Former Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby’s admission that injuries left him mentally and physically scarred proves how cruel the game can be. But which other players have suffered such heartbreak?
“They say I’m ‘L’Homme de Verre’. It means that I’m made of glass,” the former Arsenal star told the Daily Mail.
“It can be painful, on a psychological level. They don’t know how much I give every day of my life to try and recover. But hey, what can I do? This is my life story.”
Ask any athlete to recall the lowest point of their career, and a recurring tale will emerge. One with injury at its core, a conflict the protagonist must strive to overcome. To some, the challenge is too much. Abou Diaby, the midfielder once dubbed as Arsenal’s long-term heir to Patrick Vieira, knows this only too well.
In his last five seasons for Arsenal and current club Marseille, Diaby has started just 14 league games. Yet, he is just one of many whose career has been plagued by injury. Some find success away from the game, others channel their frustration into a dazzling managerial career. Some fall by the wayside, forgotten.
So, let’s give these outstanding talents the adolation they were so cruelly denied:
Despite winning titles and – on occasion – single-handedly keeping Celtic in European competition with a number of virtuoso displays, Gordon has only shown glimpses of the brilliance that convinced Sunderland to splash out an English record £9 million for the goalkeeper in 2007.
After being released by the Black Cats after a series of serious injuries in 2012, Gordon, whose reflex stop to deny Bolton’s Zat Knight was voted the Premier League’s best ever save, was without a club for two years until Celtic finally came calling.
Swapping Crewe Alexandra in the fourth division for Graeme Souness’ Liverpool in 1991, Jones was living the dream. Four months later, the right-back made his England debut – the first of eight caps. The dream, however, had a rather abrupt end with shin splits forcing Jones to retire at 27.
“There was no banter with the lads, no wage coming in and a lack of purpose in my life. I’d wake up in the morning and not know what to do,” Jones told the BBC in 2013.
It’s not all negative though. The 44-year-old now lives a happy life away from the game, running a number of children’s nurseries in the UK and the UAE.
The Middlesbrough-born defenders’ long-awaited Real Madrid debut is the stuff of legend. Forced to wait over a year for his first-team bow for Los Blancos, Woodgate scored an own goal before being sent off.
Scoring the winning goal in the 2007 League Cup final against Chelsea for Tottenham made him a cult hero in North London, but that remains the highlight of a career beset by various injury lows. Woodgate now works as a scout for Liverpool.
Ledley King, Tottenham Hotspur
Former Tottenham centre-half, King was one of English football’s most naturally gifted defenders with Thierry Henry going as far as to call him the best defender he ever played against.
Finally accepting fate at the age of just 31, King reportedly trained just once a week before throwing himself into tackles on a Tottenham matchday. The 21-time capped defender announced he would retire from football in 2012, but remains at Tottenham in an ambassadorial role.
You might not have heard of Paul Lake. But, if it wasn’t for a series of debilitating injuries, including an ACL rupture that required pioneering surgery, you’d surely be reminiscing about one of English football’s most renowned full-backs.
Retiring at the age of 27 after making just five appearances in four years, the former Manchester City captain’s autobiography I’m Not Really Here became a Sunday Times bestseller, a tale of frustration, heart-break and unfulfilled potential.
Many would have expected football to set Manchester United youngster Ben Collett up for life, but not like this. After a long court case, Collett was awarded over £4 million in compensation after breaking his leg in two places against Middlesbrough in his first appearance for the Red Devils reserves.
Forced to retire at 18, Manchester United fans never got to see the electric winger Sir Alex called an ‘outstanding talent.’
While Edwin Van Der Sar’s penalty save from Nicholas Anelka remains the enduring image of the 2008 Champions League final, Owen Hargreaves’ barnstorming runs and boundless energy set the platform for Manchester United’s victory at the Luzhniki Stadium.
England’s player of the tournament at the 2006 World Cup, Hargreaves limped off just six minutes into his return to first-team action at Old Trafford after 777 days on the sidelines. He is now a respected, and often insightful, pundit for BT Sport.
“There has been a lot of reflection, a lot of hard work mentally to get myself in a good place,” Michael Johnson told the Telegraph. “Being out of that environment has been a big thing too because it became quite toxic for me.”
A succession of injuries, a battle with depression, released at 24. That former Manchester City prodigy now runs a successful estate agent business is testament to his character and mental strength.
For Whiteside, the highs are so frequently recalled that the lows are often overlooked. That stunning winner for Manchester United against Everton in the 1985 FA Cup final remains the enduring memory of a career cut short by a knee injury just six years later.
The Northern Irishman, who worked in medical diagnosis in later life, remains the youngest ever player to feature in a World Cup at the age of 17 years and 41 days. The man whose record he broke? Pele, of course.
The peroxide poacher with an eye for the spectacular, you only need to listen to the former West Ham striker discuss the game from the punditry box to identify his intelligence and insight. It’s a shame, then, that such characteristics were seldom seen on the pitch.
On the verge of his England debut in 2006, Ashton suffered a broken ankle in a challenge from Shaun Wright-Phillips. Despite maintaining an impressive goalscoring record for West Ham, the Crewe graduate eventually succumbed to the injury in 2009 and retired from football.
Marco Van Basten
Four time Serie A champion, two time European Cup winner, scorer of that volley against the Soviet Union in the Euro ’88 final; Van Basten remains one of the greatest strikers ever to play the game.
Lifting the Ballon D’Or three times in an era of bonafide greats, the Flying Dutchman’s retirement in 1995 at the age of 31 robbed the world of this truly sublime athlete. Tragically, a promising managerial career also appears to lie in tatters after stress-induced heart palpitations forced him to resign as coach of AZ just five games into the job.