I will never forget the moment as long as I live.
It was 2010. I had finished training with Sydney United, gone home, eaten dinner and had a shower. Then, as I was sitting at the end of my bed, it hit me: an excruciating pain in my left elbow.
If I tried to straighten the arm, tears filled my eyes. The pain was that acute. There was no obvious reason as to why it was happening. I hadn’t injured the elbow at training. I couldn’t remember landing on my arm making a save. And yet I was in agony. I wouldn’t have slept an hour that night.
By the morning, I had lost the use of my thumb. Over the next few days, that spread to my index and middle fingers.
It was terrifying. As a goalkeeper, your hands are your livelihood. And now one of those hands wasn’t functioning. You don’t realise how many things in life you take for granted until you lose something like the ability to move your fingers. Day-to-day things become almost impossible - things you wouldn’t even stop twice to think about normally.
I was in shock. There was white noise in my head. You know those scenes in a movie where all the character can hear is ringing in their ears? That was me. I couldn’t hear anything. ‘What the hell has happened?’ I kept thinking. I couldn’t process it.
I went to see a doctor. He had no idea what was going on. I saw another and another and a whole group of specialists. They couldn’t explain it. I lost count of how many doctors I met with.
I underwent nerve conduction studies. Every test came up better than average. It didn’t make sense. The numbers were there from the test. They shouldn’t lie. But, for some reason, they were.
I was taken to a meeting with doctors from around the world. None of them had seen this. Their best guess was that it was something neurological, but they didn’t know what specifically.
There wasn’t a name for whatever this was. I couldn’t find any internet groups to discuss it with.
It was something unique to me.
‘A VERY DARK PLACE’
This went on for ten months. Slowly, the pain subsided from my elbow and movement started to return to my fingers. I’d done all the rehab work and was optimistic that a return to football wasn’t far away.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
One morning, I was walking down the stairs at my house to meet up with Matt Jurman and Iain Ramsay for breakfast. The thumb on my right hand stopped working, just like that. That soon spread to my fingers. They were gone. I couldn’t move them.
I looked at Matt and Iain and said, ‘It’s happened again.’ They were like, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘My hand. It’s gone.’ They were shocked. I was devastated.
It was like the smoke had cleared, I could see ahead of me for the first time in ages, and then suddenly I walked straight into another bushfire. I was in a very dark place, much more so than the first time around.
I was in shock. There was white noise in my head. You know those scenes in a movie where all the character can hear is ringing in their ears? That was me.
My family, my relationships all suffered. I didn’t want to be around anyone. I locked myself away. I neglected a lot of other people in my life that I shouldn’t have.
I couldn’t explain it to anyone either. It’s not like I had the ‘flu, which everyone could relate to. Literally no one knew what this was like.
I didn’t want to know about football initially. I didn’t want to be around it or watch it. I rebelled against it. The most important thing in my world – something I had been working for my entire life - had been taken away so quickly and easily. That scared me. I didn’t want anything to do with it.
I was angry and bitter at the medical specialists. I thought, ‘You guys are professionals, how do you not know?’ It was bad for me to think that way.
They put me on medication. I had to go to hospital, hooked up to wires and drips for hours a day. My mouth tasted like metal. The medication they were feeding me made me feel like I’d been eating nuts and bolts.
One of the symptoms of the medication was that if I ran or moved around too much, it could dry out my hip bones and break them. The doctor recommended that I limit my movement. I put on about 15 kilos. I was unhappy, on medication and still had no idea what was wrong with me.
It was the worst period of my life. Twelve more months stuck in limbo.
PLAYSTATION SAVED MY CAREER
People were telling me to give up on football, to go and get a job. A comeback was too hard. I’d missed too much football. I’d gotten older.
It was coming from everywhere. I’ll admit it did cross my mind, but only momentarily. I’ve always thought that in life everyone has a calling. It’s already written for us.
Football was my calling.
If it took me two days, two weeks or two years I was still going to go after it. Proving people wrong is something I love. It’s in my nature. I used the doubt and negativity of others as fuel. Every time I heard someone say, ‘You’ve got to start looking for a job,’ it was another spur to get back to training, build my body back up and get back out there.
There was support, too. My mum and dad, Snezjana and Zoran, and my sister and her husband, Ines and Stipan were amazing during this time. So were Matt, Iain, Anthony Siciliano and his wife Francesca.
I put on about 15 kilos. I was unhappy, on medication and still had no idea what was wrong with me. It was the worst period of my life.
