Irrespective of Saturday’s outcome, Rory Hale will measure the success of his season beyond any medal count.
The midfielder finished a first year on the Crusaders books in 2019 battling back from a serious knee injury and preparations for the weekend BetMcLean League Cup final stand as the next step in that process rather than the final word.
Hale, having watched last season’s Irish Cup win over Ballinamallard as an unused substitute, is relishing an opportunity to play a part at Windsor Park against Coleraine but accepts long-term gains as the main goal.
“Everyone wants to play in a final and I was disappointed last year but I’ve worked hard to come back from this injury and just need to develop match fitness,” said Hale. “Fingers crossed, the rehab will keep going well.
“I wasn’t targeting the final as a comeback.
“The recovery period for an ACL injury is roughly 12 weeks and I was back training within seven.
“I had it in my mind to be back for the league split and a possible title challenge.
“But the rehab has gone well - I didn’t have the cup final in the head but it’s a nice bonus to be back for it.
“I did miss all the Christmas games, we had a bad run of results but then recovered in the league and were on fire up to the Glenavon result (a 2-1 defeat on Saturday).
“It’s going to be hard for me to get into the team but I got a good 60 minutes in a friendly against Dundalk and have been training.”
Having the experience of recovery from serious injury during his teenage years, Hale highlights the value of Crusaders’ full-time environment as crucial to such impressive progress.
“I had done my cruciate on the same knee in the Victory Shield for Northern Ireland when I was 14 and was out for a year,” said Hale. “The first time I wasn’t full-time and I was training two nights a week, with my parents paying for my physio.
“Because I had done it before it was easier to get in the swing of things.
“The manager gave me a week off after the injury and I was back in five days a week, morning and night, getting the rehab done.
“There is no point feeling sorry for yourself, it is what it is and you have to get on with it.
“The full-time support is massive, plus my family support - we are all in it together - I wouldn’t be back as quick if I was just training twice a week.
“I was flying (at the time of December’s injury) but you take the ups and downs in this game, I’ve worked hard to get back so we will see what happens on Saturday.”