Football is a game of fine margins whether it’s results on the pitch or successes off it. The difference between a successful and unsuccessful career for a player is most often a culmination of a variety of factors like luck, form, injuries and other professional setbacks. While it’s taken for granted that these obstacles in one’s professional path must be overcome through hard work and determination, the effect that some setbacks can have on players has been understated in today’s era of excess information and moderate empathy.
As the deification of athletes continues, we seem to forget that these individuals too are humans with the same emotions, insecurities and dreams like most of us. For footballers, there is no lonelier place on earth than the dreaded treatment table. Injuries, of course, have a massive bearing on how a player’s career pans out. Some manage to find their old spark after returning from injury, while others’ search to rediscover their former glory is never realised again following that one twist of fate that sidelined them in the first place. Here, we have a look at some promising careers that were short by injuries.
By the time he was 23, former frontman Dean Ashton had risen through England’s football pyramid and established himself as a Premier League striker for West Ham United. A natural goal-scorer, Ashton had the world at his feet. Technically adept and good aerially as well, Ashton bagging loads of goals seemed a forgone conclusion.
Dean Ashton on this bicycle kick he scored in Mark Noble's testimonial: "What’s funny is if you asked me to do an overhead kick now, I could do it so easily. I practised it throughout my career. It just looks funnier when you’re three-stone overweight.” pic.twitter.com/25IFSj1j3J— Natter Football (@NATTERFOOTBALL) April 16, 2020
However, all that changed a day before his England debut when a tackle from Shaun Wright-Phillips in training shattered his left ankle. He did manage a few more professional appearances after that career-defining injury but retired by the end of 2009 at the age of 26. His wondergoal during Mark Noble’s testimonial for West Ham a few years later further demonstrates what could have been had Ashton managed to stay injury-free.
At first glance, having a Ballon d'Or winner on this list might seem odd, but one can’t help but feel that Michael Owen could have achieved so much more if it weren’t for injuries. After bursting on to the Premier League and England’s senior squad as a prodigious teenager, Owen looked destined to lead the line for decades to come for the Three Lions.
A hamstring injury away at Leeds United, though, marked the beginning of his gradual decline at the top level. After his transfer from Liverpool, Owen played for the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Newcastle United. Besides his achievements with Liverpool, Owen did win some trophies with the Red Devils, including the Premier League, but gone were his days of leaving defenders on their heels. His compromised hamstrings meant that Owen called time on his career in 2013 after spending his last season with Stoke City.
A fan-favourite and one of Manchester United’s go-to men in the 1980s before the Sir Alex Ferguson era, Norman Whiteside is a name that will bring back fond memories for any United fan. A product of United’s famed youth academy, he made his debut for the club in 1982 as their youngest first-team player since Duncan Edwards in 1953 and was integral to the Red Devils for the next six seasons, playing a crucial role in two FA Cup triumphs in that time.
Still the youngest player to appear at a football World Cup, the former Northern Ireland midfielder’s time at United came to an end when Ferguson decided to sell him to Everton in 1989. It was an unpopular decision with the fans at the time but Ferguson was vindicated after Whiteside decided to hang up his boots just three years later to bring an end to a career riddled with knee and pelvis problems.
Marco van Basten
The fact that only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo can lay claim to more Ballons d’Or than Marco van Basten’s three is proof enough of his greatness. Add to that the fact that he retired with knee issues aged just 28 and one can’t help but wonder: What could have been? Clinical in and around the box, van Basten knew his way to goal unlike any contemporary during his time.
Even though his career was brief, he won three Eredivisie titles with Ajax, three Serie As and two European Cups with AC Milan as well as a European Championship with the Netherlands. Known for his trademark volleys and unerring finishes, the rough treatment meted out to him by defenders didn’t aid his injury troubles and eventually led to a change in football laws that made tackles from behind or with studs showing punishable by a straight red card.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Andrew Yates