I'm a very, very different Hector now - that's for sure.
To be out for 337 days is a long time. It sounds worse when you say it like that, but it's been a process that I feel has been more positive than negative. When people hear about you rupturing your ACL and going through this nine-month injury, they just think 'Wow, this is bad, his head must be flying, he must be in a bad state of mind, let's help him'.
Of course the first few months were tough and there were hard moments through the process. Watching the boys play was a real challenge for me and there were days when my knee wasn't feeling how I expected it to feel. Like every single process, there are always ups and downs, but it's been something that has helped me love football even more.
It's made me realise how lucky I am to be in the position I am in, so that I can take the opportunity to play and to train with a different frame of mind than I had before. I'm definitely enjoying it way more now than I did before.
Since I became part of the first-team squad, I pretty much played every single game. There were seasons where I played 48 games, which meant I played Saturday, Tuesday, Friday, Wednesday and it was non-stop. You have good games and you have bad games, but you never really have time to think about them or to enjoy the wins.
If you score a goal, you don't really have time to celebrate. I didn't score many, so for me that was a big thing! But then I'd know that in three days I'd be playing another game. All the achievements, whether personal or collective, become really hard to appreciate because you're always thinking about the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.
Then when it comes to your summer break, the last thing you want to think about is football because you've been thinking about it for more than 11 months. It was the first time that I actually had a chance to look back at my achievements, whether that was as a footballer or a 24-year-old. I could finally sit down and just think, 'Oh wow, I did that'.
Before, it was just part of my work and I never really appreciated it. Then I realised that I had played almost 200 games for Arsenal, won four trophies... so many achievements. I could never really enjoy those and it made me realise how far I had come since my first game against West Brom in the League Cup, and how much I'd grown in that time - I didn't even have time to realise that.
In terms of that, it has made me appreciate myself more which is really important for me. It's made me appreciate how lucky I am to be able to wake up early every morning and play the game that I love, at a club that I love, surrounded by people that want me to be better every day. Sometimes it takes a hard knock to realise how good life is.
For me, it literally affected everything. Football is my life and all of a sudden when you can't do the one thing you love for a period of nine months at least, it puts other things into perspective and it makes you appreciate the more mundane things in life a bit more.
It was the first time I could spend more than two weeks in my hometown. I was there for more than a month when I was going through rehab, and I could appreciate the things that I used to do back then which I can't do anymore because I'm not there. It made me appreciate my family because they helped me through the process, my friends in Spain that I hadn't been able to spend much time with since I was 16.
There were also other hobbies that I kind of left behind. I used to draw a lot when I was young, and that was my time for me to do that again. I picked up photography again, as that was something I loved, and I was just able to explore it a bit further. I had a chance to study a little bit, to read books that I never thought I had time to read.
All these little pleasures that before I felt I didn't have time to do, I've had the chance to explore them more and realise that if I really like them, I can make time for them. Now I'm doing things that, if it wasn't for my injury, I wouldn't be doing. They give me a lot of joy in my life, so it has made me happier in different ways and it's made me appreciate other things a lot more.
I've been someone who, since I was really young, was always worried about what would come after football. You still think, 'Oh, I've still got 15 years to play' but then I think it's better to try things now, to learn what you like. Some people have it in their heads that they want to be a coach, for example. All their career, that's all they think about.
For me, it hasn't been that easy to know what it is that I've wanted to do so since I was 20 or 21, I've always been trying new things to see what gives me joy and what I could do as a career afterwards. Maybe other players might think, 'I just want to make enough money so I don't have to do anything anymore' but I don't think I could be that person.
It doesn't have to be one specific thing, it's just trying new things that I can maybe use as a job or a hobby in the future, things that make me happy. Being injured has definitely given me that window to explore myself a bit more, to find out what I like apart from football.
It definitely makes you think about retirement because for those nine months, you're kind of a bit like that anyway. It's something that if it hadn't happened to me - or if I went through my whole career without getting an injury like that - I probably wouldn't see things as clearly, because I've tried things that I know I don't want to do in the future. I'm very grateful for that.
I'm also really grateful for the lads I had around me during my rehab. Rob Holding was like my first support. He had got injured a couple of months before me, so every single thing he was going through, I could see that it would be me doing that in two months. He was the person that messaged me first, the person that offered me his advice from the beginning.
He had a great rehab process because he was hitting all of the targets whenever he needed to. He was going even further than he needed to at the time, so for me that was a great inspiration to see how we were going to rehab with the same people, and it made me feel better seeing him do so well. It gave me a goal and an objective that I could basically reach.
It wasn't like, 'Oh in six or nine months you're going to be here', no. I could properly see what the steps were and for me that was very helpful. Also, we'd always had an amazing relationship on and off the pitch anyway that obviously helped a lot.
Then we also had Kieran and Dinos. They were my companions when we started our pitch work. My relationship with Kieran was really good from the start. I felt we kind of knew that a lot of people were expecting us to be a full-back unit, so we always joked about that which gave us a common ground from the start that we could share without even knowing each other.
