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Oct 10, 2008

Simek easing back into action

Mother Nature, at least the U.K. version, was her usual self Tuesday. Much of England was greeted with rain and blustery winds, no sunshine in sight. Frankie Simek didn't mind one bit.

Simek made his long-awaited return from an ankle injury that required surgery in April, suiting up for Sheffield Wednesday's reserves in a 4-0 thrashing of Bradford City. He'd been out for about 10 months altogether after sustaining ligament damage against Crystal Palace in December 2007.

The setback came at the worst possible time for Simek, groomed in Arsenal's acclaimed youth system. He was Wednesday's player of the season in 2006-2007, as chosen by the fans, and was still being linked with Premier League clubs (most notably Everton and Aston Villa) as he made a name for himself on the national team.

"It was good just to be back playing again," said Simek, a hard-working, tough-tackling right back born in St. Louis. "I've been back training in the last couple of weeks, and it has been feeling good. Getting in the reserves is a good start."

As planned, he played 45 minutes against City, and the good news is he emerged unscathed. Simek, who turns 24 next week, did some gym work Wednesday and trained as usual Thursday. If all goes well, he will line up for the reserves next Tuesday against Lincoln City, though making a first-team comeback versus Sheffield United in the much anticipated -- and televised -- Steel City derby on Oct. 19 might be pushing it.

Wednesday, which joined the Football League in 1892, making it one of the oldest soccer clubs in England, could use him back. Replacement Richard Hinds broke his leg in August and is gone long-term, one of the reasons the Owls were forced to extend a loan deal for Middlesbrough's Tony McMahon on an emergency basis.

"Frank was good," reserve team coach Sean McAuley said after the Bradford game. "We still have to remember he was out for 10 months, so there's a long way to go in terms of his fitness. But you can see he is on the road to recovery, and hopefully we'll see him playing again pretty soon."

Never before afflicted with a serious, or even mildly serious, injury, Simek admitted it "sucked" being on the sidelines. In fact, he found it difficult to discuss his time off. There was no singular low point; watching his teammates in training each day was bad enough.

The injury occurred in the opening half against the Eagles two weeks ahead of the transfer window, which might have seen him move. Simek turned his left ankle landing awkwardly while trying to corral a long, high pass. The game was supposed to be memorable for another reason -- it marked Simek's 100th league start for Wednesday.

"Frankie is one of the strongest players we have mentally and when that lad goes down rolling around on the floor, we know something is wrong," Wednesday coach Brian Laws said at the time.

Still, it was thought surgery wasn't needed, and Simek took part in two reserve outings following rehab. Discomfort still present, he got the injury checked out again by a specialist and eventually went under the knife.

"Being out of the game and watching from the sidelines when you want to be out there playing every game, it's been really tough," he said. "But I want to forget about that now. That's all behind me. Hopefully I'll be challenging for that right back spot when I'm fit enough, hopefully not too far away."

Indeed, re-establishing himself at Wednesday, which has the ninth-best average attendance of 24 sides in the Championship, a fraction under 20,000 at Hillsborough, is his first priority. Two seasons ago, as the team narrowly missed out on the playoffs, he made 41 league starts, second only to midfielder Chris Brunt, now at surging West Bromwich Albion of the Premier League. Wednesday, which last competed in the Premier League in 2000, is in10th this season and tied in points for a playoff spot despite allowing 16 goals on the road, the second-worst record in England's four professional divisions.

Simek harbors hopes of reacquainting himself with the national team, too.

He earned his first cap in a friendly against Guatemala in March 2007 and has made four more appearances, the last as a substitute in the final of the Gold Cup against Mexico later in the year. Earning a call-up versus Guatemala, then playing the entire 90 minutes in Frisco, Texas, was the highlight of his career.

"I follow the team, read up on the Internet and watch highlights,'' he said. "Hopefully when I get back I can put in some good performances and get the call up again because there's nothing like putting on the U.S. jersey and playing for your country. It sounds a bit cliché, but every time you do that, it's a real pleasure."

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

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