It had been a long and lonely 11 months for Charlton’s Billy Clarke, writes Louis Mendez.
The 30-year-old Irishman suffered ruptured knee ligaments in a 2-0 loss away to Blackburn Rovers in December 2017 and has been battling his way back to fitness ever since.
His comeback was finally completed as he was introduced from the bench to play the final 20 minutes of the Addicks’ 1-1 draw at Mansfield in the first round of the FA Cup on Sunday.
“I’m over the moon to finally be back after nearly a year,” explained the former Bradford City man.
“A long 11 months for me. I’m over the moon to be fully fit and back involved. I couldn’t wait to be back on the pitch.”
Clarke had suffered the same injury as a Blackpool player in 2010, so knew what to expect on the road to recovery.
“I’ve had the experience of doing it previously,” he said.
“A lot of the stuff is just mind-numbing. Gym based exercises that you could do easily but they just have to be done to strengthen all areas of the knee and get your knee working properly again.
“There were times where I was in the gym until half five in the evening – for everyone who knows footballers’ time schedules, that’s quite late. It’s not the norm. It was a lot of lonely time.
“Everyone involved has been fantastic with me. The physios, the sports scientists, all the medical team have been top-drawer. Then my family have been second-to-none.
“I’m grateful for everyone who has given me words of support and encouragement and a pat on the back when I did need it. It’s something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone really.
“People will say at least you’re not dead but when you’re working so hard to do something for your whole life and you can’t do it, it’s kind of second to that.”
Toby Stevenson’s second-half equaliser means that the Addicks will have to face Mansfield in a replay at The Valley for a place in the second round of the FA Cup.
It also means that they will take on Swansea U21s in the EFL Trophy at home this Tuesday – a game which would have been pushed back a week if no FA Cup replay was required.
“It’s worked out alright for me because I’ll get more minutes which is what I need,” Clarke added.
“I’ll get up to speed quicker. I’m just delighted to be fully fit and travelling with the lads.
“I’ve been training for quite a bit now. I’ve played some U23 games but they’re obviously nowhere near the speed of a first-team game.
“But there’s an extra couple of games now that I’ll be looking to get involved in and every minute helps me to where I want to get to.
“It’s an extra game and it increases the injury risk on Tuesday as it’s such a quick turnaround. Some of the boys will have to go again.
“We’re all fit enough to do it but it does increase injury risk, muscle fatigue.
“For me it means extra minutes and more match time but for the lads who have played 20y games already, it’s not ideal. It is what it is.
“The positive is that we came from 1-0 down and got a draw. We’re in the draw for the next round.
“A good draw could be a great added incentive to go on and win. I’ve had cup runs before where they’ve really lifted the whole city and the whole club.
“They’re great to be involved in. It’s something that I really hope we do.”