Liam Óg McGovern making every moment count with Wexford
Centre-forward grateful to be playing once again after long recovery from cruciate tear
Wexford’s Liam Óg McGovern scores a point against Kilkenny in their 1-19 to 1-12 win in the Hurling League Division 1A at Wexford Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
You were supposed to read this article two years ago. It was supposed to be an interview with Liam Óg McGovern in the week of his return from a cruciate ligament injury. Wexford were about to bring Kilkenny to Wexford Park – to beat them for the first time in 13 years, although we didn’t know that at the time – and McGovern was hoping to see some action. All going well, it would be his first time back on the pitch for Wexford in 11 months.
We did the interview on a Friday and he was terrific company – smart and engaging as we talked about hurling and horse racing and life and everything. Naturally enough, the injury came up in conversation but he didn’t want a lament to be written about it. It happened, it was long, it was tough and it was over. Or pretty much over, at any rate. If he got his minutes against Kilkenny, then he could draw a proper line.
A few days later, the text arrived.
“Bit of an update. Tore the cruciate again on Saturday in training. Up to you regarding the piece at the weekend and what you want to do with it.”
Disaster. We shelved the piece and moved along. As Wexford Park rocked that Saturday night, McGovern was on crutches. The road in front of him was long and grim and dull. Surgery, rehab, the endless quiet of the self-propelled return.
It was just shy of another year before he played for Wexford again, coming off the bench against Offaly in the 2018 championship. When Wexford played Clare in the All-Ireland quarter-final last July, it was Davy Fitzgerald’s 24th game in charge. In the last game of Davy’s second season, McGovern finally made his first start for him.
So when he banged in Wexford’s first goal last Sunday in Parnell Park, sparking a comeback that ought to have washed out as a win, it was the obvious time to chance a text again. “At the risk of being a jinx...”
McGovern works for Oracle, the global tech giant whose Dublin office spans three blocks in the Eastpoint Business Park in Clontarf. Though they are helpful and workable in facilitating his hurling, this is not the sort of place where strolling around as Mr Intercounty would carry a lot of heft. He grabs an office for us while a Babel of languages plays out on the open-plan floor beneath, headsets connected to clients all across Europe. Not a lot of cruciate talk going on, you’d imagine.
“I’m good,” he smiles. “It’s been a long road, there have been ups and downs. But I’m grateful to be able to tog out and play and be a part of games like last weekend. And to be able to do the build-up and the bus and the warm-up and those small things.
“I really appreciate those things now. Every day I go out, I’m delighted to be there. I genuinely don’t look beyond the next training session or the next game. I know it’s a cliché but it’s really true. When you’ve been out for so long, it teaches you not to look too far ahead.”
He wants to make it clear, as bald and blatant as he can, that there is no part of him that dwells on the past. He’ll talk about the injuries if you like but just as there was no poor-me in him two years ago, he doesn’t want this to turn into My Cruciate Hell. That’s not who he is.
Davy Fitz sussed that about him early. When he took the Wexford job in October 2016, McGovern was just a month after his first surgery.
Though he hadn’t been able to use him as a hurler, Fitzgerald got a sense of him as a person as winter turned to spring while he worked his way back to full fitness. McGovern is analytical by nature – Liam Dunne called him a desperate over-thinker – so when the worst came to the worst a second time the week before the Kilkenny game, the Wexford manager had a plan for him immediately.
“It happened on the Saturday and I found out the Tuesday or Wednesday that I had done the cruciate again. But straight away, Davy asked me did I want to be part of the back-room team for the rest of the year as a forwards coach. I thought about it and went, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I was happy to help out in any way I could and see if I could offer anything.”
Davy being Davy, there was no plamás in it. If McGovern had any suspicions that this might be an empty gesture, a way of giving him something to be at with no jeopardy attached, Fitzgerald wasn’t long knocking them.
“We had training the following Friday and he asked me to do a drill with the lads,” McGovern remembers. “So I went to do it and I was there kind of sheepishly telling guys to sort of move here and go there and whatever. It was a totally different role, you know? Davy saw this and was having none of it and shouted at me. He pushed me to get out of my comfort zone.
“So when it came to the Kilkenny game, I wasn’t a passenger. I had a role to play on the day. It was very clever from Davy because straight away it distracted me from my injury. I was on crutches fair enough but I couldn’t start feeling sorry for myself. I had a new role and it was something I had to work at. So that was a good experience and something I would have benefitted from because of the injury.”
In the background all the while, he had to go back and do the work from scratch again on his knee. The first time you fall into the cruciate cellar, everything is darkness. Each step along the way, you fumble for a light switch and you get to see the bit in front of you until eventually all becomes clear.
The second time around, all the lights are on from the start. It doesn’t make the cellar any smaller or the number of steps back to the surface any fewer. But at least you can see where everything is and where you’ve got to go.
“Patience,” he says when you ask what the first experience gave him. “When you don’t hit certain barometers, when you’re not able to meet a certain skill level that you demand from yourself or you’re not where you want to be. It was frustrating the first time. Panic is too strong a word but you start off measuring everything down to the day or month and when you don’t hit those bang on, you start wondering why.
“Sportspeople are hard-wired to deadlines. When am I back? When can I train again? When can I play again? But what the first injury taught me was that you can try to join the dots all you like, you’re not ready until the body comes around. That’s the driver. You can support it, you can facilitate it, you can do everything. But the body needs to respond and let you know when it’s right.”
He read everything and he rang everyone. Colm O’Neill. Emlyn Mulligan. David Moran. Anybody who had come back and played again after multiple cruciates got the call. They all knew what to say, just by simple instinct.
“Those conversations, you’re ringing them for emotional support,” he says. “All you want to hear from them is, ‘I was in your position. I had a similar injury and I got back.’ It’s a motivational thing. You go up and down. Some days are good and some days are bad. This is just a little boost on a day you need it to make you go and do that gym session and it’ll get you through that week.”
When he did get back and made a couple of substitute appearances in Leinster last summer, he was okay. In both senses of the word. He felt okay, which was good. He played okay, which was not so good. It was fine and everyone understood and gave him time. But okay is only okay. Better was needed.
“I convinced myself I was 100 per cent right. But at that level if you’re 1 or 2 per cent off, you can get by but you’re not really yourself. It takes time. You can get back pretty soon and you can do a pretty good job. But it takes that extra bit of time to get back comfortable, particularly mentally. You have a lot of scar tissue upstairs to get rid of. It takes a bit of time and it takes plenty of games.
“The mind has an incredible way of remembering injuries unconsciously. It’s easy to make yourself forget about it but unconsciously, you will land or turn or run in a way that tries to protect your body.
“So unless you hardwire those unconscious things out of your movement, it’s going to slow you down initially. That takes time to fully trust. And at intercounty level, if you’re minding yourself even by 1 per cent, there’ll be a lad who gets in front of you. It takes a while to flush out.”
Anyone watching him last Sunday would have seen him back to himself. Playing at centre-forward, he was Wexford’s top scorer from play and also put Rory O’Connor away for their second goal.
“Moments like that, you really do appreciate it. They are special moments, regardless of injury or not. But my God, when you’ve been out for a while, to come back and do that, it was nice. The injury is in the past. I’m here now and I’m very much looking forward. It’s all about the future.”
Nobody deserves it more.