James McArthur turned 29 earlier this week. As the midfielder did so he had only 24 full caps to his name, despite making his Scotland debut eight-and a-half years ago. It is fair to say, then, his international career has been stop-start. The Crystal Palace midfielder is just relieved it is not stop.
McArthur’s recent club form has moved his manager, Alan Pardew, to say that Palace are a lesser side without the £7 million signing’s “energy and assurance”. Those attributes have allowed the London club to occupy a heady seventh in the Premiership. And meant that McArthur has even kept Yohan Cabaye out of the side.
Yet, a month ago, the Glaswegian wasn’t sure what his football future held for him. Or when he would start to feel himself again. He missed Scotland’s win in Malta after he developed a condition within what he describes as his “patella rec fem”. That would appear to be short for rectus femoris, one of the four quadricep muscles. He experienced so much discomfort with it, the problem caused him to break down in the third day of pre-season and miss the rest of that period. Alarm bells then started to ring.
“Every time I tried to push off there was a pain sensation going through my knee. I had no power at all in it. If I was in full running it was fine but every time I stopped and started, it was like my leg was lagging behind. The physio did a great job trying to build my quads up but then it wasn’t only my quads, everything else wasn’t activating so my glutes and calves weren’t taking the shock. At one point you start worrying about your career.
“I don’t know [the cause]. Overload I think. I went to see the specialist and he was just saying I need to rest it, but when you are out there on the pitch and you still feel the pain, then you start to worry more and more. The physios were excellent though.
“I feared how long it would be. If you get a hamstring injury, you know you’re maybe out four to six weeks. With this, no-one knew how long it would be, how long it would take to settle down. It’s a fear of being out for a longer time and not knowing.”
He had experienced those sensations before, when he tore ankle ligaments in February which put him out for three months. “As a player you always worry about things like that because the game means so much to you. It’s hard because you just panic a wee bit more than you should when it’s a pain that’s not really common, or why is it still there, it’s quite frustrating.
“What happened with my ankle was part of the problem. The specialist said: ‘You did nothing for three months, you came back and played five games, you don’t do anything for a while and then you come back in pre-season and hammer your body and you broke down’.”
McArthur’s “natural” fitness has allowed him to cope with the physical demands placed on him without the benefit of a pre-season but he admits that his initial reintroduction to the training pitch wasn’t pleasant. “It’s obviously not a nice feeling trying to get fit during training when people are running by you and you don’t feel up to match sharpness but I feel I am getting stronger every day in training.”
His schedule is still modified by the club who don’t want him “doing too much” but he can now delight in pushing forward – in every sense. “The sports science guy, I speak to him after training and he could see that I was buzzing just to be running. Not even playing football, just running in a straight line. It’s such a good feeling to be back out there and playing. It’s been frustrating from the point of having the ankle injury up until that, but I’m looking to kick on now, keep doing well at Palace and try to cement a place here.”
Reaching the 26-cap threshold, which the World Cup qualifier in Slovakia on Tuesday allows him to do, would be a “good landmark” but he wants “more and more after that to try to become a regular” with his country.
The FA Cup winner with Wigan knows that his time in dark blue hasn’t been all it promised.
“I think I’ve done better at my club than I have done in internationals, and that’s frustrating because there is no greater pride than playing for your country,” McArthur said. “When everyone you know is supporting you and you maybe don’t do as well as you can then that’s frustrating, but I’m looking to put that right. I’m trying to do well here and I’m trying to become a regular.”
That has been achieved at Palace in the most testing of circumstances. He accepts to be chosen ahead of Cabaye he “must be doing something right” but also that “you know that if you step off it, 2 per cent, there’s a chance someone else will be there to nick your place.” And McArthur can reel off an impressive list of names to forward the case for why Pardew really can take Palace places.
“‘[Christian] Benteke has been brilliant. [Andros] Townsend, [James] Tomkins, [Steve] Mandanda. When you mention those signings you see the quality and where the club are trying to go. Benteke has been very good not only with his goals but also his hold-up play. I think now we have a fear factor that teams are worried about when we get players in the box. That’s a good feeling for us.
“The manager is very good. All the boys love working under him. He’s got different gameplans for different matches. I think that’s great. This year we are in transition. We were, under [Tony] Pulis and [Neil] Warnock, more rigid. Sitting in, playing more channel balls, or more direct balls. Now we’re mixing it up. We’re pressing teams, passing the ball. We’re obviously playing it long at times. But it’s been a very enjoyable start to the season.”
McArthur could never have thought he would be able to utter such a statement six weeks ago.