Simon Church: Wales striker keeping faith after harrowing year
Twelve months ago Simon Church was enjoying the high point of his football career, a member of the Wales squad that defied the odds to reach the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
The adventure seemed set to continue with a move to join Dutch Eredivisie side Roda JC Kerkrade.
But just four games into the campaign Church suffered a serious hip injury that wrecked his season.
The contrast of fortune could not have been more stark, as Church endured surgery followed by a lengthy rehabilitation.
"It's been a frustrating season for me off the back of last summer," said the 28-year-old.
"I had the opportunity to play in a different country, a different league and then four games in I had to have hip surgery.
"That ruined everything, ruined my plans... it was really, really frustrating.
"It's something [the hip problem] I've had over the years but I've never missed a day of training or a match through it.
"It's been niggling away in the background but I've always managed to get a hold of it to stop it getting in the way.
"But as soon as I went to Roda I didn't realise they played on astroturf and near enough half the teams [in the Dutch Eredivisie] play on astroturf.
"We were training in an artificial pitch every day and I think that was the main reason why, my hip couldn't really handle the impact of it.
"I remember playing against Feyenoord and after taking a shot I was in so much pain I couldn't carry on."
Scans confirmed the severity of the injury and surgery was followed by 10 weeks on crutches.
Roda allowed Church to stay home for three months to convalesce, before he returned to the Dutch club last January to continue his rehabilitation.
But with his one-year contract due to expire and Roda in the midst of a troubled takeover involving financier Aleksei Korotaev, Church left the club two weeks ago.
"It was was my decision to stop it prematurely because I'd worked so hard to get back as soon as I can... and be ready for the new season," Church said.
"I knew there's a lot of things going on at the club as well with the new owner, new manager, new staff and I knew straight away it wasn't something that I was going to be doing next year.
"We agreed to go our separate ways before the end of the season and I've managed to keep my fitness up, working hard and getting myself ready for whatever opportunity comes up next."
Church began his career at Reading, before signing for Charlton Athletic in 2013 and then MK Dons two years later, but was unable to command a regular first-team place.
The striker went on loan at the end of the 2015-16 season to Aberdeen, flourishing in the Scottish Premiership with nearly a goal every other game - the type of form that helped cement his place in the Wales squad for the Euro 2016 finals.
"The back of last season I went to Aberdeen, really had a good time and scored a lot of goals," Church said.
"Then in the summer was just amazing - to play in the semi-finals of the Euros was a dream come true.
"I want more of the same feeling and action from last summer, and I want to get back to playing at the top level."
Now Church, back to fitness, is eager to recommence his playing career and says there is good interest from clubs for his signature.
"There's a lot of talks going on with clubs... so I'm just keeping tight, keeping focused on staying fit," he added.
"We've had interest from back in England, which is nice, but also ever since I made the move abroad a lot more options have come up all over the place.
"But we need to sit down; I've got a young family so we need to figure out what's going to be the best for them, and what's going to be the best opportunity for me in my career.
"I'm 28 now so I need to get back to what I was doing. The last five years haven't gone as well as I'd planned, so we really need to make sure the next move is the right one.
"The clubs know I'm a free agent now, I'm feeling fit, I know I can play at Championship level. I haven't played in League One since I was 18 or 19 on loan a couple of times.
"I know what I'm capable of, I'm sure clubs know all about me now... and I'm still really hungry."
While a frustrated Church has looked on from the sidelines, Wales have struggled to repeat their success during the current World Cup qualifying campaign.
Chris Coleman's side sit third in Group D, four draws from their five games leaving them four points behind leaders Serbia - who they face in a crunch game on Sunday.
The last time Wales played in Belgrade in 2012 they suffered a 6-1 humiliation in a World Cup qualifier.
Church played every painful minute of that defeat but the 38-cap man does not believe there will be any repeat of that result on Sunday, even with leading scorer Gareth Bale suspended.
"That 6-1 defeat was probably the lowest point in a lot of our Welsh careers, we didn't really know where to go from there," said Church, who made his international debut in 2009.
"Where we are now from where we were then is two different places... we've just got to put that focus in and that comes from the manager, and the players know how to win games now.
"We've got players who can do something out of nothing all over the pitch and we've got great leaders as well.
"Everyone knows the team we are and the quality of our players, but we've had a bit of bad luck and obviously now expectations are so high.
"Expectations are we should win the group and sail through to the finals but it's never as easy as that and that's shown throughout the campaign.
"It was always going to be tough off the back of getting to the semi-final.
"We've got such a good squad but this campaign we've been hit with injuries and suspensions, and looking at the squad it's a chance for players to come in and show what they can do.
"It just shows the level of the squad that we are today, especially compared to the last time we lost against Serbia."
Wales boss Coleman has said this campaign will be his last as Wales manager and the 47-year-old is admired by Premier League clubs including Crystal Palace.
"It doesn't surprise me at all that he's linked with a lot of Premier League teams," Church said.
"He's a fantastic manager and someone who I've loved working with. He's given me the opportunity, he talks to you, tells you what he's thinking.
"He's a great man and the whole squad absolutely loves him and the staff, and it's a real pleasure - an honour - to be part of Wales.
"When you're training with the squad and the manager it's an amazing place to be."