JETS defender Lachlan Jackson is hoping to make the COVID-enforced changes to the A-League schedule work in his favour as he eyes a return to full fitness for the season start this month.
Jackson was set to miss an entire season after suffering a serious knee injury in round 16 away against Wellington on January 24 this year.
He ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament as well as tearing his lateral meniscus and medial ligament. The reconstructive surgery was to sideline him for the best part of a year, ruling him out for half of the 2020-21 season as well.
However, the mid-season break in the 2019-20 campaign because of the pandemic pushed back the finish of that season and the start of the next, giving Jackson an opportunity to be back in time for round one.
The 25-year-old will have his first game time back on Saturday when Newcastle take on Melbourne City in a trial behind closed doors at McDonald Jones Stadium.
The Jets kick off the new season against the Mariners at Central Coast Stadium on New Year's Eve and Jackson was pushing to regain full fitness in time for the opener.
"The virus couldn't have come at a better time for me personally, in regards to football," Jackson said.
"I would have missed a whole season but I've only missed the back-end of last year now and I can come back into this season fully fit.
"I think it's exciting. We've got a few new boys, like Val [Yuel], he's looking very sharp out there, and a couple of others who are coming in, so we're really excited."
Jackson has been back in full training since mid November and said he was "slowly getting there" in the battle to reach peak fitness.
He was set to play only limited minutes off the bench against City but he was hoping to then build his game time in other friendlies to prove he was ready for round one.
"Fingers crossed," he said of playing against Central Coast.
"We've still got a few more friendlies to play and a few more minutes to get under belt before that, so hopefully that all goes well and by round one I'll be fighting fit."
Jackson said he was "pretty much bang on" his optimal return date and "my knee is feeling really strong". He was up for more than a 20-minute stint against City but he was prepared for a gradual return to action.
"We had an in-house friendly this week and I got 15 minutes under my belt and I feel like I'm ready for a bit more," he said.
"Any minutes against City will be the first sort of game I've had since I ruptured the ACL, so I'm excited and if I can get on the park for even just a little bit, just to get the confidence back.
"Then I can slowly build in and hopefully when the season comes around I'm 100 per cent and ready to go."
The major knee damage was the former Brisbane Roar player's first long-term injury and came in his 11th consecutive start of last season.
The streak was one of the Townsville-born talent's best in a Jets career taking in 57 starts and 75 appearances overall in five seasons.
Jackson was hoping to come back a better player from the injury but he was not confident of pushing for a starting spot in round one.
"I'm still not quite there yet, ready to contest I think," he said. "So it's more just me focusing on some little things and slowly building myself up and hopefully I can come back an even better athlete than I was prior to the operation."
Jackson said he was enjoying being back in full squad training after "a lot of running by yourself and not much involvement with the team" during his rehabilitation through the period of COVID-19 restrictions.
And he said the players welcomed the easing of restrictions this week to allow full crowds at games.
"It will be good to get back to normal," he said.
"I think that's what the boys are craving - a good environment and good atmosphere at the games is what I think any professional team wants, so the sooner that comes back the better for everyone."
Meanwhile, want-away striker Bernie Ibini was again a notable absentee from Jets training on Thursday.
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