Gary Gardner could be forgiven the tears that followed a 3-0 victory over Stoke City’s under-21s at Bodymoor Heath.
It was midway through the second-half of a routine win at Aston Villa’s training ground last August when a distraught Gardner felt a familiar feeling in his knee.
This time it was the right leg, not the left, but the instant agony that shot through his body was the signpost to a long road he knew only too well.
One cruciate ligament injury is unlucky, two in three years was downright devastating for a young man rated as one of the most promising prospects to roll off Villa’s famed production line.
When confirmation came from doctors that Gardner would need surgery to repair the severe tear, the 20-year-old was understandably overcome with emotion.
But not for long. As soon as Gardner had mentally processed that he faced another lengthy spell on the sidelines at a time when he was making the transition from youth-teamer to first teamer, there was no thought of feeling sorry for himself.
Months earlier he had been rubbing shoulders with Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick at Manchester United’s Theatre of Dreams. Now he was back rubbing shoulders with the surgeon in the theatre of knee ops.
It was nothing new. In December 2009, as a 17-year-old ‘boy wonder’, Gardner had suffered a similar shock to the system, rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during training at Bodymoor Heath.
Back then he was momentarily knocked out of his stride but the modest, yet highly- motivated midfielder used the setback to spur him on, returning with a fresh purpose in January 2011, a calendar year that would include his professional football debut during a loan spell in the Championship at Coventry City and would close with him making his senior Premier League bow for Villa at Stamford Bridge.
Gardner entered the field as a substitute in the December 31 win at Chelsea and went on to start five matches last season, as well as making 11 appearances from the bench, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Liverpool and United also among his opponents.
His contribution so far this term has been limited to a 16-minute run-out in the opening day defeat at West Ham United, just days before he was carried off against Stoke’s under-21s.
But his return to training this month has raised hopes that he could still have a part to play in Villa’s attempts to preserve their Premier League status and the battle-hardened midfielder insists he is stronger for his experience.
“It’s not a good experience, it’s a bad one and it’s just the time length,” reflects Gardner. “Once it’s healed, you do that much leg strengthening and fitness work that you’re stronger than ever.
“Injuries make you stronger and this one has definitely. It’s been a hard time and there have been days when I’ve been coming home and it’s been tough.
“It brings back memories of when I was out with my left knee and what I did to help my mind. Being out for so long that frustrates you, but you’ve got to leave it all behind you – it’s a hazard of the game.
“I’m happy that I’m back in training now and hopefully I can kick on. It’s just about how I feel, taking it steady and then building it up.
“You train three times a week and then four times and then full training. I just have to see how I feel – I know my body. This knee feels brilliant so hopefully I can take it steady and get back in there.”