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Sven Botman: 'I think, slowly, I'm starting to get back to my original self'

Written by Tom Easterby

An old Paolo Maldini adage comes to mind as Sven Botman reflects on his tentative first steps back into action after the worst injury of his career. "If I have to make a tackle, I have already made a mistake," Maldini once opined, allegedly, in what sounds like a chin-strokingly self-indulgent reflection on his own game. There is no real proof that the great Italian defender ever said that. But it's a nice line and we'll go with it.

"So, after Sunderland, I remember I said to one of my teammates after I did a tackle in the first five minutes or something that after four or five games of getting some minutes, that was my first actual tackle," begins Botman, who had returned from a knee ligament injury almost a month before the FA Cup win on Wearside in January. "It's about confidence, and it takes time to get every aspect back in your own way of how you play. It all takes time, and that was my first time.

"But now I've experienced it, I'm getting there. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for another player than it does for maybe someone else. But I did it my own way, and I'm happy with where I'm at right now."

Perhaps there is an element of truth in Maldini's words. According to the league's figures, Botman has made just 52 tackles – an average of just over 1.06 per match – in 49 Premier League games. To the naked eye, and possibly to those with only a basic grasp of football data, that seems like a low number. It fits with what you see on the pitch; an assured, powerful, mobile defender who rarely looks stretched.

That intervention at the Stadium of Light was one of a series of firsts for Botman as he climbed back into the saddle. Did he realise, initially, there was a big problem when his knee jarred in Newcastle's 1-0 win over Brentford in September? "Well, I played with it, so at that time, no!" he laughs. He carried on, scoring in an 8-0 win at Sheffield United a week later and coasting through the Magpies' biggest ever away win. But that proved unsustainable and the process of rehabilitation was intense.

"I really underestimated it," he admits. "I've never had such a big injury before, luckily, but it's really difficult to get back, to get used to things – bodies around you, the speed of the Premier League, the quality that opponents have. It's not as easy as everybody thinks.

"When you're back fit, everybody thinks that you are directly the old Sven again. I took a bit of time and some games and minutes, but I think I'm getting back to my old self."

Botman speaks of the trepidation of being back among the 'bodies'. There is a natural wariness about being back in proximity to other players, being back in contact training, after the best part of three months out. "When I was in rehab inside and when I went outside, the physiotherapists told me I had to get used to bodies around you. I was also thinking, like, 'what do you mean?' That's usually a normal thing.

"But when you're getting back on the pitch after such a long time, after training by yourself, and then getting back to having 20, 30 people around you, it's so different. When you're training alone, you're constantly focusing on your own injury, your own rehab, and when you have people around you you start to think more about other players and not your injury anymore. It's all part of your rehab, but you have to take your time.

"It's really psychological. It was the first time I've had a big injury physically, and mentally it was hard too."

The 24-year-old's perception of the abilities of 'the old Sven' probably mirrors that of United fans. There is genuine excitement about the potential of the centre back. In his first season after joining from Lille in 2022 he was imperious. There is not a lot lacking in his game.

Was he concerned that the injury would bring his ceiling down a bit? "No, not really. The only thing was that it is quite hard to get back in your rhythm again. I expected myself to be at my best in the first game I started again, but that's not possible. That's what I realise now – hopefully not for a next injury – but it was a good lesson for me, that I can't expect myself to get right back again in the first game to a good level." Was that lesson borne of high expectations? "Yeah, definitely. That's the first thing, but also the second thing is that it's just not possible that you're directly on your best level after such a long period on the sidelines. But that's something I learned for myself and it only makes me a better player."

Botman was stricken at a time when treatment tables were in short supply at the Magpies' training centre in Benton. "Sometimes you were inside the physio room and there were 11, 12, 13 players. We were looking at each other, like, 'what are we doing here?!' It was so weird – a hard time for the club. We still have a lot of injuries but it's now better. I'd never seen this before… so many injuries."

Earlier this season, Joe Willock explained in these pages how, during his own recovery from hamstring and achilles problems, Botman was among the players who would forgo their own days off to come in and support their teammate through their work in the gym. He says that gesture was reciprocated but some days just became a bit too much.

"I went to Amsterdam for a few weeks because I found it hard for myself that every day I came into the club, people were asking about my injury. I wanted to do the opposite – to not think about my injury," he says. "I know it's good, that people want the best for you – that's why they ask – but on the other hand I just wanted to get out of all the questions about the injury and just focus on the positives. I had a lot of support from my teammates and they were really good for me. That helped me get through as well.

"I'm feeling really good. The last month since I started playing again was just about getting back into a rhythm. It's quite difficult when the team is in the middle of the season and you finally get back to playing again. But I think, slowly, I'm starting to get back to my original self."

This season, Botman adds, has been "a rollercoaster". It began with hopes of a Champions League run that were relatively swiftly dashed and in this era of heightened ambition, Newcastle need to return to that level. It is a desire that verges on a need for those in black in white.

"We're in the middle of the season now and we're not at our best position in the table, but I think we can make things right," he says. "We still have a lot of games left – we're in the FA Cup and the Premier League, and we have less games than in the first half of the season. I think we can make a good run and get something out of the season. I am positive about it.

"Our main goal is the top four, or course. It has to be the goal. If we finish with a Europa League ticket, that would be good as well. But our main goal is the top four. We still have to believe in this. If we make good runs, everything is possible. I'm certainly positive about that, and believe that we can make this goal."

This interview is featured in Saturday's edition of UNITED, the club's official matchday programme, for the visit of Bournemouth. Find out more about what's inside the latest issue here.

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