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MICAH RICHARDS: Virgil van Dijk will bounce back from injury to become world's best defender again

Published on: 27 October 2020

Pain will not have been Virgil van Dijk’s biggest enemy this week. Whatever discomfort he has felt in the days since his cruciate ligament tore, he will have found a way to manage it.

Medical departments can work wonders to ensure you don’t physically suffer immediately after a big injury but they cannot help with the worries that cloud your mind or answer the questions that began to swirl around your head. Nobody can.

My heart is with Van Dijk. I’d like to think I’m enthusiastic about almost all areas of football but the moment I have to discuss a long-term injury, I find myself heading into a different zone. I was in the place where Van Dijk is now too often during my career. There is nowhere lonelier.

As soon as I saw the challenge from Jordan Pickford, I knew that would effectively be it for his season. I want to make it clear I don’t believe there was any malice from Jordan, who is such an enthusiastic guy and plays with that enthusiasm. But his form has been erratic and the challenge could have been prevented.

Now Van Dijk is being robbed of six to eight months of his career, when he was at the peak of his powers. When you are not responsible for the injury you have suffered, it is difficult to explain the levels of frustration you feel.

All week the leader of Liverpool’s defence will have been asking himself questions: will I be the same again? What happens if I don’t get back? Is someone going to come in and take my place? He was in the top three of the Ballon d’Or last December, many will wonder if he can recapture those levels.

I understand it all. It’s almost eight years to the day since my knee locked during a routine game for Manchester City against Swansea. I’d only just returned from three months out with an ankle injury I’d sustained at the Olympics but what happened on October 27, 2012 changed everything for me.

The medics called it a “mechanical block”. After numerous injuries and surgeries from the age of 21, my knee eventually locked because of an issue with my lateral meniscus, getting stuck in between bones. I literally couldn’t straighten my leg.

To get it back in position, I needed gas and air for the pain – the worst pain I have ever felt.

It led to seven months on the sidelines and more surgery. Everyone saw me in our dressing room as the joker, the guy who could always lift spirits. I tried to keep a brave face on being out all around the lads but, privately, the torment of not being able to play football was unreal.

Nothing presents a bigger challenge than the mental part of your rehabilitation. Roberto Mancini, my manager at the time, made a joke about my absence one day, calling me 'Swarovski' – the implication was that I was as fragile as crystal.

I love Mancini and I laughed it off but it burnt me inside, as I knew it would give the outside world a perception.

There are so many hurdles you have to overcome on the way back and it is the physios who help you across them. They become your confidantes, you speak to them when you don’t want to speak to anyone else, when you can’t even face speaking to your own family because of the frustration.

Craig Yuill and Paul Kelly were huge for me at Manchester City, as was John Hartley at Aston Villa. I know that Van Dijk will be in safe hands at Liverpool, however, as Lee Nobes – their head physio – was there for me every step of the way in Manchester.

Lee did everything with me on my rehabilitation. If there was running to do or gym work, Lee did every single session and put himself through the pain barrier. The idea that someone is prepared to go to those lengths, to help you get to where you want to be, is a huge lift.

Put it this way, to have been headhunted from Manchester City by Liverpool, it gives you an idea of where Lee ranks in his particular field and Van Dijk will not fail for support.

You know, there is an argument to say that he might even come back a better player. Everyone knows there is nobody better but his reputation will only increase during the time he is out, as we’ll all remember the outstanding form he has produced and want to see him do it again.

He will eat right, he will do everything right on the long road back, from making sure that the muscles around his knees are three times stronger than they were before. Yes, there will be difficult days but he will be better person for overcoming it, as he’ll appreciate everything he had before.

It’s why I am confident Van Dijk will emerge stronger from this adversity – and why I truly believe he will get back to being the best in the world.

A word of warning for Greenwood

I was concerned to see stories this week about Mason Greenwood being told off for his time-keeping by Manchester United. I know Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said there wasn’t a problem at his press conference on Friday and I do hope that is the case.

Mason is at one of the best clubs in the world and his emergence has excited us all. He looks like he could be an England player for 10 years but that does not mean he does not need advice to help him on his way.

Playing for United comes with huge responsibility. I know it is hard for young lads now, with all the scrutiny they get on social media, but Mason needs to appreciate that his career is short and he doesn’t want to reach 30 and regret any of the decisions he made along the way.

There are things I constantly look back at and wish I had done them differently. He needs an arm around his shoulder now and he needs to get back into United’s team. He hasn’t kicked a ball since October 4 and we want to see him scoring again.

No stopping Rashford in his inspirational fight

Marcus Rashford, you are an inspiration. Society has always looked for footballers to be role models and what Marcus is doing is not just inspiring kids, it is inspiring the whole country. He is absolutely magnificent.

I don’t want to get into politics but I will simply say that his determination, the way he keeps going and going, is astonishing. Maybe people thought he would dial things down after he received his MBE but, really, he is even more determined to help those who are struggling.

He is growing in stature off the pitch and his performances on the pitch are similarly striking. I used to be critical of him for not scoring enough goals but his finish in Paris on Tuesday was outstanding and he’s heading in the direction of being described as ‘world-class’.

Manchester United are playing better now and Rashford has become the talisman for them. It has been a positive week for the club, in the main, and it is all because of him. What a guy he is.


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