When Eriksen fell I thought: that could have been me

It’s hard to imagine the mental challenge facing Christian Eriksen in returning to play after suffering a heart attack – but former Socceroo Tony Vidmar has got a pretty good idea of the emotions involved.

If you’ll pardon the phrase, my heart skipped a beat when I read that Christian Eriksen was going to return to playing this weekend, eight months after the awful moment when he collapsed in mid-game for Denmark at the Euros.

It is wonderful news that he has been cleared to play again, despite suffering such a traumatic heart condition in June. I know from first hand the level of testing and evaluating that will have gone on in recent weeks to be sure he is in a condition to resume his fantastic career.

I also know the other side of coming back to play – the emotional part, the thoughts that run through your brain as you take in doctors’ advice, test results and the feelings of all those people close to you. It’s a private ordeal played out in public because of your position as a footballer – in his case, a footballer recognised around the world for his skill.

It’s more than a decade and a half since my brush with a potentially fatal heart situation; but it all came back watching Denmark against Finland at the Euros, and seeing Eriksen collapse as the ball is thrown in towards him. To be frank, the words that went through my brain were: “Oh f***!”

Fans are reassured about the well-being of Eriksen during the Euro 2020 game between Denmark and Finland last June.

Because one of the strange byproducts of going through a process around your heart is learning about its mechanics, how it works and why, sometimes, it can stop working. And that’s why I watched Eriksen being treated so urgently, and carried off, with the nagging thought that it could have been me.

January 2006 was when the world changed for me, not even two months after Australia had qualified for the World Cup and I’d scored one of the penalties in the shoot-out that got us there. I went to do the stress testing that had been mandated by FIFA since Marc-Vivian Foe collapsed and died during the Confederations Cup in 2003. Usually on the treadmill, or on an exercise bike, the test is designed to get your heartbeat to a level of stress and test the flow of blood through it.

After 30 seconds I was told to stop, because of an irregular heartbeat. At the time I was told not to worry too much; the doctors in Holland, where I was playing at the time, were quite used to seeing abnormalities in athletes who were a bit older.

But a month later came the bombshell that I had a substantial blood clot in my left coronary artery. There was no obvious reason for it; nothing genetic, I didn’t smoke or take drugs. But I had been recovering from broken ribs, and just before the test I’d sustained a heavy blow to the chest in training. The doctors theorised that a piece of plaque had broken off and caused the clot; miraculously my heart had generated another artery, but with nothing like the flowrate of the one that was blocked.

Tony Vidmar pictured after it was revealed he would have to miss the 2006 World Cup due to a heart issue.

I was lying on the table having an angiogram when a Dutch doctor without much of a bedside manner told me bluntly: if you continue to play football, you will drop dead. It’s the sort of comment to concentrate the mind, and looking back I had had a shortness of breath at training just before. What still gives me pause for thought is that the stress testing had been delayed because of the broken ribs; the question of what likely would have happened if I’d had the test earlier is not one I wish to dwell on.

But I can well imagine the mental stress Christian Erikssen must have been going through over the past few weeks, taking in doctor’s advice and trying to decide whether to play. The emotional stress on his family through it all would be immense too, especially after they had watched him undergo life-saving treatment on the pitch.

In my case, once that first prognosis had settled in and I had withdrawn from the Socceroos squad to go to the World Cup, I sought a second opinion with the help of Les Gelis and Dr Andrew Jowett – respectively the Socceroos physio and team doctor at the time.

They sent me to see a cardiologist in the UK who told me the initial advice was correct, but that I could try an operation to have the clot removed and a stent inserted in the artery; it came with a chance of success around 70%, he told me.

Vidmar celebrates with Lucas Neill after Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

This is what you have to weigh up, all the factors around your life. In my case I was 36, and by that stage hadn’t trained in three months. Agents told me that even with the operation, few clubs would take a chance on me.  But I thought of the rest of my life ahead of me, my desire to stay active even after playing, and felt I had no option but to try the surgery.

A doctor in London was recommended and he put two stents in my artery in July 2006. After I came round, he wired me up to the angiogram and showed me the blood flowing normally; even he was surprised by the impact. But I had to wait another four weeks before I got the all clear, and all the while the cocktail of blood thinners, anti-cholesterol drugs and stent medication left me covered in bruises.

When I got the chance to sign with the Mariners in the A-League a month later, I was grateful but determined. Most of all, I completely refused to think about the possible consequences of playing and training. I had to be able to train at 100%, never hold myself back, or there wouldn’t have been any point in continuing. And the only way to do that successfully was block out any thoughts that might have held me back.

I think the person who was most stressed by me coming back to play was Andrew Clark, now the Socceroos’ head of sports science. He had just transitioned into the conditioning role at the Mariners from playing and was asked to manage my return with so little experience – I can only guess at what was going through his head.

In the event I played for two seasons before retiring, and have now been involved in coaching for club and country for well over a decade. I still have blood tests every few months and heart tests annually now that I’ve turned 50.

But Christian Eriksen has years of playing at the top level ahead of him, and is such a wonderful player. No wonder there has been such a wave of positive emotions about him coming back to play for Brentford, and hopefully for Denmark soon.

In the end, you have to leave the what-might-have-beens behind, and focus on the future. When people talk about miracles in football, occasionally they mean a real one, and his is a miraculous tale. I hope he enjoys every second of what’s to come.