The 20-year-old midfielder has recently returned after a 'heart-breaking' injury lay-off but is optimistic of a return to form
In the dark days, and there were plenty of them during 17 morale-sapping months, Jack Wilshere felt the doubts gnaw away. The Arsenal midfielder always knew he would be back from the foot injury that had unceremoniously checked his rise but it was whether he would do so as the same player, the one who had even come to be viewed in some quarters as the saviour of English football.
The 20-year-old describes the stress fracture and the associated set-backs with typical candour. "Heart-breaking," is the emotive term that tumbles most readily from his lips. He had just enjoyed his breakthrough season at Arsenal, which had begun with his full England debut against Hungary and ended with an impressive performance for his country in the Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland. That was 4 June 2011, a date that became etched on his mind. The boy with the world at his feet would not play again at competitive first-team level until the end of last month.
"It's difficult for any player, but especially one like me," Wilshere says. "I was 19 and just breaking into the footballing world. I'd had a good season and was looking to push on. I don't think there was a point where I didn't think I was coming back. It was a serious injury but it wasn't a result of a bad tackle or anything. It just happened over time. It took time to heal and I had a few set-backs. But you question yourself as to whether you can come back to the level I was at before. Hopefully, I can get back to training well and get back to where I was."
Wilshere's comeback has appeared, at times, to have been trailed like one of Frank Sinatra's; the player himself has admitted that "you become a world-beater when you are injured." But although he, together with Arsenal and England fans, can thrill at his return to action, it is clear that a long road still lies ahead.
In his three matches so far for Arsenal, he has been physically shattered. He was withdrawn after 67 minutes in the 1-0 win over Queens Park Rangers on the Saturday before last, when he said that he felt "dead" while he ended his own participation early in this past Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Manchester United, when he mistimed a 69th minute tackle on Patrice Evra to incur a second yellow card. The challenge was clumsy and tired-looking, rather than malicious.
"When you see it in slow motion, it looks like a bad tackle," Wilshere says. "But, honestly, I didn't mean to go for him. I just went for the ball. When the referee sent me off, I was shocked. But seeing it again afterwards, I can see why he sent me off."
Wilshere completed the 90 minutes in the 2-2 Champions League draw at Schalke on Tuesday night although, again, he grew laboured and he admitted that it had been "tough." It was easy to assume that Arsène Wenger, the manager, had pressed him through the game in the knowledge that he would not be available for Saturday's home fixture against Fulham due to the one-match ban for his red card.
Wilshere simply needs to put playing minutes in his legs and it will be interesting to see whether he gets more of them for England in next Wednesday's friendly against Sweden in Stockholm. Wenger tends to be nervous about international managers pushing his players too hard in friendlies, particularly those who are carrying or coming back from injury but Wilshere's domestic suspension has altered the picture. Roy Hodgson announces his squad for the game on Thursday lunchtime.
"It's up to the England manager and I'm sure he will speak to the boss here and they'll decide to do what's best for me," Wilshere says. "If they want me to play, then I'll play but if they decide it's best to rest, then I'll rest. It's a dream to play for England so if I'm selected, I'd look forward to playing. But it's down to the powers above me."
There was a moment early in the second-half against Schalke when Wilshere lay stricken. Hearts jumped as he underwent treatment and it seems as though anxiety will track the early weeks of his return. After what he has endured, another set-back is unthinkable.
Wilshere intends to grit his teeth and battle through. Professional footballers secretly dread pre-season and its rigours but Wilshere must endure something similar in full public view. He has, though, already come a long way in terms of match fitness, as anybody who saw his comeback for the Arsenal under-21s at West Bromwich Albion on 1 October will attest. On that afternoon, he began to suffer midway through the first half.
"Schalke was my first Champions League game since I've been back and it's a step up from the reserves where I've been playing. We've got great players here and even when I was getting tired and losing my head a bit, we've still got the leaders to see me through."
When the going is hard, Wilshere can draw strength from his inner circle; the people that have stood by him so staunchly. His mother and father are prominent among that number while his 13-month-old son, Archie, has not only brought joy but perspective. There are also his friends at Arsenal, such as the midfielder Emmanuel Frimpong, and the club's medical staff, chiefly the fitness trainer Declan Lynch and the physiotherapist Colin Lewin.
"I have to thank all the medical staff ... Declan and Colin," Wilshere says. "When you go to the training ground day after day, there's times when you don't want to do it, especially when you see all the boys go out to training. Declan came during June, when I was really down and he helped me. It wasn't just his rehab work, it was his attitude as well."
Wilshere's attitude has not changed, from his work ethic and full-blooded commitment to his belief in what Arsenal can achieve. He finds himself in a new-look midfield, having last played alongside Cesc Fábregas, Alex Song and Samir Nasri. Now, it is Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla. The objectives remain the same.
"The aim every season is to challenge for the top four and try to win a trophy. It's no different this year. We know we need to get top four but, of course, we want to push on and see if we can get more. We want to challenge for the Premier League.
"We're a bit far behind now and we really need to step it up. We've dropped a few points and we can't afford to drop any more. We need to get a win at the weekend and get our Premier League season properly started. We normally go to Old Trafford and put in a better performance than we did but we'll forget about that. We showed at Schalke that we have good character in the team. We'll push on and come back."
Wilshere's personal journey has been marked by his fighting spirit and the realisation that nothing can be taken for granted. He has seen the light at the end of the tunnel and it feels blinding.
"I've missed so much football and I need to train hard to get back to the level where I was," he says. "I think I can do it. I feel better and better as the weeks go on. It's a long season so I need to take it easy a bit but I'm looking forward to the future again now."