It’s the bane of a footballer’s life. Not a salary cap, not kiss-and-tell scandals or even the dreaded, and eternally-blamed Credit Crunch (always a capital C for Credit Crunch). No, for any footballer- amateur or professional- the fear of injury is the biggest of all.
Over the past few years football fans have edged towards the realms of medical experts, with every squeal, tackle, twist or bruise being diagnosed not just by the physios at the scene, but by the millions watching on TV and in the stands too. “Looks like Gerrard’s done his metatarsal there”, “You could see his abductor muscle go”, “Compound fracture by the looks of it” can often be heard as yet another finely tuned athlete crumples to the turf in (genuine) agony. But what are the most common injuries sustained in the sport? And what do they actually mean?
Common Footballing Injuries
The Knee Injury
Perhaps the most susceptible parts of a footballer’s anatomy are his/her knees. They are central to everything required in order to play the game. The strain on a modern footballer’s knees is absolutely huge, make no mistake about that. Every twist, turn, dart, spin, pass, shot, collision, tackle takes it’s toll on a player throughout their career.
The most serious knee injury has to be the cruciate ligament tear, sustained by the likes of Michael Owen, Alan Shearer, Michael Essien, Ruud Van Nistelrooy & Robert Pires to name but a few. This occurs when the knee is jarred or twisted away from the body with sufficient force. The cruciate ligaments (so called because of their cross-shape) stop the tibia (shin bone) from moving forwards on the femur (thigh bone). Therefore, if the cruciate ligament is ruptured, the knee lacks stability, and is liable to collapse or give way at any point. A torn or ruptured cruciate ligament requires surgery, with a tendon graft from either the hamstring or the patella (kneecap) taken, and knitted through the knee to form a new cruciate ligament. This usually rules a player out for seven to ten months, although more complex cases can take longer, and more straightforward ones can be quicker.
Another serious knee injury is the Cartilage tear. Cartilage tears (meniscus) accounted for 12% of all Premiership injuries in the PhysioRoom.com 2004/2005 analysis of injuries. Cartilage is found in the knee joint, connecting two Menisi. As the knee joint bends the thigh bone usually rolls, spins and glides on the top surface of the shin bone. However, if there is rotation caused by a twist whilst the joint is bearing weight, the Menisci can get jammed and nipped in between the two bones. If the force is sufficient, a tear of the Meniscus cartilage will occur. A cartilage tear will usually result in surgery to repair it, and a player can be out of action for anything up to or even beyond six months.
Having strong quadriceps and hamstring muscles that can deal with the strain on the knee joint is recommended to reduce the risk of injury which is why footballers work hard in the gym to strengthen these muscles. Small cartilage tears can usually be sorted with physiotherapy treatment but more significant cartilage tears may require surgery. Following surgery, a period of 4 to 6 weeks physiotherapy is usually required. Aside from surgery, glucosamine chondroitin is relatively new to the world of sports injury treatment but research into its effectiveness at improving recovery rate from injury and reducing the amount/severity of joint pain has been very encouraging.
Read More: The Cruciate Ligament
The Foot Injury
The metatarsal eh? Mention that to someone in 1995 and you would have been greeted with a look that bore resemblance to the one Mark Lawrenson wears when asked to provide something of genuine insight into football.
It has always existed of course; the bones in our feet have always been broken. But until David Beckham was clattered by Deportivo La Coruña’s Aldo Duscher in March 2002, no one had heard of this evil ailment. Beckham and his metatarsal, predictably, dominated the sports pages right up until he was (perhaps prematurely) declared fit for World Cup 2002, with various others following in Becks’ footsteps and picking up this new trendy injury, ruling themselves out of the same tournament. They included Beckham’s best mate Gary Neville, and Danny Murphy (who had only been selected as a late replacement for his Liverpool colleague Steven Gerrard- a groin injury victim).
