One of the stars of the 2012/13 campaign so far for Fulham has been midfield dynamo Steve Sidwell, with the 29-year-old’s return to match action almost equivalent to signing a new player.
A near ever present in the previous season until injuries curtailed his progress; a gruelling rehabilitation period saw him return to action after a dark period for the man dubbed ‘Ginger Iniesta’ by the Fulham faithful.
“It was a hernia that turned into groin that turned into abdominal,” Sidwell explained. “It stemmed into an absolute nightmare. We went to see specialist after specialist and nobody could really put their finger on it. I’d rather someone said you’ve done this or that and you’re going to be out for ‘x’ amount of months but there was just no light at the end of the tunnel.
“The last operation I had could have been the last throw of the dice, but it worked. There was a time when I sat down with my advisors and got paperwork out to look at what circumstances I would be in if I had to throw in the towel. That actually was a really bad time as football is something I’ve done since I was five years old and don’t know anything else. It was scary.
“Fortunately I had this operation that worked and I did all the rehab. The people here that worked with me have been fantastic to get me back playing.”
His energetic performances at the heart of Fulham’s midfield have earned him glowing critiques this season. A classic box-to-box player, Sidwell complements his dogged style of play with a welcome flair, notching two goals already this term.
But while the ease with which he has found his rhythm should be applauded, the man himself continually strives to improve as a footballer.
“I’m so critical of myself and my performances,” Steve said. “I don’t think I’ve performed anywhere near as well as I can. During the international break these last two weeks I’ve done extra fitness training because I need to push myself to the level where I know I can be.
“That winning mentality is driven into you from an early age. This season I’ve got two goals and I’m happy that I’m playing but I can do much more.
“I pulled the Fitness Coach to one side after the Southampton game and said that we need to crack on and do some more stuff, and obviously the staff here are all for that. We had a few days off during the international break but I came in every day and I’m feeling fitter and stronger and I’ll continue to do that until I reach that standard where I know I can be.
“I set a target and I set my standards high. I want to reach them and if I don’t then I’m disappointed.”
Sidwell is currently partnered in the middle of the park by the versatile Chris Baird. The pair have earned rave reviews from Manager Martin Jol and Steve admitted it’s important to have players like ‘Bairdinho’ in the Team.
“I think me and Bairdy are two honest pros that are going to give 110 per cent,” he said. “There are no airs and graces about us, we just get on with our job. We don’t mind doing the dirty work as well as other stuff, and we do a job for the Team.
“I think if you’ve got those players in the Team - it doesn’t matter what position - then you’re going to do well. Of course you need players that can change a game on its head, which we’ve got, but you need the lads to do the gritty stuff as well.
“When I came to Fulham, my game reached another level on a passing and creative side. That was because of the ethos of the Team - passing the ball well - and if you come into this Team that’s how you’ve got to play.”
Sidwell will be reacquainted with some familiar faces when Aston Villa visit the Cottage on Saturday (3pm), although they are still without club captain Stiliyan Petrov.
The Bulgarian is in recovery after it was confirmed his acute leukaemia was in remission, and Sidwell confessed that it hit him hard when he first learnt of his former teammate’s condition.
“I remember the phone call I got when someone told me,” he recalled. “I was out on the golf course and had to walk off the course. Until you’ve met Stan you wouldn’t believe how nice he is, a real gentleman. I spoke to a lot of players around at the time at Villa and the way it hit that club was like an absolute bomb because he was such a big figure in the dressing room and around the ground.
“When I came off the golf course I just sent him a text to say ‘I wish you all the best and let me know if you need anything.’ His first text back was to say, ‘thank you very much, I’ll beat it.’ That’s the sort of person he is.
“I’ve kept in contact with him and we had a Villa fundraising day for him a few months back that I went up to with a few old players. It puts it all into perspective. He’s a strong character and he’ll get through it. He has got a great family and great people around him which obviously helps.”