Nathaniel Chalobah has opened up about a "tough" period on the touchlines with Watford, in which he has battled to regain fitness.

The England international made his first league start since December on Sunday in the Hornets' 3-0 defeat at Chelsea and was praised by head coach Javi Gracia for his contribution.

After the game, he spoke about how grateful he was to be back playing after a difficult time off the pitch.

"I look at the position that I was at a year ago, or 18 months ago, I could barely lift my leg and I was struggling," said Chalobah.

"Now I’m on the football pitch kicking a ball again – what complaints do I have to make? I just take it step by step.

"It’s been tough, I can’t stand here and say it hasn’t been but this is part and parcel of the game, you’ve just got to stay focused, working hard every day and when your chance comes try and take it - that’s what I tried to do.

"Like most injuries, it was a very serious injury, so you get good days, you get bad days.

"It’s just a matter of looking after it, managing it and when you have got physios these days as good as they are, you know you’re in good hands."

As well as his struggle to become match-ready, Chalobah has also been kept out of the team by some impressive performances from his team-mates.

The 24-year-old admitted that in his condition, and with other players performing so well on the pitch, he could have few complaints at not getting much game time this season, despite it being mentally difficult for him to cope with.

He said: "It’s difficult as a player when you’ve missed so much football to come back and not be in the squad, but what could I say at that time?

"The team was playing well, they were winning games and I think for me to think of myself in that situation is obviously important, but you've got to give it to the team at that moment in time.

"The boys in midfield who’ve been playing this year have been fantastic, so I just put my hands up and I’ve got to get myself in the right condition and make sure I look after my injury.

"It had been a long time since I’d been out and it was also about managing it and everything else. I’m just happy to step out on the pitch every time I get the opportunity and I get the chance.

"I think the biggest thing for me this year has definitely been the mental part of it. You’ve got to come in every day with the mentality and the hunger to want to be the best that you can and just try and progress."

Chalobah's return to the Watford first-team coincided with a return to his former club Chelsea, from where he joined Watford permanently back in 2017.

As he was substituted just after the hour mark, the home fans rose to their feet to applaud their erstwhile player and Chalobah admits he did not know how to react to their affection in what he described as a "special moment".

He said: "I was surprised and shocked actually because I hadn’t been here since I left.

"I think that was like two years ago now and I didn’t really know whether to clap back to them or just keep my head down and keep jogging off, but it was a very special moment for me.

"It’s a club I’d been at for a very long time, 12 years I think, and I had goosebumps coming back here and stepping out onto the pitch."

With just two games remaining this season, Chalobah's chances of getting more game time are severely limited.

However, one of those games is a cup final and the midfielder confessed it is an occasion he has been dreaming of being a part of, ever since he was declared fit enough to return to the first-team.

He said: "I have been hopeful since I was fit and just waiting for my chance really.

"It’s just getting game fitness and match sharpness really. I pushed as hard as I could today and that’s why I couldn’t feel my legs.

"It’s difficult to replicate that in training sessions for me to get going, it was just about me going as hard as I could and trying to see what condition I really am in.

"Unfortunately I’m not in the best of conditions as you can see, cramping up so early.

"When you haven’t played for such a long time it’s always going to be difficult, but I will go again and get ready for the next game and see what happens."