Since then, we have seen Wayne Rooney’s appearances at Euro 2004 & World Cup 2006 limited by the same injury, with Gerrard, Michael Owen & Roy Keane amongst a clutch of players to suffer the same fate. The injury basically means that one (or more) of the five small bones leading to the toes has been fractured, usually done by impact from a tackle, but also done in more innocuous circumstances- as was the case with Wayne Rooney against Portugal in Euro 2004.
The standard recovery time seems to be around 2 months, although Rooney- aided by the use of an oxygen tent to speed up recovery- recovered from his second metatarsal injury in 2006 within six weeks, whilst Owen took around four months to recover from his own injury, ironically just in time for the same World Cup that Rooney was striving to reach.
These injuries sparked large debate in the media about the standard of protection offered to players both from referees, and from modern day football boots. Many experts opined that in their efforts to make boots as lightweight and flexible as humanly possible, boot manufacturers had sacrificed the protection against injuries such as the metatarsal that older, more traditional football boots had afforded. And whilst that is nigh-on impossible to prove conclusively, the rise in metatarsal cases since Duscher clattered Beckham, and the world learnt a new word, is blatant.
Also read: The Metatarsal
The Hamstring/Groin Strain
The function of the hamstring muscles, at the back of the thighs, is to give flexibility to the knee and hip, allowing players to stretch their legs, run at pace and turn quickly. Often players can suffer tears to these muscles when running, stretching or turning, sometimes even when striking the ball.
A torn hamstring usually comes under three categories, first, second and third degree. The recovery period, and treatment advised, depends on the severity of the tear. A first degree tear can often be treated within 1-2 weeks, a second degree tear within 3-5 weeks and a third degree tear can take anything between 6 weeks and 20 weeks. Players to have suffered this type of tear include Michael Owen, when at Liverpool, and Craig Bellamy, when at Newcastle.
Like the hamstring, a common injury sustained when turning, stretching or moving with the ball is the torn groin. A groin strain can vary in its severity, with the least serious groin strains keeping a player out of action for only a week or two, and the more severe strains requiring surgery which can keep a player laid low for up to three months. Players to have suffered from this injury include Steven Gerrard, Alan Shearer and, surprise surprise, Michael Owen.
Unlike the broken leg or the cruciate ligament injury, there are measures that can be taken to help prevent such injuries. These include:
- Thorough warm up/warm down, to ensure muscles are up to speed before playing/training.
- Ice baths, to cool down the muscles and ensure a good flow of oxygen reaches them
- Cycling shorts/compression shorts- to keep the muscles warm.
Read More: The Hamstring
Ahh, the biggie. The broken leg. Aesthetically this injury is the most horrific or spectacular (depending on your stance). It is also an injury that usually requires participation from another player. When Arsenal’s Eduardo Da Silva broke his leg sickeningly at Birmingham last season, Arsene Wenger saw the incident as proof that his theory of teams deliberately setting out to rough up his side was correct. Wenger soon retracted his ill-judged comments about the offender, Martin Taylor, but over the past few seasons there is no doubt that there has been a major clampdown (in the Premier League at least) on potentially dangerous, studs-up tackles. Any tackle that even threatens to go over the top of the ball in the Premier League now is deemed a sending off offence, with normally placid players such as Robbie Keane & Steed Malbranque seeing red for far from malicious tackles. However, if the safety of the players is improved as a result, it will always get my vote.
A broken leg once meant the threat of a career finishing. Not so these days, a player will usually be out of plaster in three months or less, and can even be back playing within six. Djibril Cisse suffered two horrendous leg breaks between 2004 and 2006, and has recovered strongly from both within around six months. Conversely, West Ham midfielder Kieron Dyer suffered a leg break in a Carling Cup match with Bristol Rovers in August 2007, and is yet to make his comeback. Different bodies, different recoveries.
