg in preseason at York last year ALEX BAPTISTE