This feature first appeared in the Crystal Palace v Burnley matchday programme – 1st December 2018
Having been a mainstay of the Palace side for so many years, it has been strange to watch the Eagles go throughout 2018 without Scott Dann as part of their backline. Having been robbed of nearly a year of his career through injury, he talks Jonathon Rogers through the recovery process that has him tantalisingly close to a first-team return.
As Big Ben chimed midnight and a nation cast their thoughts towards new beginnings, a gloomy Scott Dann was stuck at home in pain. New Year’s Eve may well be the cruellest day to receive a setback that ruins the entirety of the upcoming year, but that was exactly the situation the centre-back found himself in as he sat staring at his ever-ballooning right knee.
He didn’t need the results of an upcoming scan to inform him of the severity of what he had suffered, and how the majority of 2018 would be spent. His hopes of playing a key role in helping his teammates beat the drop were over before the physios could attend to him as he lay stricken on the Selhurst turf in agony, thanks to a torn cruciate ligament and meniscus.
That kind of trauma can be soul-destroying for a lot of players, but anyone who has watched the fearless Dann put his body on the line in red and blue knows that he is made of tough stuff. As he was stretchered away out of sight from a concerned crowd, Dann was already calculating how long it might be until he got the chance to perform for them once again.
Setting his mind back to that ill-fated goalless draw with Manchester City just over 11 months ago, he said: “I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was trying to block Kevin De Bruyne’s path as he was bursting through and unfortunately he fell on the side of my knee. I knew straight away what I had done, and it didn’t feel great.
“New Year’s Eve wasn’t much fun – I obviously couldn’t move very well so I just went back home. I was waiting to have a scan and for the doctors and surgeons to tell me what I’d done, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a short time out.
“That process only took around 10 days but it felt like the longest part of the rehab because we had to make sure that the right surgeon was available at the right time, wait for the swelling to go down and then double check everything before the operation.”
While Dann knew in his heart of hearts the probable outcome, the prognosis didn’t offer a glimmer of hope. An optimistic timeframe of nine to 12 months on the shelf was suggested, but the determined 31-year-old suddenly had something to aim for – the hope that his 2018 could indeed have a happy ending.
Having gone under the knife, his comeback trail could begin. It was slow progress at first, hampered by crutches and a leg brace, but the recuperation period allowed him to relax and focus on life away from football. “I’ve had a lot of things to take my mind off it,” he said. “10 minutes after it happened, my son came down to see me and it just put things into perspective and made it easier to deal with.
“I’ve got two kids and I’ve invested in some companies which I’m enjoying, so that makes it easy to switch off. Injuries like this used to be career-ending and threaten your future, so you have to do stuff outside of football to make sure you have something to go into afterwards.”
As any sidelined sportsman would tell you, after the initial physical pain of the injury subsides and the scars heal, the psychological effects can be just as damaging, but Dann would have plenty of moral support. 90 minutes after he was hauled into the Selhurst changing rooms, the City game claimed another victim as Jason Puncheon suffered an eerily similar innocuous-looking knee injury trying to tame De Bruyne.
Finding added solace in Connor Wickham – then a year into his own rehab – the wounded trio leaned on each other heavily as they spent hours in each other’s company during the initial stages of their recoveries.
“If you’re injured yourself, you don’t wish anyone else to go through that experience mentally and physically,” Dann added. “Punch got injured on the same day, so for the first couple of months we were both on crutches and getting picked up each day and going to the gym together.
“Without really saying it, you do find that you help each other, especially in the early days. When the lads are going out and playing and you’re in the treatment room by yourself it’s tough, but there was me, Punch and Connor so it did help keep me in a good frame of mind and be amongst the banter. You can’t be all doom and gloom; I believe the more positive you are, the quicker you will get back.”
The next milestone in his quest to achieve that came when he was able to swap the treatment room for the gym and build up his strength and mobility, incentivised to tick off each target with the lure of escaping from Beckenham’s ever-increasingly familiarity.
“Every six to eight weeks I had a couple of weeks off,” he revealed. “I spent some good time with the family which you don’t normally get the chance to do, but you come back afterwards refreshed and ready to go for the next phase.”
Even the traditional summer holiday wasn’t safe from sacrifice. Dann admitted the most enjoyable moment of his rehab was the day he could begin running again, which frustratingly coincided with the end of the season. As the rest of the Palace squad departed to sunnier climes for some much-needed relaxation, Dann resisted the temptation to put his feet up too and went to some extraordinary lengths in order to hit his nine-month target.
“I took a couple of the fitness coaches away with me with to Portugal, so I could train in the morning and then go back to spend time with the family,” he said. “That meant that when I came back for pre-season I was on the cusp of joining the lads for fitness sessions.
“It was just about doing whatever I had to do to get back playing. There’s been a lot of hard work in the gym and long hours with the physios and fitness coaches trying to get me to where I left off. It’s been a long road but it’s made me stronger.”
That road was shortening all the time. As pre-season and the beginning of a new campaign slipped by, so did the days until the Liverpudlian could make his return, which finally happened in October. It wouldn’t be glamourous, and rather than re-emerging in front of a packed house in SE25 or at one of the homes of the Premier League’s elite, Dann’s first taste of action since that unfortunate collision with De Bruyne would come at the home of Tooting and Mitcham FC against non-league Dulwich Hamlet.
Many players may have been tempted to delay their comeback another week or so rather than play in a friendly on a chilly Thursday night against part-timers, but Dann had extra incentive to don a Palace shirt that evening. “That game was exactly nine months to the day of the operation,” he smiled. His mission was complete.
“Having been out for such a long time, it probably wasn’t the way I was picturing my first game back! But because I’d done so much work throughout the nine months, I felt ready so it didn’t really matter where it was. I played 45 minutes but just being able to put the kit and boots on again and play in a game was really enjoyable. When you get to that stage, you look back and think it was all worth it.”
Under the watchful eye of the Palace medical staff, his match fitness has been carefully and strategically built up with under-23 action, culminating in a 90-minute outing against Millwall last month as his repaired knee proved it could handle the necessary stresses and strains. That allowed him to tick off the penultimate box on his road to recovery and leave just one unchecked – playing for the first-team once again.
“You can’t contemplate the buzz when you get to play in a league game at Selhurst in front of the fans, so they’re the moments you crave and put all the hard work in for,” Dann admitted. “When I get to do that again, it’ll be a long time coming but it’ll definitely be thoroughly enjoyable.
“Hopefully I can play a part as soon as possible. I’m hoping to be fit and available because there are a lot of games coming thick and fast, and I’ve got to the stage where after a long time I’m really looking forward to getting back involved.
“All the steps I’ve taken have been to get me to this point. It’s a long rehab and it’s good to know everything has been smooth sailing, but even though I’m fit and training, until you play a first-team game it doesn’t quite bring you full-circle. Hopefully that comes along fairly soon and I can be back doing what we all love to do and be involved on a Saturday.”
Should that happen in the next month, then you can be sure that the champagne corks will be popping in the Dann household on what will be much more joyous New Year’s Eve this time around.