When you haven’t played a full 90-minute match for a year and a half as a result of a series of debilitating injuries and your dreams seem to be slipping through your fingers, there are plenty of dark moments.
There are the days when you feel that your career might be over before you have had the chance to achieve what you believe your ability should allow you to, the moments when you fear it could end before you have had the chance to play for big clubs, make your mark with the national team, go to the big tournaments.
By the age of 22, Michael Zullo had made the breakthrough in the A-League with Brisbane Roar, won his first senior cap for the Socceroos and earned his move to Europe, where he was part of a group of young Australians the Roar sold to Dutch Eredivisie club Utrecht.
Five years later, Zullo is older, wiser, more mature and with a greater understanding of the transient nature of the game and the way it can set you up only to knock you down. He is happy simply to be able to play a full game.
Now with Melbourne City, the diminutive left back or left winger (he can operate in either role) is delighted that he was able to start and get through more than a half of football last Saturday when John van ‘t Schip’s men came back from Perth with a 2-2 draw against the Glory.
Zullo was laid low with an anterior cruciate ligament injury when he returned to the A-League to play for Adelaide United in the 2013-14 season and since joining City last winter he has been plagued by a series of other niggling problems which have restricted him to cameos during the first half of the current season.
Now he is ready to play a full 90 minutes but, mindful of tempting fate, says that his main focus is to re-establish himself as a top-flight footballer and win a permanent role in the City starting line-up as a left back.
“My goals after what I have been through are pretty much focused on the next four to five months and just establishing myself here. Hopefully that means being a starting left back and contributing to a winning environment and culture at the club.
“It’s something that the club really set out to do this year, to draw a line in the sand and move forward. I just hope to contribute to that and to a successful season,” Zullo said on Wednesday as City began preparations for their clash next Monday with Wellington Phoenix.
The game in Perth last weekend was something of a personal marker for the former Socceroo.
“It was a good feeling, it was the first time I had played more than 45 minutes of league football in a year and a half.
“It’s been a long build-up, but personally for me it was a pretty big occasion. I am still conscious of the fact that I have a long way to go to get back to where I was and to a level I know I can reach.”
He readily admits that there were many low points as he battled to regain fitness, but says that he never once considered throwing in the towel.
“When you first do your ACL you get given a nine-month timeline, but it’s never really like that,” he said.
“I was fit and training again after seven months, but so long out of the game my body just wasn’t really conditioned to professional football again, and as a result I picked up things I had never had any problems with in my career, muscle problems. It wasn’t a really happy time, but that’s behind me now.
“Most of the stuff people see is the high points, the things you do on the weekend. The low points are pretty much off camera and when you are by yourself. It can be a pretty lonely time, but I don’t think throwing in the towel was ever an option even though there were a lot of low points during that time. I was picking up injuries that I never had problems with in my career, and all of a sudden they were recurring injuries.
“But a lot of players had been through it and come out on the other side.”
Zullo is small, quick and enthusiastic, and that eager-beaver nature might, in some ways, have contributed to the series of recurring injuries that prevented him getting back sooner.
“It’s part of my build-up that there’s no half doing things. When I am out there I am going at 100 per cent, maybe that was a bit of a curse in a way. Potentially, I needed to ease myself back in really slowly, but then again that’s probably one of the reasons why I have achieved what I have in my career, because of never doing things at half-speed, always doing things at 100 per cent and training hard,” he said.
“That might have contributed to the injury problems that I have had, but it’s one part of my make-up I don’t want to change.
“I have been given the green light to play 90 minutes by the medical staff, but whether I do is entirely in the coach’s hands. Physically I feel like I am getting there, I have done some really hard work in the last four or five weeks to get myself ready for the next chapter.”
There has been plenty of movement at the City Football Academy, with players leaving (Tando Velaphi and David Williams) and new ones arriving (Central Coast duo Anthony Caceres and Nick Fitzgerald).
Zullo says that he and the squad accept the ins and outs as part of the game.
“The older you get and the more experience you have in the game you just become desensitised to players coming and going. It’s just part of the job. Someone can be a teammate one day, and three or four days later you can be playing against them. It’s part of being a footballer. But it can be very exciting if you are a player looking to get a move somewhere else.”