By Chris Slavin
Dean Parrett has overcome tougher obstacles in his career than what's been thrown at him this season, and he's determined to end a testing campaign by helping Wimbledon to safety.
For those who missed it in Saturday's match programme against Scunthorpe, the full interview with Dean is republished below.
Dean, who missed four months of this League One season after suffering a groin injury, spent six months out of the game five years ago after being released by Tottenham Hotspur.
Despite earning England international honours at the Under-20 World Cup, Dean found himself without a club. Subsequent trials with Crystal Palace, Hull City, Derby County, Brentford and Shrewsbury ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. His perseverance paid off when Graham Westley offered him an opportunity at Stevenage, but a serious anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury threatened to curtail his professional career.
"I was out of football for six months after I got released by Tottenham," recalled Dean when we spoke to him this week. "I was on trial at Crystal Palace for a while, but they got promoted to the Premier League, so I didn't get anything there. I was going anywhere to try and get a club. I started training at Brentford, initially to keep fit, but then they wanted to take a look at me. That didn't work out in the end. I also went on trial at Shrewsbury, just a day after my son was born! That's just what I needed to do at the time. I went everywhere, but for whatever reason it just didn't work out. I always believed in myself, though. I had belief that I could get back into the game.
"Stevenage came in for me and signed me after a one-day trial. I did my ACL in my first season there, just after I'd established myself in the team. I was out of contract too, so it was a bit scary, but Graham Westley gave me another year, even though I was injured. That meant a lot to me as I was able to just focus on recovering from injury and getting back into the team."
That's been Dean's target here at Wimbledon for some time now, and he made his first start since October in the defeat against Fleetwood Town. Though his recent injury was nowhere near as bad as that previous one at Stevenage, it was still every bit as frustrating as he had been established himself as a regular in Neal Ardley's starting line-up.
"This season has been very frustrating. Before the injury at Oxford I felt that I'd understood what the manager wanted from me, and I was putting that into practice. I felt strong and sharp, and I was just coming into some good form. I was gutted about the timing of it. I would like to have seen where my form might have taken me, but you can't look backwards. It's about looking forward now.
"When I did my ACL, I came back ahead of schedule, after five and a half months. I know what it takes to come back from a bad injury. You just need that mindset of setting goals for yourself during your recovery. This season was a bit different as I've been feeling good for a while. I've been held back at times to make sure the injury was fully healed."
Dean feels that's certainly the case now, and he hopes he can make a difference during the run-in. The 26-year-old midfielder, who joined AFC Wimbledon in the summer of 2016, is fully aware of the what the club means to its fans – and he is eager to keep the Dons in League One.
"When you're out for so long, playing games is the carrot that keeps you going. I spoke to the manager and said, 'I'm ready whenever you need me, I feel good. I like to think that I'm an attacking player who is good going forward and I have a good change of pace. I have to keep working hard, so that I can help the team as much as possible. I feel that I've got something to offer the team.
"I played in a midfield two at Stevenage, but I had a more defensive-minded midfielder alongside me. I had licence to go wherever I needed to, as long as I got back in as quickly as possible for the team. I've had to adapt here, but I felt that before the injury I was getting there. I want to get back to that form.
"It doesn't matter whether you've been here five years or five minutes: no-one wants a relegation on their CV. Everyone cares about this club and its history. It's one of the first things you hear about after you sign – Ivor comes in and you learn all about it. We want to be as successful as possible and to take this club in the right direction. I have to do as well as I can for the manager, for my team-mates and for the club. I want to help get us out of the trouble we're in and see what happens after that.
"Everyone is buzzing that work has started on the new stadium. I've seen all the stuff posted on the club's Twitter feed and on the website. It's great that it's been approved, but also we have a job to do on the pitch. We have six cup finals left. We have to take one game at a time, make sure the club is safe, and then we can build next season before moving into the new stadium."
Dean made one first-team appearance for Tottenham Hotspur – against Shakhtar Donetsk in the UEFA Cup back in 2009 – but it was not until two years later, during a loan spell at Charlton Athletic, that he really started to find his feet in the senior game.
"It's very hard to make the breakthrough because there is so much money around at the top level, and even in the Championship now. Those clubs can go out and buy who they want. There's so much money in the Premier League now, and some of it filters down to the Championship, and they buy players from abroad. Ten years ago, if you were at Spurs, Chelsea or Manchester United, you'd go out on loan to a Championship club, but that's not happening as much now. It's tough to make the breakthrough. There are managers who give young players a chance, such as Mauricio Pochettino, but it's not happening at other top clubs.
"When I first went on loan to Aldershot, I was 16 or 17, but my loan got cancelled because I got called up for the England U17s. I also went on loan to Plymouth and Yeovil, but I felt that I wasn't ready for those situations. I wasn't exactly a man at that age, and I was going to places a long way from home. It was different when I joined Charlton as it wasn't far away from where I lived and I could still see my family. I played ten games for Charlton and I felt that it was a successful loan. Chris Powell was manager then, and I enjoyed working with him. I had a difficult choice to make at Charlton, though, as I got called up for the Under-20 World Cup. My agent told me it was a choice between going away with England or extending my loan with Charlton."
Dean chose to travel with the Three Lions squad to Columbia – and he had a rather bizarre surprise when the players landed in South America. "It was an amazing experience. Before we went, people said it would be very dangerous to go there and we'd have to be careful. When we got off the plane we were greeted by police and we were expecting that they were there for our safety, but then all of a sudden they started dancing with music and drums in the background! Overall, it was fantastic to go away with England. As a young player it meant so much to put the England shirt on."
Dean certainly never regretted choosing England over Charlton – and no-one in blue and yellow will be complaining if he helps the Dons to a vital victory against his old club on Tuesday evening.