The Inspirations of 2016/17: Five Players Who Overcame Adversity

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N’Golo Kanté, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez, Zlatan Ibrahimović and Harry Kane are the six nominees to take the PFA Player of the Year honours at the end of the season and they deserve all the recognition they get after putting together excellent seasons.
Yet there are several other players who deserve just as much praise for the way they have battled back from injury and illness to help their clubs. Five of them and their accomplishments are discussed right here.
1) Ashley Barnes

Burnley have not had much luck when it comes to the health of their players’ cruciate ligaments and in May 2015 Ashley Barnes became the latest to seriously injury his knee, following Sam Vokes, Kevin Long and Dean Marney. He didn’t return until the following April, when he helped Burnley wrap up promotion with a few substitute appearances, starting just once.

Then, the injury gods played their latest cruel trick. As he spent the summer preparing for the Premier League with Burnley, he suffered a significant hamstring injury in a friendly match. It wasn’t until October 29th, 2016, that he finally returned, ending what he himself called “17 months of injury hell”.

Since then, he has done excellently and has featured in every league game bar one – which was due to suspension. A five-goal return is not to be smirked at, the highlight of which was his excellent winner against Crystal Palace in his second appearance since returning, one he labelled “one of the most special goals I’ve scored” due to the all the hard behind-the-scenes work that had gone into it.

2) Darren Fletcher

West Brom captain Darren Fletcher has started all 86 of the Premier League matches the Baggies have played since he joined from Manchester United in the 2014/15 winter transfer window. That in itself is an impressive feat – especially as he’ll likely finish this season having been in all 38 lineups given that he has zero yellow cards and isn’t at risk of suspension – but making it even more inspiring is the fact that Fletcher’s career was in serious jeopardy just a few years ago.

As a result of the bowel condition ulcerative colitis, the Scot had to have intestinal surgery in January of 2013 after two and a half years of well-documented trauma, yet he kept fighting when many would have given up and considered walking away from the game, content with 12 Manchester United medals. “I always thought I would get back, which was maybe stubbornness,” he later told the Daily Mail.

Now he is leading the Baggies towards the top eight, which would be their joint-highest Premier League finish ever and his individual accomplishments cannot be overstated.

3) Luke Shaw

Jose Mourinho’s very public criticism of Luke Shaw in recent weeks was all the more disheartening given the injury nightmare the 21-year-old has been through in the past year and a half. While Shaw may be underperforming in his coach’s mind, he deserves a pass.

Having seen his leg shattered in Eindhoven in September 2015, Shaw’s 2015/16 season was ended before it had really got going and he worked tirelessly in order to return in time for the start of the following campaign, even giving up his summer holiday to continue his rehab. Upon his return, Mourinho was actually impressed with Shaw’s performance. “I was expecting him to start pre-season and have some limitations,” he told MUTV. “The limitations are a little bit of weight and a little lack of sharpness, but the physical point of view is good and, more than that, the mental point of view is good.”

Yet Mourinho soon turned on Shaw, who suffered further injury misfortune with a groin issue. Despite battling through that he still found it difficult to live up to Mourinho’s expectations, but the Englishman has never given up and has promised to “fight to the last second”. That defiance in the face of so much hardship is certainly inspirational.

4) Victor Valdés

Having spent his childhood and his whole career at Barcelona, Victor Valdés decided he wanted to test himself away from the Camp Nou and announced in good time that he’d be letting his contract run out in the summer of 2014. Immediately, a whole host of Champions League clubs were linked with the Catalan and you’d have gotten life-changing odds on him ending up at Middlesbrough.

Yet that is exactly what happened. A cruciate ligament injury brought his Barcelona career to a premature end in March of 2014, after which he was offered the chance to complete his rehabilitation at Manchester United, eventually earning a contract with the Red Devils. One falling out with Louis van Gaal and just two appearances later, he was loaned to Standard Liège, before being brought to Riverside last summer.

Handed a second chance by Aitor Karanka, the 35-year-old has thrived and has been one of the best goalkeepers in the country this season. If Boro do drop down to the Championship, it will be in spite of Valdés’ efforts beneath the posts, not because of them. He has racked up eight clean sheets and helped Middlesbrough earn the sixth best defensive record in the division, a comeback which is heartwarming to see.

5) Vincent Kompany

It is nothing new for Vincent Kompany to be suffering from injury and it is nothing new to see him battle his way back onto the pitch, but that doesn’t make the Belgian’s story any less inspiring. He netted his first goal in nearly two years against Southampton last weekend, at the same time as his presence boosted Manchester City’s defensive solidity. However, it had taken a tremendous amount of perseverance for him to do so.

“If I had to work 15 years for one moment like this I would do it,” the centre-back said after that victory, pointing to the way he has busted a gut to overcome a month-long groin strain, a month-and-a-half-long knee injury and a several-week-long leg injury. He has made just eight appearances this season, but the captain knows that every one of them counts and that is why he gave his all to make himself available.

Euan McTear is a Glaswegian football journalist and author, who focuses on the game in Scotland, England and Spain. He has written for the likes of Marca, CNN, The Guardian, The Herald, These Football Times and Eurosport and is the author of the book 'Eibar the Brave'.

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