Farid El Alagui explained how a couple of tiny metal screws that were meant to aid his cause have been at the root of the latest frustrating lay-off of his disrupted Hibs career.
After almost seven months out with an Achilles injury, the striker thought he was back in business when he returned to action in March and featured regularly for Hibs in the closing two months of last season. Having started in a Scottish Cup semi-final against Falkirk and scored in an Edinburgh derby win over Hearts during this period, the 30-year-old was entitled to look forward to his second season at Easter Road with renewed optimism.
A minor, optional “tidy-up” knee operation at the end of May – not related to his Achilles injury – proved routine enough and he was able to join in pre-season training. However, as he tried to get up to speed with his colleagues, El Alagui soon detected that the screws in his Achilles area, which had been fitted when he underwent his original operation last year, were proving to be more of a hindrance than a help. He could have ploughed on and kept the screws in, but decided he wanted them removed in order to allow him to operate at 100 per cent. The Bordeaux-born Moroccan didn’t bargain, however, on the process ruling him out for the first third of the season.
“When I came back at the end of last season, my Achilles injury was fine,” he told the Evening News. “My knee was giving me a little bit of pain so I had a little clean-up in May but it was a light operation and it was nothing that was going to cause me any problem. That was never a concern. I didn’t have to have that surgery but I wanted to make sure I was fine for coming back for pre-season.
“Then when I came back from that, I had to get two screws in my Achilles taken out in July. I was meant to see how I was reacting with the screws inside. We could have left them in but I had a chat with the surgeon and told him that when I came back last season they were causing me a bit of discomfort and irritation in that area. He then told me to take a bit of a rest but when I came back training in July, after the knee op, it was still the same so we decided to take them out. I could feel the screws inside me – I think it was just a case of my body not liking them. I didn’t like it as it was stopping me being properly at 100 per cent.
“I didn’t know at the time how long it would take me to recover from having them removed. I thought it would be quicker. It was very annoying because I just had to wait until the wound healed and wasn’t able to do much recovery work. It felt like I was just wasting my time at the start, and then you have to go through the whole process again of strengthening your legs and getting your fitness back. That’s always going to be a long process. Thankfully it’s all fine now.”
El Alagui made his first appearance of the season as a late substitute in last week’s League Cup victory over Dundee United. He explained how memories of scoring the second goal in the 2-0 win at home to Hearts in April had helped keep his spirits throughout his latest stint without first-team football, a run which, including the close-season, stretched to more than five months.
“To come back from injury and score in a win against Hearts is all anyone who plays for Hibs could ask for,” he said. “When you get that feeling, it makes all the hard days in rehab feel worthwhile and reminds you why you do it. I hoped at that point that that was me back and ready to kick on. It was a great feeling.
“The fact I came back after six months, which was quite early for my type of injury, and scored against Hearts was reassuring for me. It meant that when I was out for the start of this season, I was able to remind myself that it wasn’t that long ago that I was playing. It helps you stay focused on doing the right things in your rehab because you know what you’ve got to do to get back scoring goals.”
El Alagui admits the past year and a bit have been mentally testing, but he insists he has never contemplated hanging up his boots. “You’re obviously worried and concerned when you have a big Achilles injury but I’ve never thought I would have to quit football,” he said. “You try not to think along those lines. You just try to focus on seeing day-to-day improvements and that was the case for me.
“It’s tough mentally. You always think as a footballer that you’ve had the worst injury, but this one has been quite nasty. It’s tough at times to keep your head up. You see good improvement at the start, which keeps you going, but it can become a real slow process towards the end and that’s when you get a bit frustrated. I think I am naturally quite an upbeat person so that has helped me.
“It also helps that the dressing-room has been very happy because the team has been doing well. From the sidelines, you can see just how well the the lads are playing. It seems like we’re just getting stronger and stronger, and it’s amazing to see. You want to play straight away when you come back, but the lads are flying at the moment so that pushes you to get yourself to 100 per cent. You know you need to get to that level to get yourself in the team.”
El Alagui has returned to fitness at a time when fellow strikers James Keatings, Jason Cummings and Dominique Malonga are earning rave reviews for Hibs, and Islam Feruz and Henri Anier are also waiting in the wings. The former Falkirk and Brentford forward knows he faces a battle to get into the starting XI but is embracing the competition for places that he believes is fundamental to his team’s scintillating form.
“From the moment I signed for Hibs, it was always going to be the case that I would have to fight for a place in the team,” said El Alagui. “We wanted to get promoted last year but when we lost in the play-off to Rangers we knew we were going to strengthen the team again to make sure we had a better chance this year. If you want to go up, you need that competition in every single position – defence, midfield and up front. We have that. If you look at our bench at times it’s ridiculous! We have guys on the bench who could easily be starting every week, but that’s what the manager has wanted right from the start.
“The strikers are flying, but I just have to make sure I’m ready when I’m needed. I think the strikers have raised their game because of the extra competition this season. If I was in the team that would be in my mind. That’s what is keeping the team going because people know that if they drop the standard, they might not play in the next game. Without the level of competition for places I don’t think we would be on a 13-game unbeaten run.
“The standard has increased naturally. The guys who are not playing are still playing their part because those who are playing know they have to be on their toes. It keeps training intense as well as everyone wants to play. I was interested when I came back to see how it would be, but some of the things you see [on the training ground] are really impressive. Without this level of competition it would not be so intense.”