Tommie Hoban watched Watford kick-off their play-off final in May among the Hornets supporters but unlike those standing around him at Wembley, he wasn’t feeling excited.
The Golden Boys academy graduate had just had surgery on an ankle injury that had kept him out of action for three months and would see him sidelined for nine more.
While he was delighted for his teammates and supportive of the team’s success last season, Hoban says not being involved against Crystal Palace that day was the one of the toughest times during his year-long absence.
“To play at Wembley is a dream of mine so to not be able to do that was really gutting,” said the 21-year-old.
“It was definitely one of the toughest times – seeing how well the team was doing at the end of last season.
“Obviously I was so happy for the boys and for everyone but it was just so frustrating for me not be involved.
“I was with the Watford fans in the crowd and that was a great experience to be up there with them but times like that were pretty tough – I can only hope I’ll get more opportunities to play at Wembley in my career.”
Hoban first felt pain at the back of his foot towards the end of 2012. Initially it was thought to be an Achilles injury but when he returned in February 2013, his foot soon flared up again.
A scan revealed a problem with the cartilage in his ankle and he was eventually sent to New York for surgery in April. After being on crutches for three months, Hoban returned to Watford in October and started running in December.
Two weeks ago the talented defender played 66 minutes for the club’s Under-21s and he was included on the bench for the first team against Birmingham City on Tuesday night.
Twelve months is a considerable lay-off at any stage of a player’s career but it was particularly gauling for Hoban, who had come through the ranks at Watford and just broken into Gianfranco Zola’s starting line-up, making 19 appearances in 2012/13.
“I must have gone about ten months without actually kicking a football – I couldn’t do it, they wouldn’t let me do it,” he said.
“I think that’s what I missed most, literally, just kicking a ball.
“Before I started training when I was doing work with the fitness guys, I found a ball and struck it.
“It sounds so simple but it is just little things like that that you miss. It was definitely a good feeling.
“Once I could do that with no pain, I felt like I was actually getting better – I wanted to make sure I could still do it.”
Looking back now, Hoban believes it was better to be away from the club while he was injured because staying around the training ground was too demoralising.
Hornets skipper Manuel Almunia recommended he learn a new language, which he admits was a sensible idea, but the youngster insists the rehabilitation process actually makes being injured more time-consuming than playing.
When Hoban suffered a setback upon returning to Watford in October, he admits he began to wonder if he would ever play again.
“I started to run again in October and it flared up,” he said. “I was really down then – I started to think it just might not get better.
“But I took some time out and realised these injuries, they take time and I slowed it down, took a bit of a breath, came back and now it’s starting to feel good.”
Medics told Hoban the injury may have ended his career had he been slightly older but his age and mobility increase his chances of making a full recovery.
And there was one player too who gave Hoban particular cause for optimism.
“Matej Vydra, before he came to us was out for a long, long time and he was about my age,” Hoban said.
“Then he came here the season after that and look at him now, he’s got his move to the Premier League.
“Obviously so many players have had long-term injuries and not recovered but then at the same time I know plenty of boys who have been out for a year around my age but have come back and gone on to even better things.”
Hoban had targetted the start of next season to challenge for a place in the first team again but the youngster is ahead of schedule and he believes he is a stronger person for his time on the sidelines.
“It makes you appreciate the chance we have here,” he said. “To have a dream job playing football – I think if anything it will make me stronger and work harder.
“If I have down times in my career it’ll teach me to stay strong mentally and if I have another injury I’ll know to stay calm and get back fit and that it’s always possible to come back better.”
Hoban says the thought of running out of Vicarage Road again in front of the Watford faithful spurred him on during the worst times and he added his gratitude to the fans for their support.
“The support they’ve shown me has been brilliant,” he said.
“They’ve always been so kind and they’re a big part of why I’ve tried to keep focused and strong mentally.
“Their support really has helped me get through tough times on and off the pitch and I’m very thankful for that."
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