Forgotten defender Jamie McCombe hopes to end a frustrating season with relegation-threatened Doncaster Rovers on a high – with a promotion trip to Wembley.
The 31-year-old defender has been sidelined all season with a back injury, having not played since the dramatic final day of last term when Rovers pipped Brentford for the League One title.
The Pontefract-born defender finally returned to first-team action as a second-half substitute on Easter Monday in the 0-0 draw at Millwall.
His return after 12 months out is welcome relief for Paul Dickov’s side, with Doncaster having two games left to avoid an instant return to League One.
Victory today against Reading at the Keepmoat Stadium – coupled with defeat for Blackpool at Wigan – would secure Rovers’ Championship status.
McCombe could then look forward to cheering on brother John, who has been a pivotal part of York City’s play-off push in League Two for a possible trip to Wembley for the Minstermen.
But first McCombe is eager to help Rovers stay in the Championship after admitting he had been forced to keep secret his fitness troubles and “con” strikers for two years before succumbing to his injury.
After struggling with injuries for two years previously, the root of the problem was diagnosed as a stress fracture in his back.
That meant lonely hours in the gym, toiling away, instead of competing in the second tier of English football.
“It’s really good to be back,” said McCombe. “It’s been a long, hard road and I have overcome some difficult times.
“My last game was Brentford, last game of last season, so it’s been almost 12 months since I got back on the pitch.
“I am back in now, and, hopefully, can play some part in the next two games and keep us safe in the Championship.
“I had played injured for two years without really knowing. I had a stress fracture in the lower part of my spine which caused a lot of neural problems. I had sciatica down my hamstring.
“For the last two years I have not been able to sprint.
“Luckily I have been able to con my way through, by tricking the centre-forwards.
“I have just been surviving, but there is only so long you can do that for and I didn’t feel like I was doing myself justice.”
After successive promotions with Huddersfield Town then Doncaster, McCombe finally succumbed to his back troubles.
“I wasn’t happy playing, even though I had back-to-back promotions over the last two years I had played; I still didn’t feel great,” said McCombe, who started out with Frickley Athletic before spells at Scunthorpe United, Halifax and Huddersfield.
“It was difficult every day. I had to be in the gym for an hour before training to get loosened up and ready before I could even go out.
“Just bathing the kids at home was murder, being bent over washing the kids’ hair.
“The fans didn’t know, it’s not something you publicly say. If you say in an interview, ‘I can’t sprint, or ‘I am struggling with my back’, then opposition managers are going to come and stick the ball down the side of you and expose it.
“I managed to play with it, though, and have to give a lot of credit to the physios.
“I have done everything in my powers to get back, I went over to Italy to see a specialist.
“Now I am back there’s only two games left, but at least I can get fully fit through the summer and have a full pre-season.
“I have been surviving these last two years, patching up injuries to get through games, unable to do extra training and things I want to do.”
Being sidelined for a year has helped McCombe appreciate how lucky he is to be a professional footballer.
He admits his extended spell out of action has caused upheaval at home, even if this has meant some Saturday morning DIY sessions.
“For me personally, this last year has been difficult,” he continued. “It is all I have been used to since I have been 16.
“It feels strange, like a part of you is not there any more when you’re not playing.
“The week doesn’t seem to have any structure, everything gears up for the weekend.
“Eating, sleeping, training, getting your rest. I have been used to that every week for 13 years, so it’s been strange.
“I have driven my missus up the wall at home. I have been doing jobs on a Saturday morning, which is really strange.
“It has been difficult, but it does make you appreciate what you do have. That’s definitely helped me in my recovery.
“I have been training on my own and been quite driven because I appreciate now what I have.
“Quite often when you are playing and don’t have any injuries, you take it for granted. I appreciate how privileged I am to be playing at a good football club and a good level.”
So how did he feel when he finally returned to first-team action on Monday, late in the game, with Rovers down to 10 men and drawing 0-0 against a Millwall team also battling to escape the drop?
“It was nervy times,” he smiled. “When you haven’t played for 11 and a half months, to go on with 10 men and with just five minutes left, you can only mess it up from there.
“But it was brilliant to get on, and great the manager had that faith in me, as I had not played for that long. To play in a high-pressure situation just meant so much to me.”
A watching brief has meant McCombe has been able to keep a close eye on his younger brother, John, at York.
Since arriving in North Yorkshire in January, following a move from Mansfield Town, younger brother John, 28, has helped York to a 15-match unbeaten run which has seem them concede just three goals.
It has thrust Nigel Worthington’s side from a relegation battle to unlikely play-off contenders.
“York have got themselves in a good position,” said McCombe. “They have an unbelievable run, 15 games and conceded just three goals. It’s fantastic.
“It would be ideal for us to get a win over Reading and to stay up and then York reach the play-offs as a day out at Wembley would be nice.”