There was just one minute on the clock in Friday night’s Premier League 2 season-opener against Everton when Michail Antonio was presented with his first competitive touch of a ball in more than four months.
Latching on to a defensive clearance midway inside his own half, the reigning Hammer of the Year had the simple option of checking back and laying off a safe, short pass to a team-mate. However, that idea quickly evaporated.
Instead, the 27-year-old pushed the ball beyond England Under-20 World Cup-winning right-back Jonjoe Kenny, opened his legs, and powered through a full 70-yard sprint before whipping in a dangerous cross that was inches away from finding the head of Toni Martinez.
For Antonio, it was immediate proof that his recovery is on perfect track and a first team return is just around the corner.
“I thought I might as well test it out straight away!” smiled the popular winger, who has spent the summer undergoing gruelling rehabilitation work following the hamstring injury he suffered in the 1-0 victory over Swansea City at London Stadium back on April 8.
A 70-minute run-out for Terry Westley’s side in a competitive and hard-fought 0-0 draw at Dagenham and Redbridge provided the ideal test for Antonio, whose attitude and commitment was as impressive as his physical condition.
“It felt amazing to be back,” he added. “It was a great game, both teams went out to win it, and I really enjoyed being involved in it.
“It’s been four months since the injury and I have really missed that feeling. It was always the plan to play 70 minutes in a PL2 game before returning to the first team and it has gone as I hoped.
“Of course I feel tired but that is only to be expected after the first game back, and the main thing is that the power and strength was there.”
It’s been four months since the injury and I have really missed that feeling. It was always the plan to play 70 minutes in a PL2 game before returning to the first team and it has gone as I hoped
With another full week of training now ahead of him, the hope is that Antonio will be ready to join the squad for the trip to his former club Southampton next week.
“I would say I am at 95% now in terms of speed and power,” he said. “And the only way to get to 100% is to be involved in matches and those duels with opponents where you give everything you have.
“It’s been a long time but I feel really good now and can’t wait to get back.”