Five players who improved after long-term injuries

Matt Stead

It turns out that Danny Welbeck is quite good. Some might even claim he is Dat Guy. And he is most certainly embarrassing the rest of Arsenal’s strikeforce. The England international scored again on his return from a long-term knee injury against Watford on Sunday. The 25-year-old has played just seven games since April, scoring three times. He is scoring at a rate of a goal every 102.6 minutes. Time for a simple comparison:

* Olivier Giroud: Two goals in his last 13 games at a rate of a goal every 428.5 minutes.
* Alexis Sanchez: Two goals in his last 12 games at a rate of a goal every 445.5 minutes.
* Theo Walcott: Three goals in his last 17 games at a rate of a goal every 317.3 minutes.

And Welbeck (three in his last seven games at a rate of a goal every 102.6 minutes, remember) has scored his goals against Leicester, Manchester United and Watford. Both of Giroud’s came against Hull City. Sanchez’s two goals came against Burnley and Tottenham. Walcott’s strikes came against Leicester and Hull (x2).

Inspired by Roy Hodgson’s most-trusted lieutenant, here are five players who returned stronger from long-term injuries.


Alan Shearer
The standard-bearer for overcoming long-term injuries. Alan Shearer recovered not only from an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury suffered in his formative years, but returned from ankle ligament damage while at Newcastle. His Premier League goal haul of 260 may never be bettered, and that was recorded despite being sidelined for at least half of three separate seasons.

Shearer suffered his first setback during his debut season at Blackburn in 1992. Then just 21, the England striker had been signed for a British record £3.6million, and was in the midst of a campaign which had seen him score 16 goals in the first 21 games of the inaugural Premier League season. Disaster struck on Boxing Day of that year, as he ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a game against Leeds. Shearer subsequently scored 96 goals in 117 league games across the next three seasons. Not bad.

Then came the second long-term injury. Playing in a pre-season game against Chelsea in the Umbro Cup in 1997, Shearer damaged his ankle ligaments, and missed the opening half of the season. With the World Cup looming the following summer, his hopes of making the England squad to feature in France was shrouded in doubt. Shearer struggled to regain his form instantly, scoring just two goals in 17 Premier League games in the 1997/98 season, and was forced to adapt his game from all-round striker to bonafide target man. The change went fairly well; he scored 121 goals in 255 games across the following eight seasons, this despite continuing to struggle with ankle and knee problems which eventually forced his 2006 retirement.


Ruud van Nistelrooy
‘Manchester United have broken the British transfer record to sign PSV Eindhoven striker Ruud van Nistelrooy for £18.5m,’ reads the headline from the BBC Sport in April of 2000. Further down the article is the following sub headline: ‘Deal subject to medical.’ Quite.

Van Nistelrooy had been lined up by United to become their most-expensive signing ever, replacing Dwight Yorke in more ways than one. But while United knew they were purchasing a clearly talented striker, they were also aware of the issues – or issue. The Dutch striker had not played for his club, PSV, since March due to recurring problems with his knee. United wanted the forward to undergo keyhole surgery to correct any lingering problems. The striker refused, citing his wish to play at Euro 2000 with Holland. United subsequently called a press conference, thought to be confirming the deal, but they instead announced that they were postponing it for further tests to be carried out. That was on April 25. Three days later, United’s fears turned out to be prescient; Van Nistelrooy ruptured his knee ligaments in a training session, and missed the next year.

Of course, the deal was completed 12 months later, with Van Nistelrooy recovered from the injury. After such a long spell on the sidelines, it was expected that he would struggle to regain the form which had seen him score 111 goals in 144 games in the Eredivisie. Not a chance. He scored twice on his Premier League debut, and proceeded to fire in 95 goals in 150 league games for the club.


Roberto Baggio
The following quote comes with a warning to those currently eating their lunch: Stop.

“They had to drill through my kneecap and reattach all the ligaments with 220 internal stitches.”

In 1985, Roberto Baggio secured a move to Fiorentina. He was 18. He had already suffered one long-term knee injury while playing for hometown club Vicenza, a setback which threatened to scupper his move to the Viola. But Fiorentina pressed ahead with the purchase regardless, promising to help him through his rehabilitiation. The following year, he ruptured the same knee ligaments. Again, 220 internal stitches. And the Italian is allergic to powerful painkillers. Eesh.

Somehow, Baggio recovered. He won four club trophies at Juventus and AC Milan, was voted the best player in the world in 1993, and is fondly remembered as one of the finest talents of his or any other generation. He is an icon in every sense.


Petr Cech
Petr Cech plays football with a helmet. That is perhaps a harsh description of Theo Walcott, but still.

Petr Cech also plays football whilst wearing a helmet. It is strange to consider that it has not always been the case. Only since Stephen Hunt kindly decided to test the goalkeeper’s skull with his knee in 2006 has the Arsenal shot-stopper been required to wear the protective gear. Then playing for Chelsea, Cech was ruled out from October until January. Three months may not seem like the mark of a debilitating injury, but the 33-year-old was described a “lucky to be alive” after the incident. That description did come from Jose Mourinho, mind.

Cech’s return was marked with a 2-0 defeat to Liverpool, but he kept six consecutive clean sheets thereafter. He also won two Premier League titles, a Champions League, three FA Cups and a Europa League with Chelsea in the seasons after his injury. Oh, and he is the proud recipient of a Community Shield winner’s medal with Arsenal.


Henrik Larsson
If you’re bored of hearing about knee ligament ruptures and near-death experiences, then Henrik Larsson brings good tidings.

In October 1999, Larsson broke his leg in two places while playing for Celtic against Lyon. Most people have probably seen the footage. If not, it is available online. Do not watch it.

The Sweden international missed eight months, returning on the final day of the SPL season. Celtic’s manager had changed during his time spent on the sidelines, with Kenny Dalglish replacing John Barnes. Such an injury was described as career-threatening. Naturally, Larsson went on to win three SPL titles to add to his previous one, before departing for Barcelona. He won two La Liga crowns and a Champions League at the Nou Camp, then moved to Manchester United where he earned a Premier League winner’s medal. In 381 games before his injury, Larsson scored 185 goals for Högaborg, Helsingborg, Feyenoord and Celtic. In the 388 games after returning, he scored 249 goals for Celtic, Barcelona, Helsingborg and Manchester United.


Matt Stead