It is the little things that make a profound difference.
Driving into the training ground, parking up and strolling towards the changing room instead of the medical centre. Waking up on match day with that twist of anticipation in your stomach, ready to play, instead of wondering if you can face going to watch yet another game from the stands. Seeing a supporter approach and feeling happy to chat rather than weary of the inevitable question about when you are going to be back.
No matter how sunny your nature, how positive your outlook, long stretches of rehabilitation are demoralising. Abou Diaby's extensive injury problems got to him to the extent that occasionally he found it difficult being around his club. "I have to be honest and say sometimes I missed some games. I watched at home on TV," he says, bashfully. "One year like this, without playing, is difficult."
There is a kind of separation injured players feel compared with the rest of the group and Diaby felt it keenly enough to go abroad during some stages of his recuperation, to give himself at least some space from the world of the football crock. "I prefer to do my treatment away. I asked permission and the manager let me. I went back to France, to America, to the Middle East. You need to change because staying in the same atmosphere, mentally you will explode.
"I feel a football club is not for injured players. When you come every day it is to train, to play. But when you are out for a long time, it's very hard to take. You see your team-mates training with a smile on their face and you want that as well. I was sitting on the physiotherapist's bed. You can feel yourself a bit apart from the group. You don't contribute to everything that is going on around the team. It is a strange feeling."
Football clubs being a breeding ground for cheap jokes, once we had made our introductions it would have been easy to congratulate Diaby for actually making it through the door and all the way to the chair without suffering some kind of knock. But in this particular case, once this calm and gentle giant starts to detail what the tools of his trade – his body parts – have had to endure, it really feels like a miracle that he is able to play at such an elevated standard.
Diaby's right ankle has been a cause of aggravation ever since an horrendous tackle by Sunderland's Dan Smith in 2006. What made it worse was that it was so unnecessary. The game was almost finished with the score 3-0. The ball was in an innocuous area of the pitch. Sunderland – already relegated – had little to get fired up about. Smith launched himself at Diaby and inflicted damage serious enough for the Frenchman's career to be on the line. He was 19 at the time.
The complications have gone on and on. His left leg is longer than his right and the years of having one stronger side compensating for the weaker has left him with knock-on biomechanical problems. Hence, Diaby suffered almost 20 different muscular injuries since his ankle was originally shattered.
Last summer he had surgery on the right ankle for the fourth time. The details are grisly. Some stray bone had grown – a new bone effectively. "It was causing a lot of pain. I had to take the bone off. To be honest, at the beginning I didn't want to do the surgery, I just wanted to let it go and see how the ankle would respond but at the end I had to do it," he says. "I'm fine now."
Despite the encouragement of his family, his friends and his club, there have been moments when he thought he would never recover, and that a pair of football boots would no longer be needed. There are only so many setbacks that you can absorb. The rehabilitation was, at times, too demanding with too little progress. "It was getting too much," he says. "When you do something and you don't enjoy it, you don't see the point of carrying on. Some bad ideas cross your mind. I had to keep going. I went through a downward spiral, but I had a really good pre-season and now I am very confident in my body. I am very focused."
The example of Robin van Persie, who also wore the injury-prone label for years, was helpful. "Robin kept going and became one of the best players," Diaby says. "He told me to keep going and do my treatment. He gave me some ideas and inspiration."
That is a message Diaby is now passing on to Jack Wilshere. In all three cases, Arsène Wenger has proved determined to keep faith in players he believes in for as long as he possibly can. Diaby is sure that another manager might have given up on him. "If I was in another club I wouldn't have this chance," he says.
Now 26, it is a chance he is desperate to seize. He feels in good shape. He feels strong. But he knows that he needs to come through a season without any major problems to convince people that he is not an injury waiting to happen. He understands why there is scepticism. "The confidence will come back in their minds when I play 40 games in a year and have a successful season. Then people will forget," he says.
He needs that reassurance for himself, too. During last season, when his handful of brief cameos invariably ended in yet another setback, he found himself trembling as he contemplated stepping over the white line. He never used to suffer from nerves but anxiety about getting injured again was palpable.
So far this season, that has not been a problem. He has been a solid regular, developing a fine midfield rapport with Mikel Arteta, and he gained a massive confidence boost the last time Arsenal travelled to the north-west, with an imperious man-of-the-match display at Liverpool.
Diaby is excited about Sunday's trip to Manchester City, which he knows will be a fascinating litmus test of his team's positive start to the campaign. "We definitely want to win and are going there with a winning mentality," he says.
The match brings him up against one of his great friends in football, Yaya Touré. The pair of them met during the summer when they were on the same flight to Abidjan to visit family. Although he was born in the Paris suburbs, both Diaby's parents come from Ivory Coast.
Diaby has the characteristics to play a similar role to the one Touré defines in the modern game. "We like to play deep but make forward runs," the France international says. "It is a position I am really happy with. He's a friend first of all but as a player he is one of the best in his position. What he is doing on the pitch is amazing."
Diaby's own technical standards are not to be sniffed at. He just needs the opportunity to show it far more than has been possible over his seven seasons at Arsenal. Wondering what might have been had he been a little more injury free is not a road he goes down. He never heard from Smith. But this placid, thoughtful man bears no obvious ill-will. "Thank God I am still here," Diaby says. "This happened a long time ago. Now I am just focused on my future. I want to enjoy playing football because I love it. I just want to express my qualities. I am just looking forward.
"My first objective is to stay fit, then try to achieve something at the club. By winning the league or the Champions League we would make history and I want to be part of that."
These are lofty aims, and the kind of ambitions that have led to team-mates leaving Arsenal in order to try to fulfil them. "We always expect some players to leave, we are used to that now," Diaby says with a giggle and a shrug. "Arsenal always show they can respond. The good thing about the manager is he puts his trust in his players. We want to give him back the confidence he gives to us."
Alex Song's departure and the refusal to buy another midfielder were partly down to Wenger's commitment to giving Diaby and Wilshere every chance to make the most of their talent. With his longer left leg and his rebuilt right ankle, Diaby wanders off eager to do just that.
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image: © wonker