Connor Wickham has faced more setbacks than most, but it hasn’t kept the Forest Green Rovers man down.
The striker, who has opened up about the mental struggles that he’s endured after being blighted by injuries throughout his career, is finally enjoying being back on the pitch, fighting fit in Sky Bet League One.
In November 2016, Wickham sustained a serious knee injury that would keep him out for almost two years, eventually making his comeback in October 2018 for Crystal Palace in the top flight.
More setbacks meant that Wickham was restricted to just 50 Palace outings in six seasons, and a fresh start at Sky Bet Championship side Preston North End ahead of the 2021/22 campaign only brought more bad luck.
Five minutes into the Lilywhites’ Carabao Cup tie against Cheltenham Town, Wickham was forced off with a significant hamstring injury that would require surgery, marking his last appearance in a Preston shirt – just two games into his stint at the Club.
“I suffered that injury at Preston and that honestly was probably one of the lowest points of my career,” he acknowledges. “Even after doing my ACL, the hamstring injury I got at Preston was one of the lowest points of my career, even mentally.
“That was probably more difficult to handle than my ACL and that’s probably down to the fact that before I’d done my ACL, I hadn’t really had any injuries that had been long-term.
“I’d been training at Preston for a few months before that game and had finally got to a place where I was fit, and then the carpet got pulled from under my feet five minutes into the game.”
Although there was an element of certainty to his ACL tear, it didn’t stop it from taking its toll on Wickham, who faced an extended period on the sidelines.
“When it happened, I knew straight away,” he explains. “I didn’t know that I’d done my ACL, but I knew it wasn’t good. In your head, you almost process that easier because you half know what it’s going to be and the timeframe; you can’t cheat an ACL or cut corners anywhere in that rehab.
“Mentally, I thought to myself it was going to be nine to 12 months and I can’t change it or sit and cry about it every day. You have to absorb those feelings and emotions when they come in, but it’s then how quickly you can change that.
“I did mine in the end of November when it was dark in the mornings and it’s getting dark early, so you’re going to training and getting in for eight o’clock when it’s not really light yet and then leaving at three o’clock and it’s already going dark and miserable. It’s not the easiest thing to keep that momentum and that mindset going for that long.”
Long before the injuries that would curtail his budding Premier League career, Wickham became Ipswich Town’s youngest-ever debutant when the promising youngster made his professional bow at the age of 16 years and 11 days in April 2009.
Receiving comparisons to the legendary Alan Shearer, the England youth international scooped the EFL’s Young Player of the Season and Championship Apprentice Award in 2011.
That summer, having scored 15 goals in 72 games as a Tractor Boy teenager, Wickham commanded the highest fee for an EFL player moving to a Premier League Club and broke Ipswich’s record for an outgoing transfer when Sunderland AFC swooped for his services for a reported £8m.
Now 29, he looks back on his early success with fondness and believes he’s still got plenty more to give.
“When I was 18 and picking up those awards, you’re almost naïve to what the future is going to hold,” he says. “I could’ve won those awards and completely disappeared off the scene – football can change overnight, so you’ve just got to take any opportunity as it comes really.
“All of a sudden, at Sunderland I was in a dressing room with the likes of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, who had won multiple Premier Leagues and had won the Champions League. Growing up, Fernando Torres was my hero and suddenly I was sharing a pitch playing against him.
"You can’t predict injuries and you never know how your career is going to pan out, but I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done. I’m proud of the career I’ve had and I still feel like I can potentially have another seven or eight years. I’ve still got the quality and the hunger to play at the highest level, I just need to get fit and show it.”
Wickham is now a senior figure in newly promoted Forest Green’s dressing room, having got the wheels in motion for his resurgence during the second half of last season at Milton Keynes Dons, helping them reach the League One Play-Offs.
Once he got back into his stride after overcoming his hurdles, the Hereford-born frontman didn’t want to stop there and his goalscoring form this campaign, with nine goals in all competitions to his name at the time of writing, silenced any doubts he might have had.
“I still feel like I’ve got so much to give, and I’m being given that opportunity now at Forest Green,” he adds. “Playing football is the most important thing and I’ve got that love back for the game.
“I’m enjoying every single day now that I go in and train and can look forward to matchdays to show what I can do again. I know my body inside out and I’m feeling really good now.
“I’m enjoying playing football and I’m back playing week in, week out on Saturdays and Tuesdays. I had people that were saying, ‘he’s not fit’ and ‘he can’t last this number of games’. Now, it feels like I’m starting to get back to my old self and scoring goals. My name is getting back in people’s mouths.”
This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.