Kieran was good from the start and he was also someone who pushed himself so hard from the get-go, from the first few training sessions with the rehab group. He made me push myself even further because he was hitting more speed than me. I was thinking, 'No, this can't happen, I need to run quicker than him', then he would run quicker. If he wasn't there, my rehab would've been very different because that offered me motivation and improvement.
Every day I would think, 'I can't wait to get out there because I'm going to run quicker than him'. I think it's great that you can build a relationship with someone purely on those basics: hard work and professionalism.
I'm not going to lie, there were mornings where we felt so tired and our muscles were aching because we were coming back from not running for six months into very hard work. There were mornings where we couldn't put two passes together, there were mornings where we were amazing and there are things I look back on now and think, 'Yo, that was a good time'.
At the time we were thinking, 'This is really hard, why are we doing this? We're doing mannequins every day and it's kind of boring, just running and going to the gym on this massive programme that you've got to complete for six or seven hours a day'. But now you appreciate the fact that those people around you have helped you get to where you are right now.
Rob and I still do yoga together at the club and we're always part of a group that get together outside football as well. He's someone that I think is loved by everyone at the club. He's a great personality and is someone who loves to work, and he was the first person to show me that I would be back on the pitch again soon.
It wasn't him that told me this, but someone came up to me after that Chelsea game and said, 'Oh just so you know, when Rob saw you get injured he started crying'. And I thought it was crazy. At the time I'd got injured, I knew that I'd hurt myself and I'm not someone who dwells on things too much. Half an hour afterwards, everyone was feeling sorry for me but I didn't need to hear it because I knew I wasn't OK.
I was past it, I was moving on and focusing on being in the right frame of mind for the next nine months. But then obviously I hadn't gone through the surgery or the first few days of rehab, so I think Rob felt how hard it was going to be for me because he'd already gone through those stages. His emotion at the time just shows how much of a family we are in here and how just seeing your team-mate going through something like that can hit you.
Rob is a great guy and isn't afraid to show his emotions and that's something which also made me realise how much we each appreciate each other. It's great that I can share a dressing room with someone I have that sort of relationship and respect for - and the fact that we were able to make our comebacks together made it even more special.
It was a very emotional game for so many reasons. The game before, it was Aston Villa on the 21st and that was the day in my head where I thought it would be my comeback day. I remember my first goal came against Aston Villa, my first FA Cup trophy came against Aston Villa, so I thought it was the planets aligning.
My last game for the under-23s was only a few days before that game, so the coaches decided that I maybe needed a bit more time to rest before coming back to my first top-level game after such a long time out. It already started with a bit of a low, but then being called back into the squad for the cup game just made me happy again.
I was just like, 'Yo, I'm back!' Sometimes just being in the hotel with the boys, even if you're not going to play, just being there for the meetings, for lunch, is all so different. It's kind of like a ritual to me.
Then after we got to the game, the team was playing great, Rob gets the captain's armband and scored with his first touch, and I was going crazy! I didn't even care if I got on at that point, I was just so happy for him. But then the coach called me in and with my third touch, I got an assist. We scored another goal so I thought, 'Can this get any better? Is this even real?'
I was speaking with Rob at full-time and he was like, 'Mate, this couldn't be any better, this is the perfect game for everyone'. It wasn't just for us on an individual level, it was an amazing performance from the whole squad. Then on top of that Rob scored, I got an assist, the young boys were scoring, Gabi scored... everything was amazing and we could barely believe it. So yeah, I've got an amazing memory of that game which I'm not going to forget.
Since then I've been lucky to have captained the side a couple of times, too. Since I was young at Barcelona, I would always be one of the three captains in the team. For me, it was a role I'm used to. Obviously it's not the same when you're 14 or 15 as it is now because the responsibility and what you represent is completely different, but it's always been something that I've enjoyed. I enjoy positions of responsibility and I enjoy being the first one on that wall.
For me, I had been speaking to the coach for a few months and he was telling me that I could be one of the people that could represent the team. I was really happy with it because I'm someone who's been here for a long time and I know how the club runs. People may not see me as this massive guy who shouts on the pitch all the time or what people may have as a captain in their heads, but there are so many different ways of leading a team.
Everyone in the team respects each other and we have so many leaders who don't need to wear the armband to have an impact on how others think. After going through so many different captains and characters from my time here so far, you always get the best things from all of them. The time I've been here has been really useful for that and whether I was captain or not, I've always been someone who's liked to help and talk from the team's perspective.
I'm not afraid of those things so for me, it's something I'm very proud of. I'm very honoured to be part of this group and it's something this team needs. I'm very happy that I was approached and then for the votes I received in the dressing room. That shows my team-mates trust me to do that job, and I'm happy to do it when I have to.
In the group we have, we have so many different qualities where each person can give what they have to the team. I think it's really important to have a strong captain but there are also people outside of our leadership group like Papa, like David Luiz, who have gone through a lot and have so much experience. When they raise their voice, they're listened to as much as the leadership group are.
That's more important than anything else. Sometimes it's not just about having that one figure, it's about everyone in the dressing room respecting each other, listening to each other and moving forward in the same direction. That’s what we’ve got here at Arsenal.
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