For most fans, Arsenal’s game at Norwich in May was a fairly unremarkable away win. A fourth-placed finish had already been assured and thoughts were beginning to turn to the following weekend’s FA Cup Final at Wembley.
But for Abou Diaby, that match at Carrow Road was hugely significant. May 11, 2014 marked his 28th birthday, but more importantly he played first-team football for Arsenal again after 14 months out with a knee injury. Abou came on as a 74th-minute substitute for Tomas Rosicky, with Arsenal already two goals to the good.
It marked the end of a patient, enduring journey for the Frenchman, after his anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction procedure towards the end of the 2012/13 season.
His rehab was slow and steady – deliberately so, given the other damage his legs had suffered in the past.
Read the interview with Abou and more in the latest edition
Since signing from Auxerre in January 2006 (at the same time as Theo Walcott and Emmanuel Adebayor), the midfielder has suffered more than his fair share of bad luck. He’s played 179 games in the past eight-and-a-half years, and those appearances have been filled with numerous eye-catching, dynamic performances – making his enforced absences from the side even more keenly felt.
But still with his peak years ahead of him, Abou has no intention of dwelling in the past. A year of hard work is behind him and now he wants to reap the rewards.
Tell us your emotions when you made your comeback against Norwich, Abou.
It was a great feeling because I had been waiting for that moment for so long. I worked hard during my rehabilitation to come back and play so I was really happy. It was my birthday on that day and I got a great ovation from the fans as well, so it was unforgettable for me.
Was it a big target of yours to make your comeback before the end of the season, to go into the summer on a high?
Yeah, at least I wanted to play and to come back in one game. For me it was kind of an achievement to do that, so I was really happy for that.
You hadn’t been in action since the previous March. Did you feel nervous before you came on?
No, not really. Obviously when you have been out for so long, you have a bit of nervousness beforehand but in the end it was fine when I came on. There was no pain or anything afterwards – I felt great.
It must have been a huge relief to get through that comeback game with no pain. Was that a big hurdle to clear?
Of course, it gives you confidence and when you feel fresh when you’re running you think, “OK, this feels fine.” Now I can look forward to playing more games.
So did you go out and celebrate – making your comeback and turning 28 – that night?
No, I didn’t really do anything special. I was happy to come back but I just want to look forward now.
There must have been moments during the last year, though, when that comeback looked a long way off...
Yes, but I just thought that it would come. The most important thing was to come back fit and without any problems, rather than setting a date. I was more focused on that but I was just glad to come back and feel good.
Did Arsène Wenger tell you beforehand that he planned to bring you on before the end of the game?
No, he didn’t say anything. I was on the bench the week before for the game against West Brom at Emirates Stadium, so it was just the same again. But against Norwich he just told me to go and warm up and then he called me to come on, which was great.
What have you been up to since that Norwich game? How has pre-season gone?
The plan was to work over the whole summer. I had a three-week break after the Norwich game and then started to work again, back in France. I focused on building my strength and endurance and it’s gone well so far, I’m feeling good and now training as normal with the rest of the squad. I’m just happy to be back and want to work hard to come back at a nice level. I’m looking forward to a good season.
How different is your preparation this season compared to previous years? Have your injury problems changed the way you prepare for a new season?
I would say it’s different because I’ve been out for one year and I really want to come back strongly so this pre-season is really important for me. I will do everything to get through pre-season, to complete it to make sure I can be part of the squad. When you miss pre-season, things become difficult after that, so my main focus is on completing my preparations and then I can see the level that I’m at and hope to play again.
Last season we won the FA Cup and now we’ve realised that we can make it – we can take that last step over the line
Your positive mood is reflected throughout the squad at the moment ahead of the new campaign. Do you think the team goes into this season with less pressure now that the trophy drought has ended?
I think so, now we have all realised that we can achieve something. In the past, we’ve played very good football without winning anything. Last season we won the FA Cup and now we’ve realised that we can make it – we can take that last step over the line. I think it’s going to be something new for the club from now, a new start. We’ve realised that we can lift a trophy and when you do that once, you want more. I think we’re going to go into this season with that mentality.
