Socceroos goalkeeper Danny Vukovic has opened up about his marathon injury fightback and motivations after making his return to the training pitch with Belgian club side KRC Genk.
The 34-year-old shot-stopper has endured a gut-wrenching seven months after rupturing his achilles tendon in routine a gym session just days after helping his side to a season-opening win in the Belgian Pro League in July.
The timing could not have been worse for Vukovic, with the two-time Hyundai A-League Premiership winner in career-best form in the 2018/19 season as he helped Genk to their first title in eight years and was eyeing the club’s UEFA Champions League tilt.
He conceded just 108 goals in 98 appearances for his club after signing on in 2017 and kept an impressive 14 clean sheet in 37 league games to help Blauw-Wit to the league title.
However, after applying his renowned work ethic to his recovery, Vukovic says he is forging ahead as he plots his return to competitive football.
“Monday was my first full team session back after six-and-a-half-months out with an Achilles rupture so it was amazing to get back on to the pitch, make some saves and not be in the gym,” Vukovic revealed to Socceroos.com.au.
“I’ve been in the gym for four months doing my rehab so it’s nice to get out there with the boys.”
He added: “For me, this is my first major injury. I’ve been really lucky over the course of my career and picked up a few niggly injuries but never missed much football.”
“I think prior to this I’d probably missed three or four games – five at most – through injury, so I’ve been really lucky but it’s a big shock to the system to miss out on so much football.”
As such, Vukovic admits he had more than just the physical effects of the injury to contend with as he plotted his recovery, including tackling the range of emotions he hadn’t previously experienced on the comeback trail.
“I think the biggest challenge was the mental side of it, due to the fact I ruptured it in the gym doing exercises that I normally do on a daily basis.”
“Then when it came to new things when I really sort of had to test the Achilles again, there’s something in the back of my mind holding me back and I also had to push through those negative feelings and trust that the tendon was strong enough to handle it.”
He added: “It’s a little bit of a rollercoaster in terms of how you progress. It’s really slow early on.”
I wasn’t able to walk for the first eight to nine weeks and then once I was back on my feet, and training, there would be weeks where I’d feel amazing and other weeks where I didn’t feel so great.”
However, Vukovic said he has sought to find ways to channel his competitiveness while on the sidelines and remained heavily involved in Genk's team environment as they tackled the likes of Liverpool and Napoli SC in the Champions League.
"We worked so hard last season, the big prize was of course the Championship but also qualification for Champions League. I wanted so badly to play in that and I was looking forward to that so much, but you can never predict things like what I’ve gone through.
He added: "It’s not the most enjoyable experience watching games and not being able to help the team and influence the game.
"Especially the big games that you miss out on, of course the UCL ones but there’s some massive games that we’ve played in the league as well, that’s difficult.
"I want to also be there and support my teammates, if I can help out before and after the game with motivating the team then that’s the role I’ll take within the club."
Vukovic also explained that he has benefitted by opening up through social media about his injury recovery, with a number of his Socceroos teammates keeping close tabs on his posts.
“I put up a lot of videos online tracking my recovery, I do it not only for people to see but other people who are going through similar injuries to show they can get through it themselves,” he said.
“The [Socceroos] boys were sending me messages right throughout encouraging me and I’m looking forward to getting back out there, so I thank them a lot for their messages.”
Vukovic has also previously been endearingly candid about the joys and challenges he finds through family after revealing his son, Harley, was battling the liver condition biliary atresia in 2017.
He cited the support of his wife, Kristy, through his recovery – and two months in Australia away from the Belgian cold weather with family and friends – were an irreplaceable part of his journey back to fitness.
“My wife and my son were amazing, I really had to rely on my wife in particular in the early weeks,” Vukovic said.
“She was looking after my son and she had to look after me as well – she pulled through for me, she was a huge support for me in that time.”
Despite not yet marking in a date for his competitive return, Vukovic is turning his mind to what’s ahead of him at Genk and also with the Socceroos – including the national team’s first ever appearance in the Copa America later this year and crucial qualifiers on the road to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“I don’t think it’s too far away, now I’m back in full training and feeling good so that’s the next port of call, to get some game time into the body and get that game fitness back up," he said.
“There’s a lot of things to look forward to, not only for club but for country as well.
“I definitely want to be a part of what’s to come with the Socceroos World Cup Qualifiers and Copa America at the end of the season.
“[There are] some amazing experiences we get to have with the national team, and I want to make sure I’m a part of it."
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