Two-hundred-and-ninety-four days. 7,000 hours. My recovery's been a journey. Here's how it ends.
At the start of the summer, I had a target in mind that by the start of pre-season I would be back with the team and hopefully able to get a pre-season game in. Obviously it didn't pan out that way but that was the aim.
Being on tour with the team was an important part of my recovery. I had the feeling I was back with the team and back involved. There was me and Hector, who had the same injury, and just being back around the team, in the hotel for dinner and breakfast, made us feel like part of it all again.
Towards the end of my recovery, I was so eager to get back involved and back into training, back into a game. But I knew the staff would look after me and that the head coach wouldn't be rushing me back in. He'd let me do it step by step, and as and when I felt comfortable. The physios agreed it was the right time too, so I didn't feel rushed or that I was needed to be forced back in. It was a slow process but an important one.
When you're close to the end of your injury rehab, you do start getting giddy and you want to get out there and train. You feel like your knee is capable of doing it and you want to push it on as fast as you can. But then it's still so important to take your time, make sure you do the right steps, rather than just rushing in and potentially doing more damage.
That's why we went slowly. I made my return from injury for the under-23s against Watford and there was no concern about my knee. I knew it was strong and that I was capable of playing 90 minutes. It was more about the nerves of putting my kit back on and being an Arsenal player, rather than just a training kit every day. Putting that shirt back on was such a good feeling.
In the game, I think my performance was steady, comfortable, and that's exactly what I wanted. I didn't want anything exaggerated or anything dangerous, it was just about getting 90 minutes under my belt.
I think it was about seven weeks from that game to my first competitive match back. The period between those two matches consisted of a long period playing with the under-23s, getting more minutes under my belt. We played away at Blackburn with the under-23s and then at home to Leicester and Everton, both at the Emirates. That was a nice feeling to be back out on the pitch.
It was a process where I was looking and thinking about when I was going to be back on the bench for a first-team game. It was just about taking that next step to get the next 90 minutes in, then the next until I got an opportunity. I knew the games were going to come thick and fast with all the cup competitions we're in, so it was all about being patient and waiting for my chance.
My workload stayed fairly normal in the build-up to my first-team return, I was just doing everything I was comfortable with to the best of my ability. That's the attitude that got me through my whole injury, with the physio telling me what I could and couldn't do. I trusted them with everything, and I knew they were doing the right things for me. They did all the hard work basically; I just did what they said!
The trickiest thing was staying patient. You feel confident in your knee and you think, 'What am I waiting for? I can play here or the next game coming up, no problem'. But you never know what's going to happen and I think being told by the physios what to do, and having a plan laid out in front of me of which days I would be training and when I would be off, massively helps. It's so much better to know what you're doing rather than having things up in the air.
The mental side is a process to go through as well. As you get closer, your mind starts getting sharper in training, you're thinking faster and all the repetitive nature of working on the same things sharpens your mind. It's stuff like how you're going to receive the ball, where you're going to receive it, how you're going to avoid the contact coming in... all those things that come into your mind which, over time, get sharper and sharper. It makes you feel ready.
Then it's all about getting that trust back in your body. Trusting my knee was something that I needed to speak to the physios about. They gave me faith in it by saying it would be stronger than it was before and that on certain weight machines I was pushing three times my body weight. That was the target, so my quad is probably stronger than it was before my injury. All the stats back it up and that gives you the belief that your knee is stronger, that you're capable of doing things.
Once all those things come into place, you're ready to make your comeback. I was absolutely buzzing for my first game back, against Nottingham Forest. I knew I was playing and from the day before I was like, 'This is my time to come back'. I wanted to have a solid game, I didn't want to try to impress everyone by being perfect. I just wanted to have a steady game.
People might find that odd but as a centre half, having a solid game or a quiet game is having a good game because you've not done anything bad to cause a goal. You've just kept it clean at the back. People might think you need to dribble past two people on your first game back, when in reality I just wanted to control the ball, move it on and to help the team win the game.
It just felt so good to be back on the pitch in front of the fans. I knew that I was ready because of all the hard work I'd done. All the fans were desperate to see me back, sending me messages all the time on Twitter and Instagram. All the support I got through the injury was great, so once I was ready and felt ready, I didn't feel like I'd let them down. I just wanted to go out there and play.
As it turns out, it went pretty well. I knew I was going to be vice-captain before the game, so when Mesut went off, I knew I needed to get the armband. At the time, we were about to attack a corner, so I wasn't thinking about having my first touch as a captain or scoring a goal, it just happened.
Reiss put in a great ball, I lost my marker, attacked it and headed it down so that it stayed on target. It bounced just before the line and then bounced in. I didn't realise I had the armband on until after - I just totally forgot about it until I was running back and pulling it up my sleeve. I was thinking, 'Oh my God, I've just scored as the captain of Arsenal'. That's a nice thing to say.
Then when you're thinking it can't get much better, Hector came on and got an assist within seconds. It was just a brilliant way to come back. You couldn't have written it any better and it felt like we'd come full circle after our injuries. It was almost like we'd never left the pitch. It was a great feeling and I remember walking around after, clapping the fans and having a little hug with Hector.
We were both in disbelief at what had happened and how perfectly the game had gone. It was such a special day – one I'll never forget.
It's been such a long journey but one that I've come out of stronger. I had to work behind the scenes for 294 days... 7,000 hours... but now I'm back. I'm going to work as hard as I can to get back in the team and continue what I was doing before the injury.
I want to pick up where I left off and set off on a big, long run, giving everything I can for the team for the rest of the season.
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