This will sound weird, but I firmly believe Call of Duty saved my football career.
I was doing all kinds of brain exercises to trick my brain into thinking my left hand was moving. For example, I would have a mirror in between my legs and would look into it while moving my right arm, so it looked like my left arm was moving.
But the best rehab tool was my PlayStation. The buttons were helpful because it made me use my fingers. In Call of Duty, you’ve got to use the whole controller. I found it really helpful in my recovery.
It’s been six years now, but the experience is still always there in the back of my mind. If I pick up a little wrist injury or hurt my arm, my thinking immediately goes to that two-year period where I couldn’t move my fingers. It’s hard not to. I just try not to let it impact me or disrupt my routine.
— WS Wanderers FC (@wswanderersfc) August 27, 2020
SYDNEY FC & ME
I owe a lot to Sydney FC and Frank Farina. They kept the faith in me. If it wasn’t for them, who knows where I would be now?
I’ll always remember getting the call-up for my A-League debut. We were playing Melbourne Heart at Allianz Stadium. Just before we walked through the tunnel and onto the pitch, I stopped. I had a quick mental flashback – like a movie trailer – that went through the journey of where I’d come from and everything I’d been through to get to this point.
I was so grateful to be in the position I was in. Everything was coming together. I had the chance to show people what I could do, especially those who doubted me. It was just a few years later than I’d originally planned.
I kept a clean sheet and we drew 0-0. I was rapt with that. I’d spent so long fearing I was never going to get an opportunity, and never really understanding why that was the case. Now I was out the other side.
I have so many great memories from my time with Sydney. It was a difficult decision to leave, but I felt it was something I had to do.
There are a lot of different reasons why I moved to the Wanderers. I’m not going to go into them.
People see it as one thing. They can make up their own stories and assumptions and think everything they hear about it is the truth. Everyone is going to have their own version of the story. The truth has never actually been spoken about.
I’ll cut it right there. Believe what you want, but you’ll never know the true story behind it.
Moving across to a rival is not easy anywhere in the world. You’re always going to cop a massive backlash from fans, media, social media and all the other crap that’s out there.
Honestly, none of it has gone even close to getting in my head. I haven’t been upset about the situation for one second. I put that all down to what I’ve endured in the past. All those hardships, those lost years, put something like a bit of booing into perspective.
For me, it’s a bit of banter. I wasn’t expecting anything less. That’s what happens when you move to a rival team. You’re not going to get a standing ovation.
That banter ratchets up around derby day. It makes the atmosphere that much better. The fans love it. The viewers on TV love it. I love it. It creates atmosphere. Players live for that. We love nothing more than fans singing and cheering with banners and tifos. It’s what you train for. You want to play in big stadiums in front of 30,000 or 40,000 people. I wish every week was a derby. I love the hype, the buzz, everything about it.
Honestly, none of it has gone even close to getting in my head. I haven’t been upset about the situation for one second.
The snakes last January were all part of that. I played the first half on the other side and it was obviously a lot easier with our fans there. In the second half, I didn’t know what to expect. I was expecting something, but I didn’t know what it would be.
They did their thing. It was all good. I took it. It wasn’t going to make or break me. It’s part and parcel of derby day when you’ve moved from one club to the other.
I soaked it all in. I didn’t do anything stupid, because I respect The Cove. They were singing behind my goal for many years. We’ve gone through some good and bad times together. At the end of the day, it’s football. I just happen to be wearing a different emblem on my jersey.
There’s no backlash from me.
WANDERERS & THE FINALS
We’re really excited for the derby. We’ve been through a lot together as a club this year and, over the last month or so, we can feel it all coming together.
We all knew as soon as Tony Popovic left for Turkey that this season wasn’t going to go as originally planned. Hayden Foxe took over for the first five rounds and he was great. He kept the ship moving. Everyone was used to that. Everyone knew that philosophy.
When Josep Gombau came in, the players and coaching staff knew it was going to be a big transition. He had a different view of the game. We were fine with that. The one question we didn’t know the answer to was: how long would it take us to switch over to Josep’s style of play and philosophy?
It’s really started to come together in the last month. Everyone is gelling a lot more. We’ve had changes to the squad, guys playing in different positions and sometimes out of position, but it’s all part and parcel of finding what works for the team and for the players we have at this time.
Everyone has found their feet now and feeling more comfortable in what they’re doing. It’s becoming automatic. It’s building.
If we keep going in this direction, we’re going to be a surprise to a lot of teams in the finals.
Vedran Janjetovic - Contributor