Alan Knill is relieved to welcome back key defender Krystian Pearce
Torquay United manager Alan Knill has moved to bolster his midfield options with his latest loan signing, Leicester City teenager Jak McCourt, but the eyes of most Gulls fans at Wycombe Wanderers on Saturday will be on central defender Krystian Pearce.
Knill believes a go-ahead message from his doctors has given Pearce all the confidence he needs to return to Football League action at Adams Park after an illness scare which had the defender even fearing for his future career.
Pearce started training again this week after a series of tests to determine what caused him first to collapse in training and then to be so short of breath after the 2-1 defeat at Newport County a fortnight ago that he had to spend three days in hospital there.
At first, Knill revealed a heart problem was suspected, and then doctors investigated the possibility that he might be suffering from sickle-cell syndrome, a condition that can change the shape of blood cells during exercise and put extra pressure on the heart.
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"We now find that he doesn't have sickle-cell, but he may have a trait of the illness, which could be causing the problem," said Knill.
"I did have a phone call at one stage to say there was a chance he would never play again, but he is OK now, so it's a relief for everybody."
The former Notts County defender's blood count is being monitored daily, and he may need some treatment in the future, but Knill said: "Krystian just wanted an OK, which he's had, to do what he's been doing for most of his life, so there's no problem psychologically.
"We could even have played him against York last Saturday, but it was all so unknown. We thought it wasn't right to push Krystian, and you just can't take a chance with something like that anyway."
If Pearce had not been back, Knill would almost certainly have had to sign another centre-back this week, because he knew he was already without Aaron Downes, after knee surgery, and Blackburn Rovers loanee Anthony O'Connor, who is on Under-21 international duty with the Republic of Ireland.
As it is, left-back Tom Cruise may continue playing as a converted central defender for at least one more game, while 17-year-old first-year professional Jake Hutchings and fellow centre-back Kyrtis McKenzie, who has not played this season while he comes to terms with his diabetes condition, could be pressed into service on the bench.
Knill has taken on McCourt, whom he watched as Leicester's Under-21 team beat Stoke City 2-1 at the King Power Stadium on Monday.
McCourt will go straight into the squad for Saturday's match, which may see Knill opt for a change of formation, with a strengthened midfield.
United will be without at least seven professionals at Adams Park, where they will try to avoid a third straight League Two defeat.
Knill said: "Losing your two centre-halves together is a big blow for any team, especially the way that Krystian and Aaron were playing. But at times in a long season you have to deal with stuff like that."
Although Downes should hopefully be back in a month after his cartilage operation, Knill also expects to be without midfielder Ben Harding for four weeks because of the foot injury he sustained against York City last weekend. That seems to have prompted the move for McCourt, although he can also play in defence.
With Billy Bodin away with Wales Under-21, Knill has to decide whether to recall Courtney Cameron on the wing and stick to a 4-4-2 formation, or to switch to 4-3-3, with Nathan Craig and now McCourt candidates to join the midfield.
"We changed the shape of the team [to 4-3-3] at Newport, because we felt we needed to against their 3-5-2, and it worked well – we played well there, apart from conceding two soft goals in a short spell in the first half," said Knill.
Knill remains confident that his squad, especially when it is restored to something like full strength, will pull away from the bottom of the table.
"After ten games, we would like to be higher, but I never thought for a minute that it was going to be plain sailing, and it isn't," he said.
"I'm concerned, but not worried, and I know that the squad is good enough to get where we want to be."
Torquay United (from): Rice, Poke; Tonge, Pearce, Cruise, Nicholson, Mansell, Lathrope, Chapell, Azeez, Hawley, Benyon, Chapell, Craig, Sullivan, McCourt, Hutchings, McKenzie.
Unavailable: Downes, Harding (both injured), Bodin, O'Connor, C Thompson (all international duty), N Thompson, Yeoman (on loan).