Walker all smiles again ahead of return

Jimmy Walker steps out at Upton Park tonight for his first game back after recovering from a serious knee injury, and admits he has a smile on his face again after reaching the light at the end of the tunnel.

The Hammers goalkeeper will play for the reserves against Leicester City, almost nine months since his ill-fated appearance in the Championship play-off final at the Millennium Stadium, when he sustained a sickening cruciate ligament rupture in the closing moments of our 1-0 victory over Preston North End.

Despite facing an exhausting rehabilitation schedule in his bid to return to fitness, the 32-year-old has remained upbeat and as popular as ever down at the Chadwell Heath training ground, and typically managed a joke when reflecting on his battle against a career-threatening injury.

"I've grafted harder this year than I've ever done in my career!" laughed Jimmy. "I've managed to stay fairly upbeat, but it has been a tough nine months or so, not only with my rehab but also watching the lads enjoying themselves in the Premiership.

"It's great to see them doing so well, but it makes you want to be a part of it even more, and there have been times when I've been a bit down about my situation.

"I got my head round it, though, and I've really pushed on in the past couple of months. Getting back out on the training field was a major breakthrough for me - it was lovely to be rolling around in the mud and working with Ludo again!

"I've still got a lot of hard work ahead of me, to get back into the swing of things and find my match fitness, but there is light at the end of the tunnel now, and I've got a smile on my face again."

Anyone who has seen a TV replay of the incident that ended Jimmy's participation in the play-off final will still wince at the memory of it, and there were genuine fears in the following weeks that he may have played his final game for the club.

However, Jimmy refused to feel sorry for himself or slip into a state of depression and, having confronted his personal challenge head on, is now beginning to enjoy the rewards that his hard work and effort have produced.

"I can't knock any part of being a footballer," he says. "You get paid for doing something you love and no-one should ever moan, but suffering an injury like this is a complete nightmare.

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"I've not been really, really down - there's no point, you've just got to roll with the punches, haven't you? I've been a bit grumpy at times, especially on Saturday mornings, but I've always tried to stay positive.

"It's not the sort of injury a goalkeeper usually sustains and, at first, I wasn't aware of any others who had suffered it. Then Danny Coyne at Burnley did exactly the same thing, so he got in touch with me and we've been helping each other through it.

"I went up to a hydrotherapy pool in Manchester - it turned me into a fish for a week! I spent a whole week in there and only came out for a kip at night, but it was a good break from all the rehab work here.

"I've had to set myself targets along the way, and my plan is to come back stronger and fitter than ever. Obviously I'm not out of the woods yet, but to be playing again before the end of the season is fantastic.

"It means it hasn't been a completely wasted year, so now I can hopefully just crack on and work hard. It's great being back among all the lads and the dressing-room banter, and it would be a dream if I could get a taste of the Premiership before the end of the season."

And should he make it back in time to enjoy his top flight debut during the closing stages of the campaign, don't be surprised to see Jimmy looking slightly more animated than usual.

"I've been going to all the games this season and, to be honest, I don't know how the fans cope!" he says. "I never realised how worked up you can get watching from the sidelines and it's certainly given me a new outlook on the game.

"I've enjoyed being able to have a go at the refs, though, and in a funny way, it's been good watching the game from a different angle and seeing how the fans view it. I think I could make it as a manager now!"