Any player who has been through an anterior cruciate ligament injury will tell you that, while fairly common, it is among the most gruelling, both physically and mentally, to recover from. It means reconstructive surgery, months of painstaking rehabilitation and, in some cases, up to a year without kicking a ball.
Those who suffer from one can often find that they are never the same. Some don't make it back at all. Southampton's Sam McQueen was forced to retire earlier this year at the age of 26 after rupturing his ACL back in October 2018. Those unfortunate enough to endure the injury more than once are particularly at risk. A second incident can be career-threatening. A third and the odds of continuing in the game become very low. Radamel Falcao, the Colombian striker, is one of very few footballers on record to still be playing after three such operations.
Has anyone ever recovered from four? This is where Lewis Vaughan comes in. The Raith forward was first struck down by an ACL tear on his right knee in August 2015 aged just 19 – a devastating blow just as clubs in England were preparing to make their move. He fought his way back and was again starting to attract serious interest when his left knee ruptured in January 2019. If that wasn’t bad enough, just two weeks into his second comeback, his right knee went again sending him back to square one. Showing remarkable courage and determination, Vaughan achieved what few others have by returning from his third ACL in late 2020, only to break down again last season. He has now had two ACL operations on each knee and spent a total of three-and-a-half years in recovery. All by the age of 26.
It is a devastatingly cruel set of circumstances to have befallen a player regarded by many as among the most gifted to come through the lower leagues in recent years and one Raith fans regard as one of their own, having been developed through the academy and made his first-team debut at the age of 16. He has produced moments and scored goals that would not look out of place at the Qatar World Cup, and when he made his first appearance in over 14 months after coming off the bench against Partick to a standing ovation from the 2096 crowd, he achieved something something virtually unheard of in professional sport as quite possibly the first ever player to return from four ACL injuries.
"It was amazing. I've never seen anything like it," Vaughan said of the reception he received on that historic moment that brought a lump to the throat of everyone inside the stadium. "It was emotional because it had been so long and the story behind it being the fourth time. All the boys were buzzing for me as well and it just gave everyone a lift. I was expecting a wee bit longer on the pitch but that was me just being stupid and trying to push it again. I got five minutes and touched the ball once. I was buzzing to be back but I was raging I didn't really touch the ball much either!"
Vaughan is now four games into his latest comeback having made his first start in the 5-2 defeat to Queen's Park last weekend. He will likely lead the line against Auchinleck Talbot in the Scottish Cup third round on Saturday afternoon and is setting his sights on getting his first goal.
"I feel fine but I say that everytime it happens so touch wood that I am actually alright. I've just been building my minutes up and taking it easy. I'm just being extra cautious this time, just maybe only training two or three times a week instead of every day. Not getting chucked in right away, built my minutes up and trying to take it back a step. I just need to get my first goal and then hopefully they’ll start rolling. The main goal is to stay fit for the rest of season and see what happens. If I get throught to the end of the season without getting an injury I'll be over the moon.”
Vaughan's story is one that has captured hearts across Scottish football. He has been inundated with well-wishes from fans, fellow players, and opposition managers. Even Jeff Stelling gave him a mention on Soccer Saturday. "The support has been unbelievable. I don't know where I'd be without the support from everyone, but especially the Raith fans who haven't had a bad word to say about me."
Former Raith physio Cammy Ross has played a major role in his recovery, continuing to work with Vaughan despite moving on to Hearts, while John McGlynn, the manager who first gave him his senior debut, and who was in charge of the Stark's Park side when he suffered his most recent two injuries, is the man he credits with saving his career.
“Cammy who done my rehab has went above and beyond for me so many times. Obviously he’s at Hearts now so he doesn't need to do it for me. He does it off his own back, and doesn’t get paid a penny. So he's been amazing for me. If it wasn't for McGlynn I don’t know where I would be. He’s given me everything I've ever needed. Even from just phoning me every night checking up on me. I remember the time I did my third one at Forfar. I went to the hospital with my dad. It was ten o’clock at night, I hadn't been seen and McGlynn turns up. It's just the kind of guy that he is. He sat with me until I got the results of my scan and didn’t leave my side so I can't speak highly enough of him. If it wasn't for him I would probably be on a building site with my dad.”
Given what he has been through, Vaughan's positive outlook is life-affirming. There have been dark moments, doubts, and fears but he has come out the other side each time. His story will be used to inspire others who suffer serious injury, although he admits that when his body crumpled under him again last year, he was as close as he's ever been to throwing in the towel.
“I just remember sitting there thinking how has this happened again. I'd done everything by the book. I never cut any corners. I ticked every box. I worked so hard on my diet, everything. I came back in preseason and won the bleep test by a country mile. I remember phoning my mum and just being like, I don't know how, I don’t know why. I’d worked so hard day in, day out for it to happen again. Mentally and physically, I just didn't want to put myself through it again. Then I just thought, the time is going to pass anyway so I may as well give it another go. Everybody says to me I don't know you do it, I don't know how you keep coming back, but until it happens to you, what else can you do? You can't just sit back and accept it. You just need to get on with it.”
Vaughan has left no stone unturned in his bid to ensure he does not suffer a fifth setback – one which he admits would likely be the final straw. He even reached out to Barcelona-based Dr Ramon Cugat, a knee-specialist once described by Pep Guardiola as the "best in the world" after he helped the current Manchester City boss recover from his own ACL injury back in his playing days.
"I paid for a consultancy fee off my own back just to try and get his opinion. He was supporting me. He said he hadn't seen anyone come back from four but he's had tennis players and American footballers travelling to see him who had done it three times on the one side so that gave me a bit of boost as well speaking to him.
"I don't want to say it, but I feel like this is probably my last time to do it right. I have to look after my body as well and be sensible to a certain degree. I don't know anyone who has come back from four cruciates and is still playing at the same level they were before they done the first one. I'll probably have to adapt my game as well just by not being as stupid and eager as I was before. Using my experience from my previous injuries.
"My conscience is clear now that I've tried absolutely everything, and if it doesn't work this time then it's obviously not meant to be. But I'm remaining confident, I'm thinking positively and I believe that I can get the next five or six years at least fit and hopefully get a good end to my career. If that means I'm at Raith for the rest of my career, or even in the lower leagues then so be it. I just want to stay fit and play football."
Everyone who has seen Vaughan play shares the same opinion that he would be playing at a higher level were it not for his injuries. He would not be human if he wasn’t slightly tormented by thoughts of what might have been. "That’s probably the worst part for me,” he confessed. “Thinking about where I could have been. I see players getting moves here, there and everywhere and no disrespect to Raith, I'm still in the Championship. Obviously they've been amazing to me and I don't know where I would’ve been without them. But the hardest part for me is not knowing the level I could have gone to. I don’t talk about it much because I don't want to be that guy that says I could have done this and that. I’m not that type of person.
“If you had said to me when I was younger I would have to go through this to be a professional footballer I still would have jumped at the chance. I still feel quite privileged that I've had the chance to do that, and that the club have helped me through this journey of four ACLs. Not many clubs would stick by a player that long.”