Were you at Wembley for the final?
Yeah, with my family and friends. Even at 2-0 down, we knew that we had good players and could come back, especially as it was so early in the game. It was just a matter of time and the feeling was absolutely unbelievable – even the day after on the bus. For the fans and the players it was great. That winning mentality is there now so we need to carry that over and play this season that way.
You’re close to Yaya Sanogo, so you must have been pleased with his contribution in the final. What do you think he can bring to the team this season?
Yaya is somebody that has great ability and now he just needs to work with this talent. I’m sure that he’s going to be a great plus for the team.
He said that you have been very helpful to him since he moved to Arsenal. You get on well and have similar backgrounds, don’t you?
Yeah – he’s kind of like a brother. He’s got great talent. Every day I tell him that he needs to work to make his talent bigger and I’m sure that he can definitely bring something new to the team. I saw his first game in the Champions League [against Bayern] and I think he did really well. Coming to England is never easy but as soon as he gets used to the tempo, he’s going to be great. He’s got a great future, he just needs that first goal. But you can see during the game he gets chances and he works hard as well. You could see in the FA Cup that he made a difference.
What did you make of France’s World Cup campaign? It looked really good until that Germany game.
I think they did really well. The target was to reach the quarter-final and they did that. The games they produced were really good. Some people may say that the group wasn’t the strongest but they won all the games in a good manner. That’s what you expect from a good team. I think it’s very good for the future. The French people were really happy. We had bad experiences in 2010 so a lot of things had to change, like the image of the team and the way the team plays. I think Didier Deschamps has done a very good job.
You presumably still have ambitions to get back into that French team too?
Of course. I’m still young and there is the European Championship in France in 2016. I definitely want to be part of that. Didier Deschamps spoke with me after I got injured, but not since then.
It might seem like a long time ago, but you actually played a part in France’s World Cup qualifying campaign, didn’t you?
Yes, my last game for France was the first qualifier of the group, against Finland. We won 1-0 and I scored the only goal. So I helped them get there!
What do you think of the team now, and where you could fit in to the line-up?
It’s true they’ve got a very good midfield but I’ll just focus on myself and try to reach my best level again. After that, I’ll be fine, I think.
What are your aims at club level for this season? Do you have any specific goals?
No, my goal is to be fit – that’s the basic. After that, I want to play the maximum I can as well. I don’t have any figure in mind or anything. I’ll just train and work hard to play. I just want to play. I need to work hard, come back at my best level, and from there we’ll see.
It’s been difficult but if I had lost the love for football, I wouldn’t be here now
How do you approach a new season now, compared to maybe five years ago? Has much changed in your mentality, considering what you have been through lately?
Well, my mentality comes from my desire, my motivation to fight when you have bad moments - that is the same.
But maybe when you were in your early 20s you would set some long or medium-term goals. Do you still do that?
Ah yes, that is different now. Now, I just take things daily – and that has changed from how I was before. I’ve had a lot of injuries but they have made me grow as a player and also as a man. I’ve had a lot of time to think and I try to take more distance when a bad event happens now. That’s helped me to come back.
Do you still love football as much as you did? There must have been times when you hated it?
Of course I still love it. It’s been difficult but if I had lost the love for football, I wouldn’t be here now. The reason I am still here, still working, is because I love football. I will keep trying my best because I’m still young so I can still look forward.
Do you think your style of play has changed as a result of your injuries? Has it changed your physiology, for example?
I don’t know if it’s changed my style of play, but maybe I will have to be more at the construction of the game, for example, instead of making a lot of runs. Maybe I’ll need to be cleverer on the pitch, and that comes with experience anyway.
Finally, when you look at the squad, do you think this is a group that can go and win the league?
Of course. Even last year, we showed that we were close and unfortunately we dropped a bit at the end. We always face a season with that desire, to win the league. Last season was the FA Cup, hopefully this season it will be the league. That’s what we want.