Florian Lejeune: Le journey to full recovery
Written by Luke Vinton
"My aim at that point was to play in every game right up until to the end of the season, but then unfortunately the injury happened and that was something I couldn't get away from."
It has been over five months since Florian Lejeune last played a competitive fixture for Newcastle United as he sits down with ease at United's Benton-based training ground to reflect on a difficult eight months in which the Frenchman suffered anterior cruciate ligament injuries in each knee.
"The first injury was tough, but I came back quickly, I was back playing with the reserves after four months and then for the first team after five months," the 28-year-old tells nufc.co.uk. "After that we'd managed to put together a good run of results, especially at home."
The defender sustained his first setback during pre-season training at the end of July 2018 but, after making excellent progress, travelled to Rome for the first part of his lengthy rehabilitation and hard work with United's medical team before returning to competitive action in December.
Lejeune played the opening 45 minutes for United's under-23 squad at Whitley Park, a stone's throw away from United's North Tyneside HQ, before regaining his place in United's senior squad after the turn of the new year, starting 13 matches in all competitions for the Magpies.
"My aim at that point was to play in every game right up until to the end of the season, but then unfortunately the injury happened and that was something I couldn't get away from," he says.
After a goalless first half against Crystal Palace, Lejeune went narrowly close to opening the scoring - and netting his first goal in Newcastle colours - in the 53rd minute. Ten minutes later, the centre-back faced a completely different scenario, departing the field on a stretcher.
Lejeune clutches his left knee after a late collision with former Magpie forward Andros Townsend in April 2019
"It had been a good game against a good side, I was feeling good in myself and above all I'd started the second half well," the Parisian says. "I should have scored with a header from a corner.
"Even just before the injury we'd lost the ball out wide near the touchline, so if we hadn't lost the ball maybe I wouldn't have got injured. You never know what might have been. But these things happen, it's unfortunate but that's life.
"As for the injury, everything happened so quickly. I couldn't control what happened. I just felt the knee go. I felt a huge amount of pain and I knew what it was straight away.
"After the Crystal Palace game it was very tough mentally for me, quickly seeing the result of my injury and having to tell myself that I'd be out of action once again for several months.
"But I quickly put it in my head that I had gone through this once before and that I could do it all again just as quickly."
Prior to the clash against Palace, Lejeune had played a key part in the Magpies' memorable home triumphs over Manchester City and Everton as well as forming an impressive defensive partnership alongside captain Jamaal Lascelles and Swiss international Fabian Schär.
However, his season came to an abrupt end before it had even started as the Frenchman, full of discomfort, was guided carefully towards the dressing room as the St. James' Park crowd applauded the centre-back off the field with concerned looks.
"I was aware it could be the same (ACL) injury but it didn't feel the same," he says. "The first time it was a blow, a kick. This time it was more of a twist or sprain.
"Why me, why this for a second time? I'd worked so hard to come back so quickly and now I'd be out of action for a long period once again. I'd been feeling good about my own performances and form, plus the team was on a winning run.
"So, to have put in such a big effort to come back and to win my starting place in the side once again; all that made it very hard to take. Having to start out again on the comeback trail was tough.
Lejeune exits the pitch after suffering his season-ending injury against Crystal Palace
"We'd started the second half really well and upped the tempo and put more intensity into our game. We were bossing the game and I think it's true to say that the injury interrupted our rhythm.
"We lost our momentum and then Crystal Palace found a way back into the game and scored the winning goal towards the end. So, it was the wrong result for us and then bad news for me. A disappointing evening."
After numerous thoughts had frantically spun through his head, Lejeune vividly remembers the difficult moment of entering the dressing room moments before Palace's Luka Milivojević would score the winning penalty, ending United's impressive home run of five successive wins in the process.
"The hardest part of it all for me was from the moment I got injured to when I was back in the dressing room," he adds. "Those ten minutes or so were very, very hard to take psychologically.
"I actually cried at that point. Emotionally I just let myself go and then when I was back in the dressing room I knew exactly what I had done, even though I was yet to have a scan. I knew what it was, and I had to say to myself, more rehab and more hard work on the road to regaining fitness.
"Subconsciously, you start asking yourself lots of questions. You say to yourself, maybe I came back too quickly, maybe other things, lots of things really. In the end I wondered whether I should go back to Rome or go somewhere else and take my time more because it was the summer break. I had no reason to rush at all."
After discussions with then-manager Rafa Benítez and club doctor, Paul Catterson, Lejeune made the decision to travel again to Rome as he planned for another tedious, repetitive period of recovery work.
Returning to the Italian capital with his wife-to-be, Laury, as well as their new-born daughter, Lena, Lejeune successfully underwent an operation at Villa Stuart, a medical clinic situated three miles north of Vatican City.
So how did it feel having to begin the rehabilitation process all over again?
"It was easy," he says. "I knew what was going to happen as I was familiar with the whole programme. The operation went really well. The process of coming around from the operation went very well too. I felt very good.
"I could move my legs straight away, unlike the first time where it had been very difficult. I felt very relaxed and I told my wife that she could go back to the hotel with our little girl.
"The next day I managed to be able to walk and they were things I wasn't expecting. Everything to do with the actual recovery and rehab went really well.
