“I met with the surgeon on Tuesday and he said I could have been driving four weeks ago; my missus isn’t happy as I’ve been making her get up every morning at 7:30 to take me for treatment!” he jokes. From the enthusiasm in Max Johnstone’s voice, it is clear that his spirits remain high, despite the injury set back that has temporarily stalled his development in an AFC Fylde jersey. Here, we catch up with the young goalkeeper to discuss the winding road to recovery…

Max Johnstone sprung back onto his feet after making a routine save during a goalkeeping drill; a movement that he had made hundreds of times before, but this time it felt different. “I felt it pop and straight away I knew something wasn’t right. My knee locked and felt as though it needed to click back into place,” the Preston-born stopper explains. Having never suffered any serious injuries to this point, the alarm bells began to ring as the kit man and physio carried him off the training field.

The scan that followed confirmed what was first feared – a bucket handle tear of his lateral meniscus which would require surgery, with an extensive rehabilitation period lasting over 4 months. Having only arrived at Mill Farm three months earlier, it was a blow:

“I had felt something the week leading up to the Spennymoor Town game, but I just thought it was a click in my knee. It settled down really quickly, but during my next training session that’s when I felt it go. It was a disappointment because I felt as though I had settled in and was training well. I have a really good relationship with Nealy and everything was good.”

Rob Gilbert, an experienced knee surgeon based at Spire Manchester Hospital, was the man trusted to repair the cartilage. Mr.Gilbert has since deemed the surgery a success, giving Max the green light to commence full-weight bearing which is the next phase of his rehabilitation process. Up until this stage, regaining full range of movement and partial weight bearing has been the primary focus. As frustrating as that can be, Max acknowledges that the recovery cannot be rushed:

“It takes time to heal, there is no way of speeding up that process. For the first week we tried to get the leg straight and then it was a case of gradually getting the bend back. It started at 60 degrees, then 80 degrees after two weeks, and then it stayed at 90 degrees up until yesterday.

“As long as you accept that you have to take things one step at a time, you are ok. You see improvements every day, so it’s just about keeping your head down, focusing on strengthening the knee and everything around it.

“For the first four weeks, it was just a case of sitting on the floor with a Swiss ball bending and straightening my leg. It was quite boring but then we started getting into body weight and split squats; and also trying to get the muscle back in my quad. It was crazy to see how quickly I lost that muscle.

“In six weeks time, I have a final check up with the surgeon to see where everything is at, but myself and Gaz [Gareth Thomas] have set a date of 23rd March to be back. That is exactly 16 weeks from the day that I did it, so we are on track.”

During long, forced absences away from the game, footballers often take comfort from those closest to them, and for Max his support has come in the form of his elder brother, Sam, and father, Glenn:

“I spent a lot of time with Sheldon [Green] in the treatment room, he was always good at perking you up every morning. My brother [Sam Johnstone, current West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper], had a couple of bad injuries when he was younger, including a stress fracture in his back. So he was somebody who I’ve spoken to a lot since it happened – he understands because he knows what it’s like to be on crutches, to be out for a long time, the emotions that come with that.

“My dad is probably the best person to speak to, though, because he had eight cartilage operations throughout his career as a footballer. He did his knee in pre-season at Preston North End and had an ongoing battle with it until he eventually had to retire. He’s just had a new knee at 48 – which is young for a knee replacement – so he has been a good person to lean on.”

Johnstone made the switch from Sunderland to AFC Fylde in September 2020, with the aim of challenging Chris Neal for a spot in between the sticks. A calf issue last month forced ‘Nealy’ to join Max on the sidelines, which provided an opportunity for academy graduate, Aaron Lancaster, to step in; Burnley Under-23’s Lewis Thomas was also signed on an emergency loan to hold the fort. A frustrated Max looked on from the stands, knowing that could have been his chance to showcase himself:

“It was frustrating, of course. Being chucked in I thought Aaron did brilliantly for a young lad, but I’d been working towards those FA Trophy games as they were my most realistic chance of showing what I can do.

“At the time I kind of knew that Nealy was ahead of me, he was playing really well and winning us points, so I’d got myself into the mindset of ‘right, the FA Trophy is coming up, that’s what I will work towards’.”

“I am improving all the time working with Nealy, I couldn’t really ask for anyone better to work with. He’s a top, top lad; he’s played in over 400 league games so has lots of experience to pass down. On days when he is supposed to be recovering the day after a game, he will come out to do some stuff with me. He doesn’t have to do that.”

With one eye on a March return, the 22-year old now has his sights set on impressing the coaching staff, as well as challenging Neal who, since joining from Salford City prior to the 20/21 campaign, has been a mainstay in the Fylde goal:

“I know that it will take time for me to get back into the swing of things. I remember coming back into training after lockdown and it felt weird having balls pelted at you, so I think it will probably feel the same. At a guess, I’d say it’s going to be end of April before I’m back training at full pace. The main goal is to try and get another contract if I’m honest. If i can challenge Nealy for the number one shirt along the way then great, but with the time it will take to adapt, getting another contract is my main target.”