Everton goalkeeper Zan-Luk Leban says the mental toughness he developed during a “devastating” injury layoff has strengthened his self-belief, declaring: “I have the feeling nothing can stop me now".
Slovenian youth international Leban joined Everton from Polish side CB Escola Varsovia in summer 2019 but sustained a serious ankle ligament injury during pre-season training.
He was unable to play a competitive game for six months and, after finally putting together a run of matches, saw that suddenly curtailed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced football to be suspended.
Leban, 18, provided an insight into the challenges of adapting to life in a new country and club in such circumstances – and outlined why he believes he is a significantly better player than when he arrived at Everton.
“At first, I was devastated when I got injured,” he told evertonfc.com.
“It is not something you would wish to happen, especially when you’ve just come to a new club and you are trying to establish yourself and fight for the place in the team.
“But you have to get on with it and look for the positives and try to come back stronger. I have definitely progressed massively from being in the gym a lot and, of course, the other side, mentally.
“I was able to handle this situation at such a young age, away from my family. I have the feeling that nothing can stop me now.
“And as soon as I started playing games after my injury, I could feel the improvement.”
Leban says the positive environment at Everton was a further important factor in keeping his motivation high during his spell on the sidelines.
“I had only just come to the club when the injury happened, and to my surprise I got support from literally everyone around the Club,” he added.
“I was always able to talk to someone, either in the physio room or with my teammates in the changing rooms.
"I was always grateful for that, it kept me going, and I always had a smile on my face."
Leban cemented his spot as Everton Under-18s’ number one goalkeeper in 2020/21, playing 19 of the young Blues’ 24 league matches.
He also played a key role in Everton's run to the FA Youth Cup quarter-finals, producing a highlight reel of spectacular saves as the Toffees eliminated tournament favourites Manchester City and Chelsea.
Leban's fine Everton form saw him rewarded with a call-up to the Slovenia squad for the 2021 UEFA European Under-21s Championship, which was co-hosted by his home country and Hungary.
“I feel I have progressed as a player and a person since joining Everton,” Leban says.
“On the pitch, I have definitely improved my distribution and my techniques of using the ball and playing under pressure.
“I work very hard in training and working on the little details has helped me mature as a goalkeeper."
He added: "It was a massive honour to get named in the Slovenia Under-21 squad at such a young age.
"At 18, I was one of the youngest in the group, so I was buzzing.
"Then, when I went away, I didn’t know anyone in the team but I fitted straight in the group and showed my quality as much as I could.
"I didn’t play in the tournament but it was great to see my team play Spain and Italy, against players playing in La Liga and Serie A every week. It was a great experience."