Former Bury Town player turned Southend United professional Ben Coker opens up on his latest battle back from injury
Ben Coker is no stranger to a hurdle – and the former Bury Town man is currently negotiating his way over one of the toughest yet.
Released by Northampton Town and Cambridge United as a youngster, Coker got his Football League break with Colchester United in 2010 after two impressive seasons at Ram Meadow.
Less than three years later though, he was back in the unpredictable world of non-league football, linking up with Histon after his U’s contract was cancelled.
However, the summer of 2013 proved to be the turning point. Coker impressed then Southend United boss Phil Brown during a trial period and he has been at Roots Hall ever since, making more than 200 appearances for the club and even taking on the role of captain towards the end of the 2017/18 season.
Things were going relatively smoothly, but then in October last year the 29-year-old was stopped in his tracks at the Stadium of Light, home of Sunderland AFC.
Back-tracking to intercept a floated pass forward – something the defender will have done on countless occasions down the years – his leg seemed to buckle upon making contact with the ball.
Watching the footage back, you can hear Coker scream out as the pain takes hold and subsequent scans confirmed the worst – he had torn the anterior and lateral cruciate ligaments in his knee. Surgery was the only option, followed by an estimated year on the sidelines.
Three months have passed since going under the knife, during which time Coker has been providing updates of his recovery on YouTube.
It provides a welcome distraction to the long hours in the gym, not to mention the fact that his contract is up in the summer.
“It is massively draining because every day I am unable to fully switch off from my knee. I am not going to lie, there are days when you cannot see the end of it but the videos help from a mental point of view,” he said.
“You have to take it day by day, week by week and tick little things off. It has to be that way because getting back out there playing is still so far away.
“The knee feels good one day and then the next not so good – it is all part of the process and that is the journey. My story is quite complex and like with most people there has been a lot of ups and downs.
“To get to the Football League I have had a lot of them and this injury is right up there in terms of downs.
“The contract adds to the stress but all I have to think about is getting back fit from this injury because it is a bad one. If I think and worry about other things then that is using up energy that I need to get through the injury.
“I am trying to stay positive about the whole situation but that is the predicament I am in, I cannot do anything about it now.
“We will have to sit down with the club – hopefully in the next couple of months – and go from there. If they want to keep me that would be great but if not I am going to have to look somewhere else – that is how it is.”
If there is one chink of positivity to have come from the injury, it is that Coker has been able to devote more time to something else close to his heart – helping people with diabetes.
Coker was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a 15-year-old, but has refused to let the lifelong condition hold him back.
And he is hoping that his status as a professional footballer can act as a source of inspiration to fellow sufferers.
“Now I am injured it has given me a bit more time to reach out to more people and show them the best way to go,” he said.
“Being diabetic, it is a massive part of my life every day, so to help people with the same illness is really good.
“Hopefully I am an example of the fact you can do whatever you want to in life, and that diabetes should not hold you back, because I have never allowed it to get the better of me.”
Another important part of Coker’s life is his stint as a Bury player. Signed by Richard Wilkins in 2008 after spells with Histon and Barton Rovers, he went on to play a key role in the club’s promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division in 2009/10.
It is a time that Coker reflects on with great fondness – and one he believes set him on the right path to turning pro.
“It was an unbelievable time. Wilks brought me in and we had a great coaching team at the club, with Gavin Johnson offering so much experience in the dressing room,” he said.
“There was Tom Bullard, Sam Nunn, Russell Short and the Reed brothers – we had a great team there. Those couple of years I would not change for anything and winning the league is up there as one of my best achievements in football. There are a lot of great people at the club that helped me get to where I am today.
“It was hard at times, very tough – I remember playing four games in one week once because the weather was so bad, but it helps to toughen you up.
“The non-league circuit is tough but it is rewarding. I say to the young lads at Southend now that if they get the chance to go out and play against grown men they have to do it.
“The Under-23s football is not beneficial because at League One and League Two level, teams do not play that way.
“Playing every Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday, Tuesday – that toughened me up as a player and it held me in good stead for what has come since then.”
More by this authorLiam Apicella