IT’S still early days, but Jude Stirling is looking to put a nightmare 12 months behind him as he battles back to fitness.
The Cowshed favourite returned to the Dons substitutes’ bench two weeks ago against Dagenham & Redbridge after a groin injury ruled him out for the first half of the campaign.
Stirling made his return to action in a behind-closed-doors friendly match against Fulham last week - his first start since last March - and admitted that he wasn’t 100 per cent fit yet.
“It didn’t feel great to be honest. My last start in a match was in March so I felt as to be expected, but I was much better the next day which was much better.
“My recovery is getting a lot better so I’m happy with the way it’s going. It’s just good to be back in training with the boys again and any part I can play in the promotion push will be good.”
During his extended period on the touchline, Stirling concentrated on coaching a youth team, but admitted that his injury was affecting his personal life. And now he is focused on not rushing back through fear of prolonging his time out.
“I’m just taking it one step at a time,” he said. “I just need to make sure that I give it time and do myself justice. It’s been a difficult time to be honest.
“I’ve never doubted my ability. I have been watching the game a lot more, coaching kids and putting my time and effort into that - so I hope that helps my progress as a footballer as well. For me personally, I just need to get fit again and get back in contention.
“It’s very weird when I’m not playing, it interrupts my personal life. So it’s a difficult time being out injured. I’m one of the happy people, so whenever I’m injured, I don’t handle it well at all.
“I’m sure I can be borderline annoying sometimes - I know that, but it’s just the way I am sometimes. But I won’t change for anyone!”
In recent weeks boss Karl Robinson has introduced youngsters Dan Powell and Adam Chicksen into his first team. And along with Sam Baldock, all have come through the youth system at the club - something which Stirling is keen to get involved in himself, even before his playing days are over.
“I really love getting involved in the development of our young players,” said the 28-year-old. “I’ve done it with other clubs and I think you need to provide a decent environment for young guys to come into, where all the boys are made to feel welcome.
“When Sam (Baldock) first came into the team we all loved it when he scored, telling him little celebrations to do - it’s great.”
Since joining Dons in 2007, Stirling - who spent some of last season on loan at Grimsby - has seen many players come and go, but believes the current squad is one of the best and could make it out of League One this time around.
He said: “Out of all the squads I have been in here, this is probably the most gutsy.
“I have a lot of friends in football and they have looked at the way things have been going with players leaving, but the boys have stood up and picked up some good results away from home.
“The gaffer gave us the task of going out there and getting points, and that is what we’re doing, and staying positive.
“I think a lot of that is down to the management. We’ve not gone to places and thought about defending for the 90 minutes, we’ve tried to play the game in the right manner and that’s worked for us.”
After being sat on the subs’ bench for the last couple of games, the next step for Stirling will be crossing that white line again in the next few weeks.