"I had learned stuff from the first time in Rome. It was pretty easy. My wife would come and see me at midday, and we'd have lunch together and she'd stay for a while and then I'd get back to my rehab in the afternoon. She would just come back in the evening to have dinner.
"I was doing my rehab in the clinic itself. My room was on the second floor, just upstairs from the treatment rooms on the level below. You have to stay in the clinic for the first three nights after the operation."
Whilst his team mates were enjoying their summer break after an intensive top flight campaign, a determined Lejeune was made to put in the long, intensive hours during the summer period in order to strengthen his left knee.
And despite arranging a holiday to Mykonos, his stay in the small Greek island was brief as, rather than a longer, peaceful vacation in Southeastern Europe as expected, Lejeune continued heavily with his rehabilitation work.
"It was pretty much the same as the first time," he recalls with a thoughtful look. "It was just as tough, but I couldn't make the most of my holidays! Before the injury happened, before the Crystal Palace game, I'd booked my holidays for that summer.
"Given that I'd be staying two months in Rome, that now cut that time in half, so I would then do one month in Rome, have a week's holiday, then go back for another month in Rome. So that did allow me to have a break in the middle. Everything coincided perfectly.
"The week that I went away on holiday I kept on working for my rehab, as I had a physio there too."
After returning to Tyneside for the first week of pre-season, Lejeune was unable to participate in United's Premier League Asia Trophy campaign as his United team mates jetted off to China in July.
In fact, Lejeune has missed almost ten months of playing action due to the two injuries, so how has he been able to deal with being sidelined for such a long period of time? "It's been very, very difficult," he says in a frustrated tone. "It's very tough to not be part of things. I had to come here to train on my own and then just watch as the lads would set off for their pre-season games.
Lejeune reports to Newcastle United's training ground for the first day of pre-season ahead of the 2019/20 campaign
"Back then I did go along to all the games at the stadium, but yes, it is hard to just watch. At least the first few minutes were hard to watch, and then I would settle down a bit more.
"When I got injured, it was the first couple of games more than anything. You realise that you cannot do anything at all.
"I always give one hundred per cent in all I do. If I need to be in here all day then that's what I do, stay here. It's not whether I have put more effort in this time, but just that the second time is different.
"I have a routine, but that routine is really tough each month. It's hard to explain but, at the end of the day I've given it my all. I come in early, I have all the rehab, physio and then stay indoors doing my gym work.
"I'm then out on the pitch, I stay here at lunch time, then I have more physio, then go back in the gym. I'm here at the training ground a lot!"
A few days after speaking to nufc.co.uk, Lejeune is set to fly out to Italy to see a specialist and will be hoping his visit to the country will be his last in relation to the injury which heavily hindered his playing career.
"I'm due to go back to Rome next week to get the green light," he adds. "Then after that it will be another week or two until I am training back with the squad.
"I've been kicking the ball for quite some time now. I began doing a bit of ball work after the first month in Rome. During that second month I was working with the ball and starting to kick out on the pitch that the clinic has.
"Then of course it's very enjoyable for sure to come back here and get back out on the pitch. It's always another step forward. I'm not far off making my comeback."
Along with being boosted by the vast amount of messages from United supporters and receiving great support from his family members, Lejeune ultimately highlighted a special figure in particular who had been influential for him in his two recovery bids.
"Above all it was the support from my wife," he says. "I think that it has been much tougher for her than it has for me! The first time it was very tough for her. In the sense that she was pregnant, and then gave birth out there. So, this time it was 'Rome again, with the little baby this time, why me!' She was very sad, and she cried.
"But my wife was always very supportive, and always helped me a lot. I had great support from the whole of my family, the club and of course there were all the messages from the Newcastle fans which really touched me too."
During his recovery from his first anterior cruciate ligament injury, there was some wonderful news for Lejeune to savour during his time in Rome, celebrating the birth of his first child Lena.
And, despite an unexpected return the following year, there was another celebration in store for the Lejeune family, as - having proposed to his partner in none other than the eternal city he had spent so many months in, completing strenuous work on his route to full fitness - the couple married during the summer.
"I believe there are certain tests and hardships to go through in life, and with myself and my wife, it united us even more," Lejeune says with a beaming smile across his face.
"I have a very strong relationship with her, we are extremely close, but when you experience moments like that it brings you even closer together and so I took the opportunity of being in Rome to propose to her.
"It was in a restaurant in the city centre. I think that maybe it was just fate or destiny, that I did my rehab in Rome and then I proposed there too. Just as many nice things can happen in Rome too, not just having surgery on my knees!"
Lejeune training in August 2019 with Newcastle United rehabilitation fitness coach Cristian Fernandez
As a nightmare spell on the sidelines looks to be approaching its final stages, Lejeune believes, despite consecutive anterior cruciate ligament injuries, he has benefited as a person as he edges towards a highly anticipated return to United's back line.
"The fact that is I already have a good strong mentality and now after these two injuries I think that my mindset is even stronger," he says. "I think that I have done everything that I possibly could have done to make a full recovery in as short a period as possible.
"I've put everything in on my side, and the club can see all the work I do on a daily basis. So, I feel good mentally, it was just hard for me right at the beginning of my rehab, but the further on you get in the process, the closer you get towards the finish line.
"Now we are just a few weeks away and, right at the start, it seemed like an age ago."