Ex-Rangers star Andy Little reveals relief of playing return after frustrating 10 month recovery from horrific head injury
The journey from hospital bed to football pitch is a path well-trodden in professional football. But rarely is that road more emotionally stressful and fraught with confusion and challenges than the return from a serious head injury.
When former Northern Ireland international Andy Little arrived back on Stirling Albion's Forthbank pitch on Saturday with 76 minutes played, and his team mercifully 2-1 ahead against rivals Clyde, it was the final step of a long journey that had begun in frightening circumstances.
The Enniskillen man sustained a fractured skull, eye-socket and two cracked bones in his neck after a collision with a team-mate in training. Fast forward a scary five minutes unconscious, a 10-day stay in Edinburgh's Western General Hospital (Edinburgh) and a 10-month recovery period - it's understandable that Andy's entrance to the pitch was greeted with a satisfied sigh.
"Relief was the main feeling, I would say," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "There were quite a few times that I wondered if I would ever play again. I wondered if I was being stupid and thought that I should call it a day and take the decision rather than risk whatever might happen."
10 frustrating months but finally back playing football yesterday! 🤕— Andy Little (@AndyLittle_7) February 25, 2018
Thank you to the manager, the board, fans, medical staff & all the lads at @Stirling_Albion. It seems rare to have that sort of decency, loyalty & support in football these days.
5 wins in a row - flying!🔴⚪️
Little, who played for Rangers for seven years up until 2014, says the last six months of his recuperation was hampered by break-downs caused by headaches and dizzy spells - such are the worrying impacts of a serious head trauma.
As a six-foot striker in Scottish League Two though, there isn't much time to go about protecting any lingering concerns over repeat problems. That realisation came abruptly to the 28-year-old soon after he crossed the white line on Saturday afternoon.
"I got on and the ball went out for a goal-kick to us," he said. "I realised that our keeper was going to have to kick it up the pitch and I was going to have to go up to try and win a flick-on.
"I hadn't tested that because you don't really do those 50/50 style challenges in training much - there's nothing to prepare you for those tests.
"That was the moment but I went for it. I actually didn't head that one because I sort of shouldered my marker out of the way and let the ball run through - it worked so that was the main thing.
"I won a few headers later in the game and I feel much better now that I've got that all under my belt."
He even got booked - so much for easing himself back into competitive action.
"I really did (get stuck in)," he laughed. "Before the game, I was concerned that it would impact my aggression levels but thankfully it didn't and actually seemed to have the opposite effect.
"I felt grateful that I've sort of got away with one and that I've got another chance. I came in with a few aggressive tackles, although the booking was a pretty innocuous one."
Thankfully, the aftermath of his much-awaited return brought nothing more than an adrenaline buzz and Little is ready to go again at home to Edinburgh City this evening.
It's all a far cry from that horrific clash on the evening of April 11 last year. Perhaps fortunately enough, Andy can't recall exactly how it happened.
"I don't remember anything," he said. "I don't really remember that day at all.
"I was reading about Petr Cech and Ryan Mason, who have had similar injuries. If you don't remember it happening, it seems to be better because it doesn't affect you psychologically then.
"I have a brief memory of being sick in the ambulance but my first real memory is waking up in hospital. My old Rangers team-mates Ross Perry was there and I kept asking him what happened.
"I was unconscious for five minutes but everyone was brilliant. I came from playing at Rangers and Preston where you had private medical care but for this, it was the NHS and stay in hospital for 10 days in Edinburgh with no real family there. Everyone was great though."
Getting back to the pitch included inquisitive doctors asking Little about any changes to his emotions. Although he admits that was a strange process, it's a valid query even now that he is '95%' over the injury.
"It definitely has changed me," he reflected, stalling to point out that he doesn't mean to be as dramatic as he sounds. "It has changed my outlook on football and life.
"I'm not going to be putting myself under any pressure. There are plenty of rewards at the top of the game but at the lower ends, there can be a lot of pressure and dedication. I was always guilty of being completely surrounded by the game.
"Now I'm more relaxed. I want to work hard and see if I can play at a higher level but I just want to enjoy my football. If you do that as a striker, you'll probably be scoring goals, and if you're scoring goals, teams always want those sort of players."
Scary stuff. Thanks for messages. Too many to read or reply to for now. Very grateful to so many different people that I'm here right now.♥️— Andy Little (@AndyLittle_7) April 14, 2017
While Andy would take an opportunity to one-day move back up the football league pyramid, his immediate future lies at promotion-chasing Stirling - and for that, he is evidently grateful.
"After the injury, the club said there was a contract there for me," he explained. "A lot of clubs would have thrown me to the side but not only were Stirling very decent and supportive but they also were very loyal and offered me a contract when they didn't have to.
"I have to thank the club and Dave Mackay, the manager. Most managers would have been pushing me to get back on the pitch but his question was always how are you feeling. Even when the team were going through a bad spell, he could have been forgiven for geting frustrated with me but he never did."
Equally as helpful in the long return to action were messages that poured in from fellow players, friends and fans.
"The support has been great, especially from Rangers and Northern Ireland," he said. "I've had a lot of support from fans and that definitely helps. I used to feel pressured by fans messaging me, now I just think it's nice that people care.
"Rangers have been very, very good to me."
It's a club that Andy obviously still cares for - in fact he has a vested interest at Ibrox once more, coming on board as coach of the club's Under 10s this season. Could that lead to a career on the sidelines? He admits the spell out gave him a chance to think about life after football and he's open to the prospect. But, fitting with his new attitude toward taking to the pitch, job satisfaction is higher up his ladder than any burning career ambition.The road back to football is over, here's a more enjoyable journey ahead.