Heaton even more determined in challenge for Clarets number one spot
It's been a frustrating season for goalkeeper Tom Heaton but absence has made the Burnley skipper's heart grow fonder.
The England international, who has earned three caps for his country, appeared invincible once upon a time, embarking on a 142-game stretch without missing a league game for the Clarets, but an awkward fall against Crystal Palace in September spelled the longest absence of his career.
"It's been hard," conceded Heaton. "There are no two ways about it. It's been a different kind of challenge.
"Until you've been through it you don't realise how difficult it can be at times. I've been desperate to get back, desperate to get back fit and play some games this season.
"That's been the drive, that's been the motivation. I've just tried to hit it head on really. The physios have been brilliant, Ally Beattie especially, he's man marked me.
"He's been absolutely brilliant and the sports science along with it has been superb. Behind the scenes they've been absolutely top drawer. I'm very grateful for that.
"It's been the biggest sort of injury that I've had in a long time. I've had a few muscle strains but nothing too severe. It's been difficult, challenging at times."
But the 31-year-old, who was sidelined for three games during the 2016/17 campaign, sitting out Premier League fixtures against Manchester City, Stoke City and Swansea City, has revealed that he's back in contention for first team selection, adding that he's hungrier than ever to win back his shirt.
Heaton, who has kept 61 clean sheets in 178 appearances in all competitions for the club, came through another 90 minutes, the fourth on his road to recovery, as the under 23s beat QPR 3-1 in a Professional Development League northern section encounter at Turf Moor on Monday.
It's been a testing spell for the former Manchester United trainee since dislocating his shoulder against the Eagles, just four games in to the term, but there is finally light at the end of the tunnel.
"I'm ready to go now," he said. "That's my fourth 90 minutes. Each one has stepped on and I felt good today. It was a good game and a very good performance and I'm pleased to get that fourth one under my belt.
"On the back of an injury you're desperate to get back playing. There have been a few long, hard months in the gym and in the physio room so I'm delighted to get back out on the grass.
"That ticks off the box in terms of playing games now. It feels good, it's nice to be back out there and I'm pleased to be playing.
"I'll speak to the manager and the physios and have a quick meeting about it. In terms of how I feel I'm sharp and ready to go, I feel superb.
"I'm delighted to be back out there and I feel good. I feel hungry and I feel determined. I'm looking forward to getting back in to action."
Heaton made more saves than any other goalkeeper in the top flight last season with 141, six more than Three Lions contender Jordan Pickford, and more than anyone since David Marshall made 153 stops four years ago.
Nick Pope had been a keen understudy to Heaton and Paul Robinson at that time, making a single appearance in the EFL Cup, plus three more in the FA Cup, but now the former Charlton Athletic stopper is in line to emulate his mentor.
The 25-year-old's form has been seriously impressive since he stepped in to make his debut at this level.
Pope is currently one of the best performing keepers in the country, continually trumping his rivals, with a 79% save rate from 26 appearances, conceding 0.9 goals per game.
The Three Lions hopeful entered double figures for clean sheets when keeping West Ham United out at the London Stadium and he has registered the most high claims in the Premier League with 43.
Heaton has been delighted with his team-mate's progression, which has resulted in his first international call up, but he's ready to challenge for the number one spot.
Ahead of Saturday's clash with relegation-threatened West Brom at the Hawthorns, he said: "It's been an outstanding season, the lads have been superb. The performances have been top drawer, the results have been great.
"The position in the league is superb. I'm desperate to get back and make an impact, that's certainly my ambition.
"You have to be clear in your mind, I've certainly found a little bit of clarity. One thing I have realised is how much I want it.
"Coming away from it hurt and my wife will tell you how difficult it was at home at times. Saturday afternoons were tough, it was tough watching and not being a part of it.
"I was used to getting up on a Saturday with that feeling. It gives you that hunger to get back, I've got the bit between my teeth at the minute and I'm looking forward to being back and being back in amongst it."
Heaton added: "Popey has been fantastic, there's no two ways about it. That's part and parcel of club football; you get amongst it, compete for shirts and I'm just delighted to be back in a position to do that.
"Popey has been excellent, his performances have been superb. Getting called in to the England squad is thoroughly deserved. He's been very good.
"You can't not be impressed. He had no Premier League experience then he came in to the team and played well. He's been superb.
"I've trained with him every day for the last 18 months but I won't be trying to claim any credit for his good performances. He's been excellent and I'm looking forward to getting back and competing for the shirt.
"I'm delighted to be back fit and my ambition is to get back playing some games. We've got eight games left so that's my target.
"Over the last few years that competition for places has grown and as a club that only benefits everyone. I'm relishing the challenge."