Sam Cole said it’s great to be back in a Hastings United Football Club shirt after a 13-month injury lay-off.
The popular player made his long-awaited return as a 75th minute substitute in the 4-2 win at home to Ramsgate on Saturday.
Speaking after the game, he said: “It’s great. I just need to get match fit now. I’ve been working hard the last six months in the gym, but nothing compares to match fitness. It will take time, but it will happen.”
Cole, whose versatility means he can play in a number of positions, received a big cheer from The Pilot Field crowd when he came on for Davide Rodari.
“It was nice,” he continued. “It got me going a bit. The fans always speak fairly highly of me and I respect that.
“Coming off the bench is not always easy and the first couple of sprints I felt sick to be honest, but you get your second wind.”
After joining the club in summer 2015, Cole was a regular in the Hastings side until suffering a terrible knee injury in a league cup game away to Faversham Town on November 8, 2016.
“I went in for a 50-50 (tackle) and felt something go,” he recalled. “I played on, but my knee kept popping and giving way. Once I turned in the second half, I felt my knee snap.”
Cole, whose main trades are a window fitter and plasterer, says he knew at the time it was a bad one and initially had two or three weeks off work. Once he went back to work, the knee would give way, leaving him in agony and struggling to walk for a couple of days.
The 26-year-old had an MRI scan to assess the extent of the damage and it revealed a complete rupture. In early February he underwent an operation at The Horder Centre in Crowborough to repair the medial and anterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee.
After that Cole had regular physiotherapy at The Horder Centre and had meetings with top surgeon Adrian Butler-Manuel - whose work Cole is very complimentary of - every six weeks to assess his progress.
“I wouldn’t wish it on any footballer,” added Cole. “It’s the hardest injury out there. It’s just draining. When you think you’re almost over it, you’ve got another six months on top of that.
“To get back out there (on the pitch) it takes gym four times a week without fail, otherwise they warn you it’s going to go again.
“I was going through depressing stages thinking ‘what do I do? Do I give up’. You speak to a few people and they say it’s a long process, but you will get there.”
Cole was running again in the summer and managed 45 minutes for Hastings’ development squad in early December. He’s also been playing some six-a-side football lately to help regain fitness, as well as his gym work.
“Aggy (Hastings manager Chris Agutter) wants me to be back as quickly as possible,” said Cole. “I’m hoping that he’s fairly patient with me. Eventually I want to start to maybe try and do an hour, but I’m not sure how far away that is.”
Heathfield-based Cole was off work for a month after the operation, but he was under contract with Hastings last season so he continued to be paid while out injured.
“The board have been fairly good to me, they’ve looked after me,” added Cole, who was once out for a month with a ruptured calf and had a bit of back trouble in his late teens. “Last year I can’t really fault them.”