For a footballer, injuries are normal. Spending time recovering on the side lines is an occupational hazard like a farmer’s odour or a banker’s guilt. Whether it be simple aches, pains and strains, or more malignant breaks, tears and ruptures, being injured is an expected side effect of putting your body through 4000 minutes of competitive football over the course of nine months every season, and it is something that footballers are forced deal with.
For the unfortunate few who are made to suffer long-term injuries, the recovery process can be a gruelling and painful one. Aside from the obvious physical trauma that comes with a slow rehabilitation process, there are serious psychological side effects that an extended period of time spent away from regular football can manifest.
The past two weeks have seen Barry Corr repay the faith shown in him by innumerable United fans, scoring with his first touch and then finishing off a marvellous move to give United the three points at Stevenage last weekend, and then scoring the winner in a seven-goal thriller against Cheltenham on Saturday – hopefully indicating a return to his prodigious and talismanic goal scoring form. His popularity among the U’s faithful was cemented in his first season, but after 12 goals in his first 24 appearances, he underwent urgent surgery for what looked to be a possible career ending knee injury.
In the two years since, he has managed only 535 minutes of first-team football. Physically, those two separate years recovering will have been at times both agonising and utterly unbearable, but psychologically there will have been periods of isolation, loneliness and desperate frustration. His goal scoring ability and his incessant physical drive to continue playing has been covered extensively, but what has been less applauded is his ceaseless mental determination to never give up, even at the lowest points.
The lowest point for Corr would have been at the start of this season, when he found himself not only out of fitness but also out of contract. In an interview with Doug Shulman after the Stevenage game, he said: “It was so difficult at the start of this season when I was out and I didn’t have a club. It was the first time in my career I was sitting at home and I didn’t know what to do with myself, and it was really, really difficult.”
The mental pressure exerted on him must have been excruciating, and to suffer through that for a total of nearly two years, through different managerial regimes and an ultimately failed comeback is testament to the man’s ability. Even when he was out of a club he soldiered on, allegedly paying for his own surgery and training with the team when he could for free, while attempting to regain his fitness running around his local park. Alongside this is the added frustration of watching his team performing without him, and the rise and rise of his rampant and often unstoppable replacement Uche Ikpeazu – his progression must have been as pleasing as it was infuriating.
Then there is actually returning to the pitch, to the combative, full-frontal environment of professional football, and subjecting that much-maligned limb to hours of tackling and clattering. Only he will know if he has the faith to trust that the recovery has worked – after the Stevenage game, Corr said he is “worried about it all the time when I go out on the pitch”, something that is common amongst recovering athletes.
Long-term injuries can have serious effects on a footballer’s mental health; a study at Brunel University in association with the Professional Footballers Association found that out of a sample of 50 players who had experienced long-term injuries, 99% of them reported some kind of psychological difficulty. Ian Wright described it as a “nightmare that you live every day”.
Injury woes at the top level are well-documented, and some end up recuperating better than others – Jack Wilshere seems to be fully mended while Daniel Sturridge (who suffered 18 separate injuries in three years) is still in a constant state of flux and hopefully will show the incredible mental strength needed to overcome those lost years where his talent has been wasted in the treatment room.
A footballer’s career is short, and long periods spent unable to play are described as feelings of dejection, depression and hopelessness. Taking away a footballer’s athleticism is taking away such a crucial part of their identity, leading them to question their self-worth and exacerbating any deep-set insecurities they might have. It is an inescapable worry that never leaves your mind, and at times it might feel like an interminable lay-off.
The debate around Barry Corr’s possible contract extension are by-the-by here – what is remarkable is Barry’s willingness and persistence to never give up, twice overcoming his injury both physically and mentally to pull on the amber and black. If he goes on to play first-team football next season then it is an outstanding achievement. His influence on the pitch is in no doubt whatsoever – in his first comeback he put away a very late equaliser against Yeovil and inspired the U’s to an extraordinary comeback against Newport, and his match-winning exploits in Hertfordshire this time around have already been covered – but his motivation and drive to keep going is enormous credit to the man. Barry’s return to the team marks his incredible psychological strength in the face of extreme adversity.