612 days ago, everything Alan Judge had snaffled and hoarded was scattered into the wind.
Brentford were trundling toward the end of a successful season in the Championship, which allowed Judge to grab the opportunities his talents made possible. 38 games yielded 14 goals and 11 assists, a return which led to his Irish debut against Switzerland in time to be in the mix for Euro 2016. Further promotions lay ahead, and Judge had reached a verbal agreement on a contract with a Premier League club.
And then, in a moment, it all changed. Two minutes into a league game against Ipswich, Judge's right leg fixed itself into the turf at the worst possible moment, just as Luke Hyam hurled himself into it.
He broke his leg in three places.
"The first thing that came into my head was my family", Judge tells Balls.
My wife and two kids. The first thing I thought of was their future. I was thinking, ‘My kids. What am I going to do for my kids’. I was only 27 when I got injured, I’m now 29. Straight away. Not that I’m particularly money-oriented, but as soon as you’re out of work, you think family.
I knew I had a chance to go to the Premier League, and I knew I had a chance of going to the Euros, so everything was taken away from me in a split-second.
20 months and two surgeries on, Judge is just weeks from a return. He has been involved in full-contact training since October, and last week made his playing return with Brentford's B squad. When they were awarded a penalty after just ten minutes, only one man was ever going to take it.
Penalty to #BrentfordB after 10 minutes. Who steps up to score it? ALAN JUDGE! 1-0 Brentford!
— Brentford FC (@BrentfordFC) December 5, 2017
The next month should see Judge's return to the first-team. It has been an agonising road back. In spite of all that was plucked from him, he has retained an admirable attitude to his assailant. "I’ve told people not to abuse Luke over the tackle, it’s football and this happens. When I had the second operation, you start thinking over it again, ‘why did he make that tackle, why did he do that’. But I have no aggression or anything of the sort toward him. It’s over now, I can’t do anything to change it".
The first two weeks after the first surgery were spent lying in bed, and his subsequent mobility brought agony. "The worst pain was when I’d get out of bed, and when I’d first put my leg on the floor. That pain of the blood rushing down through the leg, that pain was worse than when I broke my leg. It was just unbearable". This lasted six weeks, before Judge could begin rehab at the club.
My first bit of work made me realise how long a process it would be. The physio put a little towel under my foot, and asked me to scrunch together my toes. That was my first bit of rehab….and the moment I knew that this would be a long one.
It wasn’t painful, but I got tired very quickly. These little muscles, in your ankles, behind your calves, I’m asking, ‘How are these muscles getting so tired so quickly?’
You have your surgery and you realise that your muscle had detiorated. Even my left leg was much weaker as I wasn’t mobile; I wasn’t doing anything to rebuild it.
This period was turbulent for other reasons, too. The previous Christmas Eve, Judge had been informed by the FA that he had failed a drugs test, testing positive for salbutamol. Judge suffers from asthma and has been granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption, but the FA found he had traces of salbutamol above the WADA-approved threshold. Judge denied any wrongdoing, and it took six months before an independent commission cleared him of any wrongdoing as he had shown no significant fault or negligence.
I tell you, the worst thing was that, despite the fact I’d proved my innocence, the FA wanted to drag this thing out. They weren’t giving us a date on several things. On Christmas Eve, they have me the charge letter.
So I had the worst Christmas of my life. They gave the charge letter to my physio on December 23rd, and he couldn’t give it to me until the next day. On my first Christmas with my two kids.
But anyway, I got on with it, I kept on playing my best football.
He recovered to begin training once again in April of this year, but discomfort persisted. A scan showed that one of the bones had not fused together properly, so went under the knife a second time, almost exactly a year after the first operation. "I didn’t want to have another operation, but it was the right thing to do", admits Judge.
It was only when the second operation was deemed a success that Judge could bring himself to watch a game of football again. "I didn’t watch football for a year. I watched little bits here or there, but I didn’t watch Brentford play for over a year, until I knew I was getting fit and I knew I was getting back".
But what of the Euros?
Yeah. I watched little bits of it. It was hard to watch. I was obviously cheering on the lads and they did unbelievably well out there, but I was thinking, ‘I could have been there, maybe should have been there'. I had a feeling I would have gone. So the emotions are difficult. You’re obviously wishing the lads well.... but you’re thinking, ‘what have I done to deserve this’.
Jonathan Douglas, I'm good friends with him. I was in London over the summer, but he still lives in London, and I watched a lot of the football with him. I found it easier to watch with someone else. Because I knew that if I watched it by myself, I’d have ended up flicking over onto something else.
Not because I wasn’t interested, but I was frustrated watching it.
I should have been there.
The Irish camp contacted Judge soon after suffering the injury, and Roy Keane offered him use of his private box at the Aviva for a friendly game with Holland ahead of the Euros. Their keeping in touch offers Judge optimism for an international future.
Yeah, the good thing is that because I have had so much contact with the Irish camp, I feel that I’m on their mind, which will hopefully put me in good stead for when I get back fit, and that I might be in their plans.
I know I’m 29, but the work I’ve done over the last two years means I’ll gain a few more years. I know I’ve lost 21 months, but the work I’ve been able to do, and build myself back up again I think that I’ll be able to play longer age-wise than I would have originally thought.
I just don’t want to be a one-cap player. I don’t want to be one of those players who only played once. It would be unbelievable to come back and play for my country again.
He had the option of joining the camp in a similar capacity to Seamus Coleman as he recuperated from injury, but elected not to, given he has not been as regular a fixture in the camp. Judge has been in frequent contact with his Irish captain ever since Coleman suffered the same, appalling fate in March.
I was at home to watch it [the Welsh game] with my family, and I knew it straight away. I said it to my Dad, ‘He’s broken his leg, I know by the way he is just sitting up’. I sent a message to him, and now I speak to Seamus quite regularly.
We bounce things off each other quite regularly, in term of little pains and niggles you get coming back; how he’s doing, stuff like that. I played with Seamus in the undoter-21s so we know each other quite well.
It’s been nice to talk to him, and I’m wishing him well and want him back as soon as possible, which by the sound of things, won’t be too far away.
There has been some good news amid the turmoil. Brentford renewed his contract in March, and signs of recovery were enough to prompt interest from other clubs. Staying at Brentford, Judge says, was the "right thing to do".
After all seemed lost, Alan Judge is clawing his way back.