THE smile on Craig Payne’s face told its own story.

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Payne came on as a substitute for Ipswich Wanderers Reserves last Saturday for his first competitive action for nearly 17 months, after sustaining a serious knee injury not long after signing for Stowmarket Town.

The 26-year-old suffered anterior cruciate ligament injury and cartilage damage to his right knee while playing for Stowmarket against Walsham-le-Willows in an FA Vase tie on September 24, 2011.

The intervening time has been tough for the normally bubbly striker, who admitted he could not even face watching matches at first.

After regaining full fitness, Payne’s return was delayed even further due to a combination of floodlight failure and the recent bad weather.

Payne was poised to play as a substitute for Wanderers’ first team in their Thurlow Nunn League Division One match against Great Yarmouth Town on December 8.

With Wanderers winning 3-0, manager Glenn Read told him to get ready to come on in the second half – only for the match to be abandoned at half-time due to floodlight failure!

The subsequent bad weather delayed his return until Saturday’s Thurlow Nunn Reserve League First Division fixture match against Felixstowe & Walton United, which Wanderers won 4-2.

Payne said: “I played the last 20 minutes of the game with the biggest smile I have ever had on my face. I felt on Cloud Nine – it was just really good to be back.

“When I first had the injury I couldn’t bring myself to watch a game for a whole season – I just couldn’t handle it. I found it hard to watch knowing that I couldn’t help my team out.”

Payne, who followed Read and his assistant Steve Jay from Stowmarket to Wanderers at the start of this season, also paid tribute to his Wanderers team-mates.

“I started going along to games at the start of this season. The lads at Wanderers have been brilliant and made it so much easier for me.

“Now I am back my aim is to score a few goals and definitely try to get back into the first team. I hope to give the manager a headache!”

Payne, who was Hadleigh United’s leading goalscorer three seasons in a row, is even dreaming of a possible third final appearance at Portman Road, after twice previously playing at Ipswich Town’s home ground.

He played there for Suffolk FA in their FA County Youth Cup victory over Hampshire in 2005, but was on the losing side for Hadleigh United against Grundisburgh in the Suffolk Senior Cup in 2008.

Wanderers are due to face Crane Sports in this season’s LB Group Suffolk Senior Cup semi-final a week on Saturday and are also in the semi-finals of the Division One KO Cup, where they face Great Yarmouth Town.

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