Matt Maher: Kidderminster's Matt Preston rebuilding after the highs and lows of football
On February 5 last year, Matt Preston experienced his finest moment in football so far, named man-of-the-match as Kidderminster Harriers came within seconds of knocking West Ham out of the FA Cup live on BBC television.
Just a fortnight later, he was left fearing his career was over after, in his words: “Having my foot snapped off my leg.”
More than one specialist told Preston he would likely never play again following an injury which, for a footballer, is about as bad as it gets: A double break of his ankle, an open fracture where the bone had pierced the skin.
Just as well then, the 28-year-old centre-back is the type of character who loves proving people wrong. Now back to fitness and back at Harriers having recently signed a new one-year deal, there may not be another player in the country relishing the arrival of the new season more.
“Despite what I was told, I knew deep down I would play again and I knew I would be as strong as before,” says Preston. “I feel I have done that and I take pride in that.”
Fortunes in football can quickly change, yet there can have been few crueller or swifter twists than the one which befell Preston.
The performance against West Ham, lauded by national media observers both on screen and in print, felt like a potentially breakthrough moment in a career which needed fresh momentum after spells at Walsall, Swindon and Mansfield had not really taken off. On loan at Aggborough from Solihull Moors, Preston appeared to have his kickstart.
Then, just 10 minutes into a National League North fixture against Alfreton at Aggborough on February 19, everything changed.
“I’d planted my left leg and their player came sliding in and it basically pushed my foot off my leg, if that makes sense?” he says.
The calm, matter-of-fact way Preston recounts such a horrifying experience is almost unnerving. He remembers every moment vividly, explaining how – for whatever reason – there was no pain. At one point he chuckles when recalling how his main concern, when watching Harriers doctor Jonathan Darby cut off his boot, was for the footwear.
“I was saying: ‘Please, no, not the boots. They’re a really expensive pair!’” He continues: “Everyone else was panicking more than me.
“I was lying on the pitch, I had the doc and the physio Michael Barrett holding my hands and telling me everything was going to be OK.
“I was like: ‘I’m fine’. At that point I didn’t know the bone was out of the skin.”
Preston was admitted to Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth II hospital, where he waited more than a week for surgery as doctors made sure there had been no infection.
The toughest moment, he claims, came just before the biggest of four operations he would require.
“In hospital I’d been telling people I didn’t want to know how long the recovery would take,” he explains. “No matter who asked me, nurses or people who came to visit, I always told them the same. It would only have depressed me. Then the morning of my big operation the surgeon comes down to see me. Just as I’m being wheeled to theatre he says completely out of the blue: ‘Yeah, you’re looking at around 18 months out, maybe even longer than that’.