Whilst most players accept injury as something of an occupational hazard, few would be as bold as Joe Oastler and see it as beneficial to their long-term career.
The 24 year-old defender is currently beginning his rehabilitation from major ankle surgery, to repair a ruptured peroneal tendon and reconstruct torn lateral ligaments which initially threatened to end his career.
However, after missing the final month of the season following an aggravation of the injury against Welling United in February, he now admits: “It was a blessing in disguise. I’d been wearing an ankle brace for over a year, and it had worked really well, but I felt something go again and it got to the point where the brace wasn’t going to work anymore. I’d probably still be wearing the brace now if I hadn’t made that tackle against Welling.”
Part of the surgery involved taking a graft from his hamstring, which is now attached to the ankle tendon, and Joe recognises the importance of the surgery. “In the first meeting that I had, I was told that it could be career-threatening. It wasn’t good, and the brace literally saved me. It’s a big operation, but everybody has been brilliant in every way. Now I’m hoping to come back 100% fit rather than the 70% which I have been for the past year.”
Along with the Club’s Board of Directors and Head of Medical and Sports Science, Russ Clash, Oastler is quick to also credit his surgeon, James Calder, who specialises in foot and ankle surgery at the renowned Lister Hospital in West London. After a further consultation last week, Joe is pleased to report: “He achieved everything that he wanted, and was really impressed with how it looks. The cuts are clean, which is good because you don’t want to get an infection, and I’m in a boot now which is 50% weight-bearing. In two weeks’ time I’ll come off the crutches, and I’m looking forward to starting my rehab work.”
Essentially, Joe’s pre-season has started in May – when other players are either still embroiled in promotion and relegation issues or on their summer holidays – but it is a challenge he is relishing. “It’s been three weeks of doing nothing,” he recounts rather wearily, “apart from some upper-body work to keep myself ticking over as much as possible. I’ve had to stay off the foot to let everything heal but I’m doing as much fitness work as I can now, in the gym.
“My real pre-season, in July, will be different, without all the running, but I’ll be working just as hard in other departments to get myself right. It’ll be boring but I have to do it properly and I’ll be working tirelessly. You’ve got to be strong mentally and I think I am.”
Calder’s initial prognosis was six months, giving Joe an October target to return to competitive action. “It was a good time to have the operation, over the summer, and even though I’ll miss the start of the season I want to be back 100% to repay the Club and do myself justice. I can’t afford to risk coming back too early and we’ve all agreed that it’s got to be the right time. The Club have backed me fully, and I’m very lucky for that.”
Oastler spoke to Barry Smith on the day of his appointment, and that conversation has only served to increase Joe’s eagerness to return. “He was very good to me. I’m thoroughly looking forward to working with him. He’s done very well at his previous clubs,” he observes, before suggesting that the former Dundee manager is the ideal man to address one particular failing which Joe feels has dogged the side in his two seasons at the Club. “We need to be mentally stronger. On the whole we’ve done reasonably well against the better sides, but it’s going to places like Nuneaton where you have to stand up and be counted.
“After speaking to Barry, he definitely seems like the sort of manager who will make us stronger mentally. We’ve got to pick up more points from the so-called lesser teams away from home. The workrate and the effort has always been there, we just need to make sure that we do it in the right areas. If we can be a bit more organised, I’m sure we’ll do really well.”
Does he share the ambitions of making a push towards the top six? “We’ve got to be aiming for the Play-Offs, because this Club has under-achieved in the last two years,” is his bullish statement. “We had a good cup run and we should have kicked on. Now we’ll toughen up and really kick-on to get the Club into the Play-Offs.”
A lot of hard work stands between the two-time Players Player of the Year Award winner and any such success, but it will spur him on through a tough summer. “I’ve not stopped thinking about next season – ever since I walked into the hospital my focus has been solely on getting back playing as soon as possible,” he concludes. “I’m really looking forward to getting back out there but I’m not getting ahead of myself. There’s still a long road ahead but it’s one that I’m looking forward to. It’ll all be worth it when I’m fit.”