Knee injury nightmare now a distant memory for Graham Wilson

Heriot's scrum-half believes he is back near his best but is happy to play back-up to Goldenacre young guns

Graham Wilson
Graham Wilson suffered a catastrophic knee and ankle injury three years ago but was always determined to get back playing for his beloved Heriot's. Image: Fotosport/David Gibson

IT all began on the Thursday night session before Heriot’s played Jed-Forest in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup back in February 2016. The 1st XV were running against the 2nd XV, and Graham Wilson, the top team’s scrum-half, collected a pass he wasn’t expecting.

“I was standing still when I got hit by two people and driven back, and I just felt my left knee pop,” the player recalls. “The two guys got up off me and you could see that my knee-cap had come out. I was lying on the ground and my knee was facing the car park, so I just kind of straightened my leg out and it popped back in. My initial reaction was: ‘That should be fine. Hopefully we’ll get to the final and I’ll be back for that’. It seemed alright – because it had gone back in I thought it might not be too serious.”

You have to admire his insouciance, or bravado, or mindless bravery, or whatever it was he was feeling at that moment – but Wilson’s troubles had only just begun. He was helped across to the Goldenacre changing rooms so that the club physio, Sandy Lyle, could have a look, and that’s when it became apparent that the injury was not restricted to just his knee. Still Wilson was amazingly sanguine.

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“I realised that I couldn’t lift my foot up – it was just sort of hanging there,” he recollects. “We went to A&E and they weren’t too sure about it, so they sent me away and said they would discuss it with the doctors. I was still convinced it wasn’t that bad. It didn’t feel that painful. I had a leg brace on, but I thought that was more a precaution.

“I went down to Jed that weekend to watch the team and had a couple of beers. I got called in for a scan the next week and straight after that I phoned my work [he is a PE teacher at Glasgow Academy] to tell them that the results were due the next Monday so I would probably be back in on the Tuesday.

When Lyle called with the update, the penny finally started to drop. “She said that it was one of the worst they’d seen,” he explains. “I asked if she meant the worst they’d seen that week, and she said it was one of the worst they’d ever seen.

“I had dislocated my knee, wiped out all the ligaments, pulled my hamstring and calf, fractured my patella and had a little bit of cartilage issue. I was top of the trauma list and in for surgery the next week, which is pretty unheard of with the NHS, so at that stage I started to figure that it must be pretty bad.”

“The surgeon was great, he said that he should be able to get me back to 95 per cent of where I was before the injury. He did warn me that I might be a bit slower, but I was never that fast anyway. The plan was to do the two main operations I needed with the knee and then keep the foot-drop under observation because that might just be a crushed nerve which would sort itself out with time.

Going under the knife

“So, they did the first operation in March 2016, which was basically rebuilding everything except the ACL, but that ended up with a bit of an infection and blood-clotting, so I had to go to St John’s Hospital in Livingston for a clean-out and a skin graft, which meant a couple more operations.

“That took time to heal and get right before they could look at the ACL, so it wasn’t until August 2016 that they got around to that second operation I needed. Unfortunately, the date I was given was the first day back after the school summer holidays, so that just continued my absence from work which had already been going on since February. Fortunately, the school were great. They couldn’t have been any more understanding. It was frustrating because I hadn’t been there a huge amount of time.

“I was supposed to be off the crutches within a week, but it wasn’t feeling great – it was kind of puffed up – so I was back in to see the surgeon, and after they took some fluid from it they told me they were going to have to keep me in because it had become infected, which meant I stayed in for two weeks while it got cleaned out twice, taking it up to six operations so far.

“Meanwhile, I was still getting nerve conductivity tests to see if there was any chance of the foot being able to lift back up. I went twice to the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh for that before they confirmed that the nerve was severed, so the following June [2017] I was into the Royal Infirmary for a tendon transfer – taking the tendon from one side of my ankle and moving it across to attach it to my foot and ankle on the other side. It doesn’t always work out like that, but fortunately it did for me.

“After that, it was plenty of rehab to try to build up some of the muscle around the knee and foot, and getting used to running again after a year with this foot fully immobilised and being kept in place by a brace. I got back to low level exercise, then I started with a bit of running and did the Edinburgh 10K last May.”

Getting back in the saddle

Wilson had been 30 when he picked up the injury, so the sensible option would have been to accept that his playing days were over, and that was certainly the recommendation from those closest to him – but the rugby bug was not ready to let go just yet.

“I helped lead the Heriot’s Sevens team last summer and I’d joined in with a bit of touch, and I didn’t feel any instability or anything like that, so when it came to pre-season I decided to give it a go,” he explains.

Needless to say, there was a fair bit or resistance to this bold decision, including from Heriot’s head coach Phil Smith, who also happens to be Head of Rugby at Glasgow Academy.

