WHEN Huddersfield Town visited Austria a year ago the players’ response to the baking temperatures was to cool off with a refreshing dip in the lake that lapped at the shore of their training base.
On the first day this involved many diving head first into the inviting water from a ten-foot high board as Jonas Lossl, Chris Schindler and Tom Ince followed the early lead of Dean Whitehead.
The hills were soon alive to the sound of shrieking rather than music, such was the ice-cold temperature that welcomed the Terriers.
By day two the diving board was out of bounds on safety grounds, but, in terms of what followed once the Premier League got under way, Town had set the tone by making a big splash.
Jon Gorenc Stankovic, the club’s Slovenian Under-21s international defender, missed the trip and then much of the campaign that followed after suffering a serious knee injury in March, 2017.
However, 12 months on and the 22-year-old is preparing for Huddersfield’s return to the picturesque Tyrol region for a trip that will bring their last couple of friendlies before the new season begins with the visit of Chelsea a fortnight today.
“Pre-season has been good for me,” said Stankovic to The Yorkshire Post ahead of today’s flight to Austria. “I am a player again and that is a good feeling. The knee is all right and I feel great.”
Stankovic’s happiness is understandable. He had to endure some bleak times on the road back to fitness after dislocating his knee when away on international duty.
At the time Town were chasing promotion and Stankovic’s star was rising. Just a month before the injury he had been outstanding as Huddersfield blunted a Manchester City attack featuring Sergio Aguero and Leroy Sane to earn an FA Cup fifth round replay.
It was the second time inside less than three years that Stankovic had got the better of Sane, the first having come when sporting the colours of Borussia Dortmund Under-19s against Schalke.
Sane, already tipped for the top back then, hardly had a kick as Dortmund edged an ill-tempered clash 1-0.
Having once again helped blunt Sane and his illustrious City colleagues, Stankovic’s future looked bright. Then, though, came the injury.
“It happened when I was away in the international break,” recalls the defender. “I was with the national team, but didn’t realise the damage that had been done at first.
“I could walk and run just like usual. But it did hurt. So I went for a scan on it and that is when I got the news. It came as a big shock.
“It was not easy to understand, especially at first. But my family and friends were a big help. So were my team-mates. But a lot of it was up to me.
“My motto is ‘Never give up’ and I didn’t, even when it was very hard.”
This perseverance was rewarded in the final weeks of last season with a return to the Huddersfield bench.
He did not get on against Everton, Manchester City or Arsenal, but the satisfaction at just being back involved was huge. As was the sense of elation as Huddersfield proved the doubters wrong once and for all by staying up with a game to spare courtesy of holding Chelsea to a 1-1 draw.
“The team staying in the Premier League was great,” says a defender who has represented his country at every age level from Under-16s upwards.
“I was sitting behind the bench at Chelsea. What a night. Like all the fans I was nervous in the last ten minutes, but the players were brilliant. We had a great night afterwards.”
Survival, of course, meant a chance for Stankovic to realise his dream of playing in the Premier League.
So far the portents have been good with the defender having played 272 minutes across six friendlies in pre-season. There has been no reaction to the injury that kept him out for 14 months and manager David Wagner admits to having been pleased by the progress made.
“He has been involved in the whole pre-season,” said the Terriers’ chief. “We have seen that he needed those minutes.
“He has needed the physical battles and the speed and tempo of playing against these opponents. Jon has been out a very long time and, like the whole group, he has further steps to go.”
Friendlies against Bologna on Tuesday and RB Leipzig three days later offer the chance for further minutes on the field as the countdown continues towards the new season.
Stankovic has to make up for lost time after missing out on not only Wembley but also that first term among the elite.
“There have been mixed feelings along the way,” he admits when asked about Town’s rise during those 14 months out.
“The team got better and better and that was great to see. We all want to see the club be successful.
“But I did want to be part of it as well. Wembley, I really felt that. It was great to win promotion and, at the end, I couldn’t be happier for all my friends and the club. I just wished I could have played as well. It gave me motivation to get back fit.
“The manager, though, did help. I knew him before from Dortmund and he has not changed. He tried to keep me involved even when I was injured. That meant a lot to me. He is a good man.
“As for the Premier League, I did not really learn much that I didn’t already know. It is very physical and very tough. I already knew it was the best league in the world before last season.
“My aim now is to stay healthy and play for Huddersfield Town in the Premier League.”