Determined O'Neill rewarded after long road back to the top

 

MUNSTER SFC SEMI-FINAL:  To come back once from a cruciate injury and be a successful intercounty footballer is one thing. To come back a second time and be equally successful makes all the hard work and rehab worthwhile

WHEN COLM O’Neill went down clutching his knee in the 16th minute of a league game against Galway in March 2011, Cork physio Colin Lane only had hope for an ally against the barbarous cruelty of experience.

You can talk nicely to a lot of twists and strains but a knee that has suffered like O’Neill’s will hardly ever listen. Spend enough of your life around victims of cruciate ligaments injuries as Lane has and you come to accept certain truths as being unpliable.

For one, a player who’s been through it before is always in greater danger than one who hasn’t. For another, a player who goes down with nobody around him is likely to be more seriously hurt than one involved in a collision.

Worst of all, the road ahead is as joyless as it is lengthy, regardless of who you are.

O’Neill was 22 when he left Pearse Stadium on crutches that day. It was only a couple of weeks short of three years since his first cruciate tear, sustained during a club game for Ballyclough. When he hit the turf in Salthill, he hit it alone, turning for a ball that he got nowhere near.

Lane had been his wingman through the first cruciate tear back in 2008 and now he steeled himself for what was most likely looming for the young corner-forward. A week later, the scan told him what he probably knew already. Same knee, same story. Same struggle.

“Returning from a cruciate ligament injury is a big thing and it’s a huge ask of any player,” says Lane. “When the injury itself occurs, people don’t realise that there’s actually a lot of damage done to the bone in the knee joint as a result of the trauma that the knee undergoes. And essentially, a lot of that does not heal. You can stabilise the knee but the bone damage will remain. So you’re putting yourself at a huge risk even just returning.

“You can have guys who return and play very successfully but their knee joint will be at huge risk of arthritis in years to come.

“The problem is that there’s a fairly high rate of recurrence. Once you injure it once, you can never entirely stabilise the operated knee as good as the unoperated one. Good rehab reduces the chances of recurrence but every patient knows the chances of it happening again and every orthopaedic surgeon makes sure they know it. Colm’s operations were both on the same knee.”

Two serious cruciate tears by the age of 22. Even allowing for the prevalence of the injury around the GAA nowadays, it must feel like a particularly vengeful black cat has singled him out for treatment. We’ve become so used to it that most people can rhyme off the period on the sidelines with familiar ease. It means season over, see you in nine months.

But do we really know what we mean when we say it?

“Absolutely not,” says Lane. “It’s about milestones and targets. It starts off fairly gently with range-of-movement and balance exercises until after five or six weeks he would have begun strength training. Around week 13, it was light running; around week 18 it would have been heavier running, sprinting, changes of direction and so on. By week 20, we would have been doing sport-specific drills.

“Throughout his rehab, if I was organising to meet Colm below in the Páirc for one o’clock in the afternoon, Colm would be there at 12.40. He was ready, he was warming up, he was doing everything and more that he needed to for his injury. With cruciate ligaments, regardless of the fact that the player gets good care and advice, the success of any return is solely dependent on the hard work of the player himself.

“It doesn’t matter whether I’m co-ordinating it or anybody else – the player has to fight his own way back. Colm knew that all along and it was often the case that if I was seeing him three times a week, he was working six and seven times a week on his own.”

John Cleary had O’Neill for three years in the Cork Under-21s. As a selector in 2007 and later the manager in ’09, he was there for both of Cork’s All Ireland wins – the second time with O’Neill as his captain. That first injury only happened a few weeks after their 2008 campaign had ended at the hands of a Tommy Walsh-led Kerry but even though it meant O’Neill’s year ended in March, Cleary didn’t think twice about making him captain for ’09. They got him back for a 20-minute spell in a challenge game in Christmas week. It was enough.

“He was the one guy who stood out as a leader and who already had an All-Ireland medal,” Cleary says. “We were touching base with him on and off to see how he was and when he came back the one difference was that he was now fitter than he had been before. He had worked so hard – and doubly hard on his own to get himself back to fitness. He was brilliant for us that year.”

He needed to be as Cork scraped their way through last-kick win after last-kick win. They beat Tipperary in the Munster final with an injury-time goal. Against a Dublin side that featured three of the defence that would go on to win a senior All- Ireland two years later, O’Neill scored 1-4 of Cork’s 1-10. And in the final against Down, he scored another five in yet another one-point win. He was ultimately picked out for the Hero of the Future award, given to the tournament’s best player.

By the end of the 2009, he was shortlisted for Young Footballer of the Year as well. In only his second championship match, he’d come off the bench to score an injury-time 45 that should have been enough to beat Kerry in a Munster semi-final in Killarney and would have been if Cork had kept their heads. By the All Ireland quarter-final he was a starter and his early goal in the final put the wind up Kerry, if only momentarily.

Although Cork got a rough enough going-over in the end that day, O’Neill had done enough all year to look like he was the future. And despite cutting a frustrated and flitting presence through Cork’s All- Ireland run the following year – when he only started and finished two of their eight games – he now had a senior All-Ireland medal to his name. To Cleary’s mind, this had a substantial effect on O’Neill when his knee crumpled the following spring.

“He was obviously very determined and he would have had the temperament for the recovery. But as well as that, the carrot has been there for him all along. When he got injured the first time, he had an Under-21 All -Ireland medal already won and still had time to win another before he went over-age.

“When the second cruciate injury happened, he had two All-Ireland Under-21 medals and a senior one to go along with them. I would say what drove him on through all of it was the memory of those wins and the chance that it will happen again. He knows another All-Ireland is very attainable and I would say that pushed him on through it.”

His return this time around came in a McGrath Cup game against Clare in January. If few beyond the wire in Páirc Uí Rinn were especially bothered with what went on inside it that day, the Cork dressingroom knew what it was about. As a tribute to the work O’Neill had put in since the previous March, they handed him a ball and told him to lead the team out onto the pitch. Few would have noticed but then it wasn’t for anyone but himself.

He scored 2-4 that afternoon and went on to put in a sparkling league. Despite not playing in the first two matches, he still ended the campaign as Cork’s second-highest scorer behind Donncha O’Connor.

But while O’Connor’s 1-26 was backboned by 15 frees and a penalty, only 0-6 of O’Neill’s 4-13 came from placed balls. At his best – as he was against Down in the league semi-final – he was unplayable. Sharp, balanced, merciless in front of goal. Not so much making up for lost time as doing it justice.

“I think it’s made him realise what he has as a player,” says Lane. “To come back once from a cruciate injury and be a successful intercounty footballer is one thing. To come back a second time and be equally successful has made him realise that all the hard work he put in in rehab and in training is worthwhile. There’s nothing that can’t be surmounted if you’re willing to put in the hard work. It’s a long road back and it takes a lot of dedication to get to where he’s after getting to.”

Have a scan through the various Footballer of the Year odds this morning and you’ll find that Colm O’Neill is available in some places at 25 to 1. A man who’s come through two cruciate nightmares to be at the top of the sport could tell you he’s beaten bigger odds than that already.