Sam Winnall will ditch his protective mask today as he looks to lead Sheffield Wednesday towards the Championship play-offs.
The striker has endured a horrible 13 months since suffering a serious knee injury on loan at Derby County in February, 2017.
The 28-year-old – who made his first start for the Owls in over 18 month, in Wednesday’s 4-2 win over Blackburn Rovers a fortnight ago – has seen his road to recovery hampered by a hamstring problem, plus a broken nose.
The latter meant donning a custom-made protective mask, and Winnall – who could lead the line today at Stoke City if Steven Fletcher fails a fitness test – said: “It’s been strange. Thankfully, I don’t have to wear it any more. That’s a bit of a bonus.
“I was quite worried, because I had just got myself to the stage where I had given myself the chance to be in the squad, and then had a bad nose break. You think ‘oh God, is it going to keep me out?’
“The physios and doctor here were great, they found a place where I could get a mask built, which allowed me to play.
I was just thankful I was able to play because I didn’t want to spend any more time on the sidelinesSam Winnall
“I didn’t want to miss any more time, I had been patiently waiting for months. I was itching to get back, I had worked so hard.
“Although it wasn’t ideal, it gave me the chance to play.
“It was a bit flamboyant on the first day, but the novelty soon wore off.
“I was just thankful I was able to play because I didn’t want to spend any more time on the sidelines – especially for a facial injury which wasn’t affecting my actual body. It was just a protection.”
With Fernando Forestieri, Lucas Joao and Gary Hooper all back in training after injuries, Owls manager Steve Bruce has plenty of attacking options at his disposal.
With just eight games remaining – plus another possible three play-off matches if the Owls can bridge the two-point gap to the top six – the Wednesday squad’s return to full health is welcome news.
“It’s well documented we have struggled with injuries, especially with strikers at the moment but that’s just how football goes,” said former Barnsley forward Winnall.
“I am as close as I can possibly be. I don’t want to say I am 100 per cent fit, because I haven’t done 90 minutes in a first team game yet. But I feel as I am close as I ever will be.
“The appearances I have made were kind of scattered. When I first got back, my own ego was probably telling me I was ready when I wasn’t.
“So I went away, trained harder than I probably have ever trained and I have got myself to the stage where, physically, I feel better than I have ever felt.
“Now it’s all about getting minutes on the pitch and, hopefully, earning a place in the side.”
Since moving from Oakwell in January, 2017, Winnall has netted just four goals in Owls colours.
But he is backing himself to deliver as the season reaches its climax.
“I have always prided myself on the ability to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I feel as if I have had a couple of near misses.
“The keeper made a good save at Bolton and then in the first couple of minutes against Blackburn I had a couple which just evaded me. But I know the goals are going to come. I have scored goals all my career, I know the goals will come.
“Sometimes, that first one is the elusive one, but I have faith in my own ability.”
If the Owls are to gatecrash the play-offs, they face a daunting run of fixtures.
After today’s trip to Stoke, they visit leaders Norwich City, third-placed Leeds United and Preston North End, currently seventh, while Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest and Bristol City all must come to Hillsborough.
Bruce is experienced enough to appreciate there are no easy games in the Championship.
“No disrespect, the most difficult game I have had is Rotherham away and they are third bottom,” said Bruce, who has steered the Owls on an 11-match unbeaten run. “Millwall away, too, and they are fourth bottom.
“I don’t think there is a big gulf between top and bottom – you’ve got a chance in every game. That’s what the Championship is- there’s no gulf between top and bottom.”