Alan Judge didn’t think it would take until he was hitting 30 for his big Lansdowne Road moment to arrive but there were spells it looked beyond him.
Ireland’s late matchwinner in Saturday’s 2-1 victory over USA hadn’t even been included in Martin O’Neill’s original extended squad, increasing the sense of joy after smashing home within two minutes of entering the fray as Ireland’s final substitute.
This time two years ago, Judge was a frustrated figure, laid up with that very left leg in plaster.
Just two weeks after putting himself in the frame for the Euro 2016 finals, by playing the full 90 minutes on his debut against Switzerland, he suffered a horrendous broken leg while playing for Brentford.
Complications during his recovery forced a second operation, meaning he spent a total of 21 months out of competitive action.
Not alone did he miss out on a major tournament for his country but the imminent move to a Premier League club was jettisoned.
Reaching that top level still remains a priority, he confirmed after Saturday’s late and effective cameo, yet the necessity to rebuild his fitness during a first pre-season since 2015 is paramount. Only then can he also be sure that O’Neill doesn’t overlook him again.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for something like that,” he admitted. “The fact I’ve scored for Ireland, and in a home match, is an incredible feeling. I know it’s only a friendly but for someone who has been out as long as I have, it means a lot.
“I don’t know why the manager didn’t name me in the squad (originally) but I didn’t let it get me down and even avoided booking a holiday just in case the call came. Thankfully it did and I got to play in the matches against France and USA, something I’d never believed was possible after making my comeback for Brentford in January.”
The Dubliner could well have shipped flak had visiting goalkeeper Bill Hamid not allowed the first-time effort squirm through his fingers. James McClean was about to let fly with his right foot until Judge took it off his toe.
“James was giving out to me during the celebrations but I told him he should have passed to me earlier,” he said with a grin. “It all worked out.”
Long-term injuries have stalled the progress of various players in the squad aside from Judge, including Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady, and James McCarthy. The Brentford man revealed the stricken team-mates would often stay in touch to chart progress, swapping recovery tips along the way. “I was always in constant contact with Seamus and we’ll help James too,” said the former Blackburn Rovers winger.
“More than anything, a long lay-off poses a mental test. I wanted to show I wasn’t a quitter.
“Having a setback like I had, with a second operation, you could easily throw the towel in. Don’t get me wrong, there are days when you think like that but I always went home, woke up and went again. Seamus helped me through that.”
All that time on the sidelines allowed Judge to reassess his approach to the game and he can feel the benefits of the tweaks he implemented.
“I didn’t realise until the injury how better I could look after myself,” he confessed.
“I’m using the gym much more now, working on my legs to meet the demands required of playing Saturday, Tuesday, and Saturday for lots of weeks in the season. Also, my diet has improved. Physically, I’m in the best condition I’ve ever been. Brentford were careful in giving me bits of pieces of matches and, while I wanted more game-time, I understood the team were doing well and they were managing me.
“Now, I’ll get that holiday. We’re going with the kids, so I might need another week off afterwards!”
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