“I don’t think he thought it was a good idea from both a rugby and a work perspective, and Sandy Lyle wasn’t up for it at all either, but I said to them that I was determined that I was going to do it so they could either help me or leave me to it,” says Wilson.

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“I think the other players were a little bit nervous about it, too – even playing touch. So, when we got around to starting contact, I asked Stewart Mustard [the veteran hooker who has played for the 1st XV in every season since making his debut back in 1998] to help me out. I got him to run at me ten times and I tackled him, then I ran at him and he tackled me, and I got through it fine. I played the second half of our pre-season training game against Hong Kong Scottish the next week, and it went from there.

“I didn’t tell my Dad to begin with because he assumed that I wouldn’t and he wasn’t going to be for it. But then I was at my cousin’s wedding a couple of weeks after that Hong Kong Scottish game and had a few of beers so decided to show him a picture of me playing. He wasn’t impressed and said he wouldn’t come along to watch, but he showed up for the 2nd XV game against Boroughmuir when we won the league, and I managed to get a try so I think he enjoyed it.

“Quite a lot of people have said to me: ‘You were kind of coming to the end anyway, why bother coming back?’ Which is fair enough, but when I did it I was supposed to be playing in the club international the following week, we’d won the league the previous year and won the cup and the league that year, and I was meant to go to the Hong Kong Tens a few months later – so I was still playing some of my best rugby and I didn’t want to just stop like that.

“I felt that if I could come back, and even just play socially, then that was something I wanted to do. I suppose I was hoping to push for a spot in the 2nd XV this season, and I’ve ended up starting all but two games, played quite a few 80 minutes, and just enjoyed being back in training Tuesday and Thursday.

“Quite a lot of boys really don’t enjoy the training side of it, and while I wouldn’t say I was a fitness fanatic, I really enjoy going down on a Tuesday and Thursday for a run about. I just enjoy playing and everything that goes with it.”

With his relatively slight build, shirt untucked and socks round his ankles, Wilson in his pomp often looked like he had just rolled out of bed and onto the rugby field, but his dishevelled appearance belied a shrewd rugby brain, huge engine and fierce passion for success. He also had a right boot which could launch goals from practically anywhere in the opposition’s half.

Graham Wilson
Wilson takes the field ahead of Heriots’ 125th Anniversary celebration match against the Barbarians in April 2015: Fotosport/David Gibson

Given that Andrew Simmers and Alex Ball – two of the most exciting young scrum-halves in the Premiership at the moment – are battling it out for the Heriot’s No 9 jersey, a return to the 1st XV was always a long shot, but the former club captain [for four seasons] believes he is not far off where he was before the injury.

Back near his best

“I never used to make a huge amount of breaks anyway, and I make even less now,” Wilson chuckles. “But I’m probably as fit now as I was then in terms of my speed getting to the breakdown and getting the ball away, and my game management is still pretty decent. I’m very different to Andrew and Alex, who are both very sharp and dangerous at the breakdown – but I feel I am not far off where I was. My defence has actually improved because I just go slow now to protect the knee.

“I’ve loved this season playing for the 2nd XV,” he adds. “It is a good group – a mix of older guys I played with before with the 1st XV and youngsters coming through – and we’ve had a bit of success in winning the league.”

When Smith decided to rest Ball for the Cup quarter-final two weeks ago, he had no hesitation in asking Wilson to join the squad as bench cover. And there was a real sense that this story had come full circle, with the draw once again pairing Heriot’s against Jed in the last eight, just two days short of three years exactly since the injury was sustained during the build-up to the last meeting between these two sides.

Heriot’s are very much alive in both the league and cup, so there could be more opportunities in the back end of the season, and Wilson is determined to keep himself in the frame. Ten years ago, he kicked a 45-yard touchline penalty to secure a dramatic win over Melrose in the Scottish Cup Final, and he clearly fancies another crack at a big Murrayfield day out.

Graham Wilson
Wilson celebrates after scoring a dramatic late penalty to win the Cup for Heriot’s back in 2009. Image: Fotospor/David Gibson

“If I get a shot then I’ll definitely go for it because I feel I can still offer something,” he says. “I would imagine Andrew and Alex are going to be first choice, but I’ll still be down training every Tuesday and Thursday during the lead-up to the semi-finals, and if they win those games I’ll just keep pushing and see how it goes.”

Thereafter, he might try to get a few run-outs in the Sevens and is looking forward to getting back into pre-season towards the end of the summer.

“Heriot’s are obviously going to be in Super 6 next year and I can’t see me being involved in that, but I am looking forward to seeing how we get on as a Club XV side,” he says. “Stewart Mustard said to me that if I play another season then so will he, and I can’t be the reason he eventually hangs up his boots! Rory Carmichael, who I was at university with and have played a lot with over the years, is keen to keep going as well. I’ll just keep playing for a few more years.”

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About David Barnes 4026 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.

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