It has been a month since the numbing news was broken to Darren Freeman, but the moisture in his eyes gives the game away.

Freeman is finding it terribly difficult to accept he will no longer be kicking a football for a living.

A horrendous run of hernia injuries has cruelly cut short the career of the Albion forward, at an age when he should be reaching the peak of his powers.

Freeman's retirement was confirmed by the club 48 hours before his 28th birthday.

It would be foolish to under-estimate the hurt, mental as much as physical, felt by the Brighton-born marksman who dreamed of playing for his home club from his days with Hollingbury Hawks juniors.

Fortunately he has a family to remind him that being unable to boot a bit of leather around is not quite the end of the world, even if it still feels a bit like that.

Replica shirts adorn the walls of the Freeman home in Saltdean. This week his sons Stacey, 8, and Leighton, 9, dressed in Albion kits, have been training at the nearby park.

Their support and that of his partner Lorraine, parents, friends, Albion boss Micky Adams, the club's medical staff and team-mates has been crucial.

"When I sat down to tell the boys I wouldn't be playing any more Stacey said don't worry dad, you can become a lollipop man," Freeman revealed.

"I had tears in my eyes one moment and the next I was just laughing. A comment like that has made me realise how lucky I really am to have two lovely kids."

Freeman's spell with the Seagulls began in a blaze of glory after Micky Adams re-signed him two summers ago on a Bosman free transfer from Brentford.

His debut season kicked off with a hat-trick in Albion's first match at Withdean against Mansfield and he guaranteed his place in the record books by scoring the first goal of the Millennium against Exeter.

Freeman finished the campaign as leading marksman with 13, a respectable tally for a player not renowned as a goalscorer.

A hat-trick of a more unwelcome kind, three hernia operations, destroyed his contribution to last season's Third Division title triumph.

Fans, unaware of the extent of his problems, turned on him and he even asked for a transfer.

"I admit that as much as I was pleased for the lads I felt gutted I wasn't really part of it," Freeman said. "Okay I played 16 games and gave it 100 per cent, but I was never 100 per cent fit."

Freeman, went to Lilleshall and worked through the summer in a bid to regain fitness and earn a new contract.

Still in pain, he struggled through pre-season and played in Albion's opening friendly at his old club Worthing.

"I could hardly walk after the game," he said. "I was up all night in absolute agony.

"It was affecting the quality of life and my home life. I was coming home down in the dumps, but I never really thought it was going to be the end for me.

"I just thought there were different problems which hadn't been spotted. The gaffer was brilliant. He said he wanted the best for his players, so I was sent to see the best person."

It was during Albion's pre-season tour of Ireland that Freeman had an appointment with hernia specialist Jerry Gilmore in London's Harley Street which was to change his life.

"He said I had an awful lot wrong with me down there. His words were there is no way you can carry on playing professional football.

"You are in a right mess, but hopefully we can do something to give you a better quality of life.

"It had got to the stage where I couldn't even go down to the park for a kickabout with my kids because after training and games I was in absolute agony.

"I just felt empty. I was in London all on my own. I remember coming out of there and walking along to the tube station with so many things going through my mind. I think I just went into shock.

"I got home and was just sitting around. My phone kept on going and I didn't answer it."

Freeman now faces a fourth more serious operation in London in a week's time.

"This time it's a lot worse," he said. "They are opening me up in the groin and abductor muscles with four to six incisions. One is bad enough."

The former Fulham striker has not been able to bring himself to watch Albion in action yet.

"I've got myself geared up and dressed, but I have not been able to go through with it.

"Saturdays are really hard for me. That is when I am lounging about and realise how much the game really meant to me.

"The gaffer always told us when we were moaning in training or had a bad game that you won't realise what you have until it's gone. I can really understand that now."

Freeman is grateful for all the support he has received in the last few desperate weeks.

"The club have played an absolutely massive part in helping me through and all of my family and friends, because it has really been a rough time.

"I was thinking I hadn't achieved a lot in football, but what the gaffer said about me in The Argus really meant a lot to me.

"Mal (physio Malcolm Stuart) has been great. I thought only Lorraine could put up with me the way he has.

"I know I have driven him and the gaffer nuts. Micky didn't have much grey hair when I first played for him five years ago.

"It has been great working with him. He gave me the opportunity to experience promotions, the freedom to express my way of playing and the opportunity to fulfill my ambition.

"The players have been great as well and I wish them all the best. They have been phoning me up, but I just don't know what to say sometimes. It's a numb feeling.

"I've had text messages from I don't know who and people have stopped me in the street to sympathise.

"I want to thank my mum and dad, Lorraine, family and friends and also people from the past where it all began at Hollingbury Hawks like Terry Bennett, the likes of Sammy Donnelly and Les Berry from my non-League days and Gerry Armstrong, who has been a rock in my career."

That career is now over and Freeman has no real idea what he is going to do next. His immediate priority is the surgery next Thursday.

"I think the PFA should have a scheme where you can talk to people, because it has really affected me," he revealed.

"I'm not saying I have gone off my head, but I've been playing football all my life. If you could go and speak to someone you could let everything out.

"It's not just me who suffers, it's my family as well. I'm lucky I have got my boys and Lorraine. I've spent a lot of quality time with them, which has been good.

"I have got to realise football isn't everything. Everyone keeps telling me that. I can't see it at the moment, but I'm getting there."

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