MORTON midfielder Conor Pepper says a crucial operation next month is the ‘last chance’ for him to save his playing career.
Pepper suffered a serious knee injury against Hibernian at Easter Road last February and underwent surgery and rehabilitation but he broke down as he attempted a comeback in a development game in December, crumpling under a seemingly innocuous challenge.
The Irishman today revealed that he has been warned that it may be better for his health to hang up his boots.
But at just 22-years-old, the prospect of doing so is a bitter pill to swallow for the former Inverness ace and one he is desperate to avoid.
Speaking exclusively to the Tele, Pepper said: “I’m at the point now where I need to have another operation, it has to be done — I’d have to retire otherwise.
“They told me I was going to have to quit, so for a while I actually thought that was going to be me finished. But I went to a specialist down in England who said he’s done this type of surgery before, and he’s good at it. If I don’t get it done,
I’ll have to stop playing, so I want to keep going with my leg exercises and leg strength as much as I can pre-operation, because it could speed up the recovery after it.
“Mentally it’s going to be tough, the last few years have been really tough on me.
“I’ve had one operation already and a number of setbacks.
“Once I have this surgery again I’ll be working hard, myself, trying to get my leg to full fitness.
“And even after that, I fully admit it’s going to be hard, always wondering ‘is it going to happen again?’
“For a while I didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to play again because there’s damage to the back of my kneecap which is never going to be fixed, but right now it’s not painful.
“They thought that was the main problem, but it’s not what’s causing my knee to break down.
“It’s a lot to take in, but it’s last chance saloon for me.
“I’m still young, so to come through this I’d still hope to have a lengthy career.
“I’d hope so anyway.”
Pepper insists his frustration over his lengthy layoff has subsided to an extent for now, because he is back out with his team-mates on the Parklea training pitch on a daily basis, albeit in a coaching role.
He believes it is important to keep his options open to stay involved in football in some capacity and has been preparing to take his coaching badges, by learning from current boss Jim Duffy and his staff.
Pepper said: “Because I thought for so long that I wasn’t going to be able to play, coaching and staying in the game is always something I wanted to do anyway.
“I’ve been able to work with Craig [McPherson] and the gaffer has been helping me and I’ve got a couple of coaching badges to do in the summer.
“It’s all just about gaining experience, really.
“I’ve spoken to the PFA about it and because I’ve been a professional for five years now I can do a fast-track thing where I can do my full B-Licence in a week and then start my A-Licence the next week.
“Once you’ve got your A-Licence you’re qualified pretty much to coach anywhere you want after that.”
The midfielder admits that preparing for his certificates has been a welcome distraction from his injury misery.
He said: “It’s keeping me busy. Not being able to play has been tough but I feel like I’m part of the squad again helping out where I can with the 20s and other things.
“It’s helped a lot mentally as well, the whole thing has been a tough experience for me, really upsetting at times.
“But the last few months have been really good and it’s a fresh look at the game.
“It still keeps me involved in football and my mind is always working. I’m pretty sure it’ll benefit me if I can play again as well.”
Having been so used to pulling on his training bib and joining in with his team-mates it has been difficult for the fans’ favourite to adjust to watching from the sidelines.
But he is just happy to be back involved — even if it is from the dugout next to his manager.
Pepper said: “The boys have been winding me up about it and I’ve been getting a bit of banter but I feel a lot closer to the team again.
“For a while I felt miles away and to be honest, I’m not saying I didn’t want to be there, but sometimes I couldn’t even watch training.
“I was sick at this point, really not knowing what I was going to do. I was nervous, upset, angry. There was nothing I could do about it, which was the worst thing.
“Now I’m back involved every day out with the lads in training and trying to learn as much as I can from the gaffer and Hagi, picking things up.
“And if in a couple of years I did want to take this coaching thing seriously, I’ve got this type of experience.
“For someone to have their career taken away and then get to learn all of this, then maybe even get back playing again, it will be a benefit.”