Read more: The Broken Leg
The role of the physio has changed enormously as a result of improved technology and medical research, not just in football, but society as a whole. The days where the physio (often doubling as “First team trainer”) would waddle onto the field to attend to an injured player with nothing but a window-cleaner’s bucket and a freezing cold sponge are, thankfully, well gone. Nowadays a physio has to give an instant assessment of a player’s fitness, mindset, risk, and treatment. The stakes are so high in football that an injured player simply cannot be carried, so a physio has to decide whether a manager can trust his wounded player to continue, or whether he should plunge into his subs.
Day to day, physios work tirelessly at club training grounds to ensure that the highly paid, highly talented stars are in the best possible shape to take to the field of a weekend. Most clubs will find eight to ten players with slight strains and niggles at the end of a routine training session, the physios have the task of ironing out these creases through exercises, massages and various other wild and wonderful treatments.
Who can forget Glenn Hoddle’s infamous adoption of the faith healer, Eileen Drewery, during his tenure as England manager. It was often used as a stick to beat him with after his enforced resignation, but it showed Hoddle as a man who was willing to use any means necessary to get that extra 0.00001% from his players. Not that Ray Parlour appreciated it, his visit to Drewery ended in hilarious circumstances when he requested “a short back and sides please”.
Football Injury Facts
- In August 2008, former Manchester United trainee Benjamin Collett was awarded a record £4.3m in damages following a tackle from former Middlesbrough defender Gary Smith, in a reserve team match in 2003. Collett earned £3.9m for loss of future earnings, £450,000 for loss of past earnings, and around £40,000 in compensation. Both Middlesbrough & Smith admitted liability over the tackle, which left Collett with a leg broken in two places and forced him to retire from the game soon after.
- Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann was a hell of a man. That’s fair to say. During World War II he earned five medals for bravery, including an iron cross. But, not satisifed with that, he then proceeded to produce one of the most incredible FA Cup final performances of all time. In 1956, Manchester City were leading Birmingham 3-1 with fifteen minutes to go, Trautmann dived at the feet of Brum striker Peter Murphy, breaking a bone in his neck.
With no substitutes permitted, Trautmann was forced to stay on the field for the remainder of the match, making a couple of crucial interventions. It was not until three days after the final that the full extent of the injury was learnt, An X-ray revealed he had dislocated five vertebrae in his neck, the second of which was cracked in two. The third vertebra had wedged against the second, preventing further damage which could have cost Trautmann his life.
- Gerry Byrne wasn’t particularly weak either. In 1965 he played for Liverpool in their first ever FA Cup win, a 2-1 success over Leeds. The game is remembered by many for Liverpool’s winner, a diving header from Ian St John. But for Byrne, the memory is of a third minute collision with Leeds skipper Bobby Collins, which left the Reds left back with a broken collarbone.
Miraculously, he managed to soldier on for the ninety minutes. Plus extra time! He even managed to set up Roger Hunt’s opening goal with some attacking full back play. Some man!
- Contrast that to Elena Marcelino of Newcastle fame (or should that be infamy). Signed by the Magpies for a fee in excess of £5.5m in 1999, Marcelino was restricted to just seventeen first team appearances in three years on Tyneside. Still at least he had a good reason, a snapped finger tendon keeping him out of action for almost three months of his first season at the club! Gerry & Bert wouldn’t have even noticed!
- Not forgetting the original “Sicknote”, Mr Darren Anderton. And whilst the tag has become synonymous with the former Portsmouth & Spurs midfielder, further research suggests that Mr Anderton may well have been harshly labelled. In his career, Anderton has played a total of 478 competitive games, spread across seventeen seasons. That equals out at an average of 28.1 games per season. Hardly at the level of, oh I don’t know, Kieron Dyer (24 games per season average). Indeed, only three times has Anderton’s season appearances total been below 20 (admittedly, in three successive seasons from 1995-1998).
So there you have it, an overview of modern football injuries, what they entail, how long a player will be missing, and the role of the physio in the modern game. To sign off, here’s a video compilation (god bless YouTube) of funny (and often painful) football injuries:
Football Injuries Video