Hearts may not have got the result they were after against Ross County on Saturday, but, on a personal level at least, Aidan White certainly did.
More than two-and-a-half years of physical and mental torment were banished as the 27-year-old came through his first competitive match since playing for Barnsley in a 1-0 win away to Yorkshire rivals Rotherham United way back in January 2017. At various points in the intervening 31 months, White had faced up to the possibility that he may have to retire prematurely from the game he loves as medics struggled to get to the bottom of a problem with his hip and groin on his left side which first flared up in spring 2016.
Four operations later, and having shown the resilience to come through a gruelling period of career-halting adversity, White can now look ahead to what should be his peak years boosted by the knowledge that his body is still, after all the doubts and demoralising setbacks, up to the rigours of playing 90 minutes of professional football.
“It was amazing to get through it on Saturday,” White told the Evening News in his first interview since signing for Hearts in March. “I’ve been through a really tough time. I’ve been out a crazy amount of time so there was a mixture of relief and pride. Before the game, I had the old jelly legs, I was feeling nervous. It was possibly the most anxious I’ve been before a game. It was a similar feeling to when I was young, starting out. To be out for so long, and then get the opportunity to play again, it comes with all sorts of emotions. I just wanted to get out on the pitch and do well. Obviously Saturday wasn’t the greatest game but it marked a milestone in terms of getting back fit.”
Patience, persistence and mental strength were key qualities for White as he battled to save his career. “The problem first started around the time of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final (for Barnsley, in April 2016) and I played with it for about six months but then it got to the point where I just had to decide to take the time out,” explained the former Leeds United and Barnsley left-back. “I saw multiple specialists but nobody could diagnose the problem so we couldn’t treat it. I had four surgeries. After each surgery, I was hoping I would be fit. In the end, I managed to get there. Whether it was the surgeries that helped or just time, I’m really not sure.
“It’s been really, really tough mentally. It’s felt like a long time. I’d never decided I wasn’t going to play again but it had crossed my mind many times. I had thought ‘is it meant to be?’ But I just had to keep ticking one day off at a time and not look too far ahead.”
Having been free of the effects of the problem since the start of this year, White is confident there will be no recurrence. “This is definitely the best I’ve felt since it first flared up,” he said. “I’ve not got any issues with it now. I do really feel as if it’s behind me. I’ve not had any symptoms or problems in that area for six or seven months, maybe longer, so it’s just a case of getting my strength and fitness back. I’ll still pick up niggles here and there but that’s part of the process of coming back into full training and playing matches.
“The most time-consuming aspect of it was getting to the bottom of it, trying to find out what was wrong. I was in quite some discomfort and I couldn’t move when I was out on the pitch. One of my biggest assets is my mobility and ability to get up and down the pitch, but I just couldn’t do it. It’s a shame it took so long but I’m just grateful that I’m back out there again. Obviously I need to get my sharpness back because I’m still a bit rusty but that’ll come when I get more games.”
White is grateful to Hearts for the “faith and belief” they showed in him at a time when he seemed at his lowest ebb as a footballer. “There were other clubs I could have joined but I felt like this was the best option,” he explained. “Austin MacPhee had been in contact with me for some time, monitoring my injury. When he first asked me to come in, I wasn’t ready, I was still in pain. So it was just a case of ‘when you’re ready, let us know’. Then I got to the stage where I felt I needed to get into a club and start training. Hearts have been really good in terms of allowing me to do it gradually. I’m really grateful to the manager, the coaching staff and the physios because even when I wasn’t where I needed to be (fitness-wise), they told me they’d get me there.”
Understandably, given his lack of game time in recent years, White’s Hearts debut became a battle of endurance in the closing stages, with all three substitutes having been used, and he ended up relieved to see County miss a late penalty which he conceded after wrestling Marcus Fraser to the floor. “I got cramp everywhere after about 65 minutes so I was struggling from then on,” he said. “It was hot and sticky as well. I wasn’t bothered that we had used all our subs because it was a milestone to get through the 90 minutes. I’m grateful that I managed to do it injury-free as it’ll set me up nicely for whenever the manager chooses to play me again.”
There were a couple of moments when the Tynecastle crowd winced as White went down under heavy challenges but the man himself was unfazed at being back in the thick of match-day combat.
“I wasn’t worried about the challenges I had on Saturday,” he said. “The injury I had wasn’t from whacks or anything like that. The nature of my game means that those type of things are to be expected in games. I was fine. Nobody wants to pick up niggles and knocks but it’s going to happen and it’s all part of the process.”
Those closest to White, watching on anxiously from Tynecastle’s main stand, were particularly thrilled to see their man come through the most significant 90 minutes of his career.
“I’ve had a lot of support from family and friends,” he said. “I had seven people at the game on Saturday, which is more than usual. They’d been dying to see me play again. My dad goes to every game home and away, no matter where it is, and my wife goes as well. My family are my biggest supporters. They’ve been excellent and they’re really proud that I’ve got back, as am I.”