After the toughest 12 months of his career, Western Sydney Wanderers attacker Mark Bridge just wants to enjoy the rest of Hyundai A-League season.
Bridge returned to the pitch for the first time in 337 days in last Sunday's 1-1 draw with Perth Glory after three separate calf injuries ripped his 2018/19 campaign to shreds.
“Just getting involved in the match day squad before I even got on the pitch was unbelievable… it was a long time and I’m glad to be back,” Bridge told www.a-league.com.au.
“Who would have thought playing 13 minutes or so that you would be so sore after the game…the only thing that can make it better is more games and more minutes.
“You go through that bit of pain at the start and hopefully it starts getting a little less painful every game now.”
The 33-year-old has already made the decision that this season will be his last, meaning he has seven games left before the curtain falls on an illustrious Hyundai A-League career.
But before Bridge sails off into the sunset, there’s one major milestone he’s desperate to tick off his list.
The clash against Glory was his 247th appearance in the Hyundai A-League, meaning he needs to play just three more games to become just the 10th player to reach the 250-match mark.
Through all the countless rehab sessions, setbacks and attempted comebacks, reaching the impressive milestone has been at the centre of Bridge’s mind.
“At the moment, that’s all that’s in my head. It will kill me if I don’t get to 250 games, it’s such a big milestone for a player,” he admitted.
“To miss it through missing almost a full season of football, which has never happened to me before, it would kill me.
“It would be something that when I looked back on my career it would be the only negative thing I can think of.”
And there’s been plenty of highs along the way. Bridge was a goal-scoring hero in Grand Final victories with Newcastle Jets (2008) and Sydney FC (2010) and was there for the Wanderers' historic AFC Champions League triumph in 2014.
He played two games for the Caltex Socceroos, making his debut against Singapore in 2008 playing up front with Harry Kewell, while he went to the Olympic Games in the same year where he played against a certain Lionel Messi.
While he admits he contemplated prolonging his career for a 17th season, he feels fortunate enough to be able to bow out on his terms.
“I could have gone another season but I was thinking, ‘is it worth it, what input am I going to have for another year, do I have to uproot my family?,” Bridge said.
“Just because I’m fit doesn’t mean the Wanderers will offer me a contract for another year. Maybe I’d have to leave and then you would start thinking is it the best move for my family?
“When you are younger you do what’s best for you and your football career but as you get older and you have a family, my son is turning four, he’s settled in daycare and going to start prep [school] next year.
“Is it fair on him just to uproot that for 12 months just to get a bit more football at the top level. You have to think about your family more than yourself at this point.”
It was the support of his family as well as Wanderers teammates and staff that helped get the Sydney-born striker through the hardest period of his career.
Bridge tore the soleus tendon in his calf three times during his layoff and went to some extreme measures to try and find the answers to his problem.
“We checked everything from the way I run, my joggers, my boots, I kept my weight down, my skin folds down,” Bridge explained.
“I’m getting through training, I’m doing extra conditioning so hopefully I can get through without another hiccup.”