Exclusive: Ritchie De Laet feeling like the Aston Villa new boy again
Ritchie De Laet is rapidly closing in on his first anniversary as a Villa player but could be forgiven for feeling he has only just arrived.
Since joining in a £2.5million move from Leicester City last August, the vast majority of the 28-year-old’s time has been spent with the medical staff, following the serious knee injury suffered in just his third game for the club.
Rehab was a long and often frustrating road for De Laet, who readily admits to having experienced the occasional “head loss” while also acknowledging the support of family and team-mates which helped him deal with the first major injury of his career.
Now back fully fit and champing at the bit to show supporters - and boss Steve Bruce - what they have been missing, Villa’s pre-season camp in the Algarve in many ways feels like a fresh beginning.
“I feel like the new boy again,” smiles De Laet, in the first newspaper interview following his return.
“What did I do last season? Two weeks of training and three games? I suppose you could say I am like a new signing in that respect.
“At the moment it feels like everything is going at 100mph on the training pitch but mentally I am there. I told them that too.
“At first I was the spare man and no-one could tackle me but I binned that straight away because I needed to know.
“I wanted to get that first tackle in and see how I felt and get that confidence up before the first friendlies come round. If I am not confident to go into a tackle then I might as well not show up for those games.”
De Laet believes the experience of the last ten months has left him a stronger person. The first serious injury of his career, suffered during the second half of Villa’s 1-1 draw with Brentford last September, was a particularly cruel one.
A damaged cruciate ligament was compounded by damage to his hamstring which further held back his recovery.
“It was like three things rolled into one,” explained De Laet, who admits he initially found it hard to watch his team-mates in action in the weeks immediately following.
Players recovering from injury are often akin to forgotten men, with the long and sometimes lonely road back to fitness taking place out of the spotlight.
“You are there but at the same time you aren’t there,” says De Laet. “You are watching them going out training while you are staying inside, which is not a nice feeling for a footballer. But I got through it, I got through those hard months.
“After the operation you can’t do anything so you lose all your strength in your leg.
“My quad was literally nothing, there was no muscle and because I had hurt my hamstring at the same time I couldn’t do everything straight away.
“I had to wait for my hamstring to heal as well. I was not at the club for a good month. After that it is all about getting the strength back in.
“Once you start feeling well and the hamstring had recovered you start kicking on with the big weights and start moving it more on the trampoline. Coming up to the five to six month mark you begin doing the more functional stuff again like standing on one leg, balancing, maybe a little more ball work.
“It’s a lot of patience, a lot of head losses in between as well. But the club has been brilliant, giving me time when it was needed.
“After a while you take things for granted. Being in with the boys every day, being in training. That gets taken away from you all of a sudden.
“At times it wasn’t always pleasant driving into the training ground on the morning.
“My family helped me get through it and the rest of the boys too. The medical team got me through it, physically and mentally, to where I am now.”
Where De Laet finds himself now is in a tough battle to dislodge Alan Hutton at right-back. With Villa also having signed James Bree last season and with a deal for Hull City’s Ahmed Elmohamady very much in the pipeline, it is the position where they arguably have the greatest strength in depth.
De Laet watched from the sidelines with everyone else last term as Villa fell a long way short of expectations but the veteran of successful promotion campaigns with Leicester and Middlesbrough believes they are far better placed this time around.
“People say this season is huge but last season was too and we were disappointing,” he said. “A club like this should not be in the Championship and should definitely not be 13th.
“We should be up there fighting for promotion and I think that is what we will do this season.
“When I first came there was still a bit of negativity from the year before. We would go 1-0 down and heads would drop.
“Since the gaffer came in he has tried to change that. Once we started picking up some wins we went on a good run. In the Championship, you need consistency. Everyone is a year wiser now and I think we will kick on this year.”