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Feb 22, 2008

Convey still playing catch-up

Bobby Convey is finding out just how hard it is to come back from a serious injury.

The left-sided winger sat out most of last season with an ailing knee while his teammates surprisingly took the Premier League by storm, and he is having a difficult time getting his form -- and spot -- back as Reading tries to escape the drop zone.

"I knew this year was going to be difficult for me," the Philadelphia native admitted. "I haven't been the best. I've always been honest and my own worse critic. I want to play well all the time and do as well as I can, and I don't think that's happened this season."

Convey was one of Reading's most productive players when the Royals crushed the opposition to win the Championship with a record 106 points and earn promotion to the Promised Land (higher-tier English Premier League) in 2007. At one time he was the second-tier's top-rated midfielder, according to the Actim Players Ranking Index, drew praise from respected national magazine 4-4-2, and became a fan favorite because of his work rate. (That didn't appease his critics back home, who suggest he's underachieved.)

He was on a high, which didn't subside given the World Cup was up next.

Delivering a cross in Germany, however, the 24-year-old felt his right knee "pop." He can't remember exactly when it happened, though guesses it might have been against eventual champions Italy in the second of the United States' three group-stage matches. Convey wasn't about to let a slight knock stop him -- what with Reading about to embark on its first campaign in perhaps the world's most glamorous soccer league -- and was a regular starter early in the 2006-2007 season.

The knee didn't heal properly, and Convey was injured in practice that October. He underwent surgery in December, briefly came back (his last appearance of the season would come at Old Trafford in Reading's 1-1 F.A. Cup tie with Manchester United) and was ruled out for the remainder of the term following a second operation last March.

"I had a big hole in my knee and no cartilage left," Convey said.

He rehabbed in the U.S. and watched his teammates, including Seattle keeper Marcus Hahnemann, finish eighth, just outside a UEFA Cup spot. One of the players who excelled was Convey's replacement, Irish international Stephen Hunt.

Convey managed to get ready by last August, missing the summer's Gold Cup, and made his season debut as a substitute against Everton three games in. He's featured in 18 of 26 league games, making 11 starts. His lone goal came in a League Cup loss to Liverpool, a stunning volley that emanated from a corner kick.

The knee is fine, but there's more to it than that.

"My knee is 100 percent, but you can't sit out eight months and expect to be able to get right back into the swing of things, physically and mentally," said Convey, much hyped since being drafted as a 16-year-old by D.C. United. "When you have a layoff, everyone has months to get better and stronger and faster than you. And I've had to rehab on top of that. Pretty much this year, I've been playing catch up. It's extremely difficult, because you know going into it you're going to get criticized because you know you're not going to be at your best."

And, especially in the upper echelons, a quality player is always ready to step in. Hunt, a marauding and bullish midfielder, has scored 11 goals in the last year and a half.

"One person's misfortune is another person's benefit," said Convey. "Now it's my turn to displace him or someone else in the team, to get back in and play, and really that gives me something to look forward to. I've never not been able to get back to my best after injury or a dip in form."

Where that happens remains to be seen.

Reading occupies the final relegation place two months after being eight points above the bottom three. The team has lost six straight, hasn't scored in the last five and has allowed a whopping 53 Premier League goals, only better than basement dweller Derby.

Up next is Aston Villa, chasing a Champions League spot, on Sunday.

"In the Premiership, the games come quickly and you don't get a chance to turn it around," Convey said. "You have to try and do it quickly, and if you don't, you go on a run where you don't do as well, and you get into a position we're in now."

No Americans in the top flight saw F.A. Cup action last weekend, but New Jersey keeper Tim Howard chalked up another win as Everton routed Norway's SK Brann 6-1 in the second leg of their UEFA Cup encounter Thursday to coast to the last 16. Brann's goal deprived Howard of a fifth straight shutout.

The next round will be a tad more difficult for the Toffees -- Italy's Fiorentina awaits.

Ravi Ubha is a London-based freelance journalist covering Americans abroad for ESPNsoccernet. He also covers tennis for ESPN.com.