At times it did not look as though Jack Wilshere was breathing through his mouth. The Arsenal midfielder and great hope of English football played his first minutes for 14 months in the Under-21 Premier League fixture at West Bromwich Albion on Mondayand the good news was that his right ankle held up. His temples, however, pounded. Asked afterwards how he felt, he replied with one word: "Shattered".
There was a sweetness to the discomfort. Wilshere had dreamed about this day throughout the arduous months of rehabilitation from the stress fracture that he suffered on international duty for England against Switzerland on 4 June 2011. That remains his last senior competitive action. His previous football had come in the Emirates Cup friendly against the New York Red Bulls on 31 July of last year, when he aggravated the injury, the first of many setbacks.
He lasted 63 minutes of Arsenal's 1-0 defeat by West Brom and, if it was far from a vintage performance, it did not matter. To Wilshere and everybody connected to the club it was a positive step forward. Caution must remain the watchword and Wilshere can expect to play for the under-21s again. But the target is to have him on the first-team substitutes' bench by the end of the month. It feels achievable.
"When you have been out for so long it's only natural that you're going to be tired," said Emmanuel Frimpong, the Arsenal midfielder, who played as part of his own comeback from serious injury. "Jack needs more games to get fit but I think the England and Arsenal fans should be excited to see him back playing."
This was no ordinary under-21 game. Wilshere was met by a cluster of photographers in attendance as he emerged from the tunnel – the media presence was substantial – and the announcement of his name over the PA system was cheered. There are normally only scouts at such matches but here there were 338 people in the stands. Many had travelled from London; one sported a "Wilshere 19" shirt.
Wilshere is now the club's No10, the shirt he took over in the summer from the departed Robin van Persie, and he played in the attacking midfield role in the reserve coach Terry Burton's 4-2-3-1 formation, although he did briefly swap places in the first half with Frimpong, who played in one of the deeper-lying central positions.
Wilshere's every involvement was scrutinised, particularly when the 50-50 challenges presented themselves, even if he has already mixed it in training since his return to full-contact sessions on the Thursday before last. He caught Mikel Arteta in one of them with a full-blooded tackle and saw his team-mate come after him. Arteta did not connect fully but, for Wilshere, the exchange represented a psychological hurdle cleared.
"I've given him a few testers," Frimpong added with a smile. "When you're training with me every day, you're always going to come back with a few knocks. Jack gave Mikel a little tester so Mikel knows he's back and has to be on his toes. When you've been out for so long, you want people to knock you about a bit."
Wilshere was the recipient of a hospital pass from Jernade Meade in the 13th minute and, when West Brom's Sam Mantom dived in, he wisely decided not to go there.
He has spent enough time in various wards. In the second half he emerged from a collision with Yassine El Ghanassy, the West Brom goalscorer. It was impossible not to sense fluttering hearts.
Wilshere, who has bulked up from his sessions in the gym – his thighs look like tree-trunks – felt a couple of digs but he dished out a bit, too.
There were flashes of his former self, a smart pass here and a driving run there, but it was the understandable lack of stamina that was most pronounced. He practically dragged himself through the latter stages of the first half as errors crept into his play. The 20-year-old, though, was simply happy to be back.