In the wider football world, Bognor Regis Town’s third goal in their 3-1 FA Trophy win over Hayes & Yeading last weekend, didn’t cause much of a ripple.
But for Alfie Rutherford, it was the culmination of an extraordinary, painful, gruelling and boring 13 months. Rutherford scored with his second touch after coming off the bench, but that’s not the remarkable bit. It was also his second touch after being out for over a year, having suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), and undergone heart surgery.
To repeat, that’s a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and heart surgery.
“Usually when I’m on the pitch, all I think about is scoring a goal or helping the team,” Rutherford tells The Athletic. “All I was thinking about on Saturday was just running around, trying to get fit again. But then within two minutes I’ve scored.”
13 months out, heart surgery, ACL surgery, it’s been a long road but such a good feeling to be back out there ❤️🏥 https://t.co/dobEdH2rbD
— Alfie Rutherford (@AlfieRutherford) October 8, 2023
The mix of emotions — relief, elation, caution — must have been extraordinary, because of what Rutherford has been through in the last 13 months.
In September 2022, while playing for Dorking Wanderers in the National League against Wrexham, Rutherford ruptured the ACL in his right knee.
“We were 5-0 down at the time and me being me, I’m still chasing lost balls over the top. The defender took a touch inside, I’ve just tried to follow him and as I’ve planted my foot, my knee twisted, but my foot sort of stayed in the floor. There was no contact, and no-one around me.
“It felt like it felt like a bullet had gone through my knee.”
A few days later, when the telltale balloon-like swelling around his knee had subsided, a scan confirmed what Rutherford probably knew the moment he felt that pain. As he waited for an operation on his ACL — remember that, as a semi-professional player without the backing and money of a big club, this was all done via the NHS — the Dorking manager Marc White made a suggestion regarding another pretty hefty medical issue.
Rutherford has, since birth, suffered from a condition called aortic stenosis. His version of it is asymptomatic, which is to say he has basically been able to go about his life without any adverse affects and, he says, only really thinks about it when he gets letters from the hospital inviting him for a check-up and scan.
But, as will become clear when he explains exactly what it is, it’s the sort of thing you probably want to get fixed sooner rather than later.
“Basically, it’s just a narrowing of the valve. The aortic pump in your heart has three ventricles. It sort of looks like a Mercedes badge (with three triangular flaps) that open up all the time.
“Mine is bicuspid, which means it only has two, and it struggled to open at times and struggles to pump blood through.”
So after it became clear he would be out of action for the better part of a year anyway with the knee problem, White suggested this would be a good time to address the heart issue too.
It had to be done at some point. Rutherford has never actually asked his various doctors what would happen if it was left unaddressed, given it is a pretty heavy question, but the implication is clear. “I’m probably guessing that the result would have been death,” he says, quite matter of factly.
Ideally he would have had the knee surgery first, and indeed was about to have it done, but because of his condition and the issues it posed, the anaesthetist decided they didn’t want to take any risks, so the heart would have to be operated on first.
Again, this would have to be done via the NHS, so Rutherford became something of a pest to his local hospital.
“I was calling Southampton General three or four times a week just asking if they’ve got any space. And luckily they squeezed me in in November.”
Rutherford went in on a Monday morning, then woke up 24 hours later with a new valve implanted in his heart, alleviating his previous issues. Rutherford is 25, so was something of an anomaly in the cardiac ward. “I was the youngest person in there by at least 40 years,” he says.
The problem was that he would essentially be rendered immobile for the following two months: when you have surgery as serious as that, the doctors split your chest open, sawing through your sternum, which is traumatic in itself and takes some recovering from. So much so that Rutherford was more or less banned from using his arms, because of the pressure that would place on his chest. The most he could really do was change TV channels with the remote control, which proved useful as the early stages of his recovery coincided quite nicely with the World Cup.
Then, when he had recovered enough from that surgery, around three-and-a-half months later, he was back on the slab to have his knee operation. That was in February, and while the recuperation from that was tough, it was at least rather less tedious.
“I wasn’t leaving my house or my bed at times, but I’m quite a positive person, so I don’t really like to get down about things like that. I just look at it as: it is what it is, and I’d have to have it done at some point.”
While this condition never really impacted his day-to-day life, it has impacted his career. Rutherford was on Portsmouth’s books as a kid, and when he was 15 he was offered a scholar’s deal, which involved taking a medical. The condition showed up in those tests, and as such Portsmouth rescinded their offer. Rutherford hopes that addressing the issue now, will mean it may not be a factor in the future.
Will clubs like Portsmouth react differently now Rutherford has had the operation? “It’s quite hard to say. But I know it definitely makes a difference now because essentially I’ve got a normal heart.”
While semi-pro (his ‘day job’ is as a roofer), Rutherford is a more than handy player. He was top-scorer in the National League South with 30 goals in 2021-22, as Dorking won promotion to the National League, and had found the net a couple of times in the six games before his injury last season. One of the many frustrating aspects of the injury was the timing; the sense he was just getting going, in the division below the EFL, before his progress was scuppered and he was left on the sidelines for a year.
After the months of recovery, Rutherford is now on loan at Bognor Regis for a month, to get back into the swing of things, build up his fitness and start scoring goals. And after the year he’s had, and the dramatic nature of his return, he’s giddy with enthusiasm.
“I feel I’m fit, but if I’m honest I don’t feel any different to how I did before,” he says. “Which is probably quite strange for people to hear, considering it’s a really serious heart operation and probably one of the worst injuries in football.
“The last year of my life has been very dull, just watching other people play football knowing that you can’t affect it.
“The aim is to just get back playing, and get back to enjoying life.”
(Top photo: Lyn and Trev Sports)