Vincent Kompany has to overcome stigma as well as actual injuries
Just under two years ago, I was sat in a Leeds hospital waiting to learn the extent of another injury, this time it was to my knee. The routine was familiar: MRI scans, wait, then a discussion with the consultant to hear the diagnosis. In the same waiting room that afternoon sat the brooding figure of Vincent Kompany, who wore an expression which has become more familiar than his colossal displays at the heart of Manchester City's defence: despondency, indignation and frustration.
A few days earlier the reoccurrence of a hamstring injury had led to his withdrawal at half-time in City's 4-2 loss against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Since that day, in April 2015, the Belgian has started just 15 Premier League games. In total, 36 separate injuries (to his hamstring, groin, knee, thigh, and calf) have caused Kompany to miss nearly three of the eight-and-a-half years he has been at the Etihad.
Throughout those travails the return of City's captain and leader has always felt like a matter of urgency. But there has been a shift in the landscape, it seems.
Kompany is fit and available, yet for City's last five games Pep Guardiola has overlooked him for a place in their matchday squad. That decision, along with his omission from Roberto Martinez's Belgium squad, may have been grounded in prudence, but the truth is he can no longer be relied upon.
Kompany's torment has been relentless. Enduring such a cycle of injury, recovery and relapse makes it hard to try to remember the days before the rigours of football had taken their toll. But there was such a time.
As a young professional I remember looking at players on the treatment table with their strains and pulls; ankles that needed strapped up every morning before training; the hernias; torn cartilage; ligament damage -- ailments I knew nothing of other than by name, and all the while wondering what was wrong with them.
Then, a few weeks before my 20th birthday, in a game against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, I had to race a young Wayne Routledge to a ball played in behind our defence. Ping! It felt like a bullet in the back of my leg. My first injury, the fabled pulled hamstring, struck with the immediate realisation that, out of nowhere, my body could fail me too. All of a sudden I was the guy on the treatment table, players buzzing around about me. It was a shock.
Humans are a complicated bag of muscle, sinew and bone and every injury leaves a weakness or imbalance, perhaps not in the same place, or limb, even. It's like when you fix a hole in the ceiling then another crack suddenly appears. When I was recovering from a broken leg, tendonitis (a burning, stabbing pain) appeared in my knee on the other leg because I was overcompensating when I ran. Then, after a year out, I returned to action for just a few months before rupturing my Achilles tendon: another nine months of toil lay in store.
We often ignore the signs the body sends our way, so desperate are we to play, to win and do well for our team. If you are less than 100 percent and are asked if you can play, invariably you will take the risk. As foolish as it may sound, anyone who doesn't is frowned upon. I played in a playoff final at Wembley with that injured knee I mentioned; the manager and I were willing to take the risk, but in the 72nd minute my game was over, the damage was done again.
For those who seem to be on an endless recovery program, each comeback requires greater resolve: The long hours of rehab, the pain, the doubts, the trips to see specialist after specialist, each as confident as the last he can heal you with consummate ease. It's arduous, monotonous, but unavoidable.
Strangely, perhaps, the worst part can be the mental side. The question marks begin to hover above your head: supporters, the media, coaches, teammates even -- perceiving a weakness you don't want to recognise and can't do anything about. The recurring questions: "What's wrong with you this time?"; "When are you back?" -- often with a look of bewilderment married with pity.
Some think being injured gives you an easy ride, or that you'll be consoled by the size of your pay packet. But battling your own body is a greater challenge than any offered by an opponent.
One way to try and stay strong is to work towards a goal, a date or a milestone in your mind. But for someone like Kompany, who has had to endure so many false dawns, those must start to feel hollow.
As the season draws to a close, Kompany's future is in the balance, both at Manchester City and beyond: reliant on the integrity of his body and the patience of others. Guardiola's squad will undergo a major facelift this summer, especially in defence, but the fear is that the defender's body will let him down again; that Guardiola and City won't trust him to stay fit.
If he can't overcome his latest obstacle -- the perception of his fitness, rather than his actual fitness, then he might be left with nothing left to fight for.
Gregor is a former professional footballer who played over 300 games in the English Football League. Twitter: @GregorRoberts0n.