Nir Bitton burst into tears as the full extent of his knee injury hit home and now, he admitted, his emotions will probably get the better of him when he pulls on a Celtic jersey again
The midfielder is nearing full fitness after being sidelined for almost a year, but was so worried about his future he had told his wife, Bar, she might have to go out looking for a job.
However, the 27-year-old believes he will appreciate what he has all the more having recovered from his first serious injury, the mental torment having taken almost as great a toll as the physical scars.
Claiming he feels he is just about to embark on his career all over again, Bitton said: “It’s been a long time, 11 months, and when you are out for that time you realise that you have to appreciate every minute you spend on the pitch.
“Sometimes for athletes or basketball players or footballers it is the same. When you don’t play you are not happy. So long as you are healthy you need to appreciate it. It’s been a tough time for me and I’m happy to be back.”
As he headed for London to see a specialist after playing for two months with a swollen knee, injections and tablets having done nothing to help, Bitton believed perhaps another injection and a few weeks out would be all he needed. But he was devastated when the true extent of his problem was revealed. He said: “I went there not even thinking about the possibility of a serious injury or surgery. I thought I was just going for his opinion on how to get rid of the swelling and stuff.
“Then he looked at my scan and said, ‘you need to be out for nine to 12 months’.
“I started to cry. I phoned my wife straight away and said, ‘I think you need to look for a job, I’m finished’. I cried and I couldn’t control it. For me this is the thing I like to do most.
“People on the outside might not understand that. But to us playing football is everything, but when you are injured you can’t help yourself or do anything about it. You sit there watching your team-mates doing well, winning games and trophies and you know you are not part of it and can’t do anything about it.
“You need to be mentally strong. You need to focus on your rehab and get your session done. It’s been a really tough time. Physically it was tough but mentally it was an even bigger challenge.
“It was my first long-term injury and you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know what challenges lie in wait and there are so many mental things going on behind the scenes.
“You just try to stay focused, stay calm and surround yourself with good people who always support you whatever it takes. I am just happy to be back and put it behind me.”
The Israeli internationalist admitted that previously he had given little thought to others being injured but having suffered such a trauma himself, he will now be much more sympathetic.
He said: “I would see people hurt themselves or get sick and injured and if I’m honest I didn’t think too much about it. You feel sorry for them of course, but you don’t really feel it. It’s only when you get something like this yourself that you see that these other people are warriors.
“Around Christmas time we as players always go to hospital to see the children. I appreciate now that these kids are the strongest people in the world.
“After this injury I start to appreciate the small things in life now. I see these boys and girls there unwell and I appreciate life itself. These guys, for me, are an inspiration. They should be an inspiration to everyone.”
Bitton acknowledges he still has some way to go before he regains full fitness but joining his team-mates in their winter training camp in Dubai has helped ease him back into the swing of things.
“Never mind kicking a football,” he said. “The first time I went out on a pitch and started running I had never felt so happy. I’d never been happy running before like that.
“I felt like I was playing for the first time again. Every small sensation had me buzzing. Passing the ball, running on the pitch, doing the warm-up. It all felt great.”
Training is one thing but, admitted Bitton, stepping out on to the pitch to play again with be a totally different experience.
He said: “‘It will be emotional for me, it will be emotional for my family. They have been part of it with me and suffered a lot in the first few months.
“I appreciate all their help and they deserve it. My two-year-old daughter Emma is too young to understand it all now, but she is starting to realise. She has watched a few Celtic games this season and I have a neighbour called Tom Rogic [pictured] so she watches him on television and she’s like ‘goal, goal…’
“She will be excited to see her daddy playing and I want to make her proud.”