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The Irish midfielder who promptly went from playing in the Premier League to being bedbound and 'lonely'

Will Smallbone is ready to compete again after an ACL injury put him out of action for almost a year.

Will Smallbone pictured at an Ireland U21 press conference.
Will Smallbone pictured at an Ireland U21 press conference.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Nov 12th 2021, 8:26 AM

THERE IS no doubting Will Smallbone’s talent.

“Everybody knows what a potential player he is,” Irish U21 boss Jim Crawford said recently. “Southampton think extremely highly of him and so do we.”

At 21, Smallbone already has 12 Premier League appearances to his name.

That tally would certainly be higher were it not for a major setback he has just overcome.

Last January, playing against Leicester, Smallbone suffered an ACL injury that ended his season prematurely and kept him out of action until recently.

“I remember just the ball going to the full-back, I think it was [Timothy] Castagne,” he recalls. “I then went to press. My foot just got caught and as he went to pass it down the line, he just passed through my knee basically.

“At the time, I didn’t think it was too bad. I got back up and tried to play on for five minutes or so. The doc took me off and then the next day, to get the news [was awful] from the scan that it was an ACL and meniscus, so I’d be out for so long. It was obviously such a tough time and a tough bit of news to hear. Ever since that day, I had to focus on getting back to playing.”

He continues: “There’s never a good time to do an ACL but it was obviously quite a bad time for me in terms of getting back in the team but now my focus is just to get back to the level I was before. To keep pushing at Southampton and internationally to get into the squads.

“From me not realising how serious it would be from when I did it that night to the next day — when everyone hears ACL, it’s like 6-9 months or whatever it is. I think that was probably the toughest bit and after my surgery from the week or two before, being able to just play football freely to after that bedbound as such, on crutches, not being able to do much myself is probably the lowest point of the injury and the toughest point.

“It’s six weeks where I can’t put any weight on my foot. They were quite tough times, on crutches and I can’t do anything for myself. 

“I couldn’t do anything with my crutches. At the start, I just had to lay on the sofa and I had to ask my mum and my girlfriend to go and get stuff for me.”

Smallbone spent that initial period playing Playstation, watching Premier League games on TV and completing the ‘Prison Break’ boxset, before he was allowed to go back to Southampton and do some light rehab after a few weeks.

Ireland U21 boss Jim Crawford would call every so often to check in on his progress, but Smallbone didn’t always have much in the way of company.

“Especially those few weeks where I can’t do much, it’s very lonely. I’m at my house but luckily my mum and girlfriend were with me most of the time, so they were very good in that sense and then there are a few lonely sessions in the training ground where it’s just you and a S + C [strength and conditioning] coach. But ever since it happened, the goal was to get back playing football. Those are the bits in those lonely sessions that you need to remember. Everything is just going to help you and each day is a day closer to getting back.”

Theo Walcott and Danny Ings, both Southampton players at the time, gave him advice on how to deal with the injury, which they had each suffered in the past.

Saints boss Ralph Hasenhüttl was similarly supportive.

“As soon as I did it, he called me into his office to tell me that they’d wait for me and they’d be there for me and everything I needed during the rehab process.”

It was around September that Smallbone was back training with teammates, though he admits to feeling somewhat apprehensive initially.

“In my first few sessions, I was a bit wary in terms of tackling. So that was a mental barrier that I had to get over in probably about six weeks ago or whatever — to go into a tackle and just feel nothing. So once I got the first one out of the way, everything just went smoothly from there. 

“It was a good feeling, to be honest. That was probably the bit in my rehab that I had, not spoken of, but was most tentative about. Because obviously where I did it in the tackle, to then go back into tackling was probably the biggest bit mentally that I needed to get over. Once I got through that barrier, it was not relief as such, but it was in a way that I felt fine and I can trust my knee now, just trying to get back to playing as normal as possible.”

Smallbone has yet to play in the Premier League since the injury but made his long-awaited first-team return when he came off the bench in the EFL Cup last month.

It proved a bittersweet night though, as the joy of being back on the pitch was tempered by Smallbone missing a penalty as they were beaten by Chelsea in a shootout.

“The whole goal I would have taken from January was to be back on the pitch. And to do it by October was obviously a very big plus for me. I think in the game, I spoke to the manager and he thought I did well, and then obviously the penalty at the end of it is the bittersweet bit but in terms of the long run, it’s very good for me to be back on the pitch and back in the manager’s plans in the first team.

“[Ralph has been] very good with me in terms of reassurance and telling me when he wants me to play for the B team or 23s to get minutes, that’s all-important for me and there will be the games there for me this season.

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“And after the Chelsea game, he was very good obviously with the penalty miss. He told me not to worry about it. Six months ago, I’d have been dying to get on the pitch. The fact that I’m there and did well in his eyes was a big positive.”

Another significant step in Smallbone’s recovery process has been his inclusion in the latest Ireland U21 squad, ahead of crucial upcoming qualifiers against Italy and Sweden at Tallaght Stadium.

“I’ve got quite a few minutes now with the B team at Saints and I’ve had that taste in the cup game against Chelsea and obviously now, coming here with Ireland [is important]. This block by the end of these two weeks will probably be my biggest and best block in terms of my rehab from injury. It’ll allow me to come back in after the international break with a lot of games under my belt. I’m looking forward to Christmas and trying to get back in the first-team squad. 

“These games have come at a fantastic time for me in terms of being able to play against two high-calibre oppositions, which can only help me go back to Southampton and try to get back into the starting XI.”

jim-crawford Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

His manager Crawford, meanwhile, believes he can have a positive impact in the coming days.

“The games I’ve seen over the last month, he’s shown enough that he should be here. He showed a hell of a lot of qualities, whether it’s his passing, his workrate. We knew from the outset that it would have been the November window that he would come back. We had it planned that he would come back.

“With the last window, I asked him to come in and train but they had in-house friendly games for him so that was the best option, rather than coming into us to train.

“That type of injury, depending on the player’s character, the key people around him, the environment, it could have many effects. It could be negative, where they lose focus, or it could have a positive effect to say ‘OK now that I’ve gone without football for so long, I realise how much I miss it. What do I have to do to get better?’

“He had those conversations every day with the right people in the club. Okay, he’s still a little bit of growing to do with regards to his upper body. I’m sure he’s worked on that during that time and he does have a programme going forward. But we can only judge things by our eyes and in training, he’s been excellent. He’s in a good place football-wise.”

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