ONE week before the Ulster Final in 2011, on a bright Sunday morning, the Derry squad was playing an in-house game. It was nothing too hectic.
Eoin Bradley, (pictured right) who had electrified the Ulster Championship that year, ran for a ball, collected it, turned and suddenly collapsed in agony on the ground. He had heard the snap and knew it could be only one thing. The dreaded cruciate.
As the squad gathered round him, he shook his head and quipped “That’s the f***ing All-Star down the drain.” And so it was.
At least he had company during the gruelling nine months rehabilitation that followed.
A few months earlier, his older brother, Paddy, had sustained exactly the same injury. Paddy managed to get back playing, but never fully recovered. His county career is over now, the twilight years ruined by the curse of the cruciate.
Eoin is also back playing, but is yet to recover the full-on skinner mojo.
On the same evening a fortnight ago, when Longford and Derry were playing a game of some sort in Celtic Park, in Pairc Ui Rinn, Cork’s Colm O’Neill went for a ball against Donegal and was turning when his knee gave way. Lying there in agony, he must have experienced a powerful sense of deja vu.
O’Neill knew immediately it was his cruciate, or to be more precise, his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). As he was carted off the field on a stretcher for the third time in four years, Gaels all over the land could only shake their heads sorrowfully and wonder why such a talented and decent young man could be so cruelly treated by the Gods.
O’Neill is a superstar in the making. Just a few weeks ago I was putting a list together in my head of the country’s five best footballers. The first two names on it were Michael Murphy, the man-child from Glenswilly and the young Rebel, Colm O’Neill. The pity is that we have barely seen him.
In 2008, he tore his cruciate playing for his club. Yet he sandwiched that annus horribilis with All-Ireland Under-21 winner’s medals. In the 2007 final, when he was three years young for the grade, he capped a superb performance with the decisive goal.
In 2009, back from his ACL tear after almost a year of ferocious rehab work, he captained the Under-21s to another All-Ireland. “This boy is going to be special” we said to ourselves.
In O’Neill and other young guns like Sheehan, Cork folk sensed that they were about to be emancipated from the tyranny of the Kingdom. A bit player in 2010, by 2011, he was ready to show his wares at senior level. Midway through the season, lightning struck again, this time against Galway in the league. Another year was written off.
He’s not easily deterred. By the start of the 2012 Championship, he was ready to go again. This time, there was no false start and to the great delight of football lovers, fate permitted him to go through his whole box of tricks. A left footed, right footed, high catching, dead-eyed finisher, his game was complete and pristine.
Against the Donegal Stranglers, the most feared defensive group in the history of the game, he simply ran riot. Not even Mark (Sneaky trip) McHugh (innocent expression) could get close enough to drag him down.
O’Neill scored 1-4 from play that day and it could easily have been 2-4. Halfway through the second half, the game was seemingly gone from Cork. Their heads were down and they had resigned themselves to their fate. Not O’Neill. He easily caught a very awkward high ball and surrounded by three opponents he worked his way across goal. As he fell over off balance, he pulled the trigger. The crowd held its breath. The ball came back off the crossbar and Donegal were saved.
All the great ones have had a crack at that Donegal defence. Where Brogan and Cooper signally failed, O’Neill triumphed. After O’Neill’s 1-4, Jimmy had to take to his bed for a week and Mark stayed on for an hour after training to work on his tripping, dragging down and body checking. (Sadly, the introduction of the black card has removed these from the game, and as Mark pointed out via twitter on Sunday, (“ruined club football.”)
Now, just as O’Neill was entering his pomp, he has been viciously cut down once more. Last week, he tweeted “My worst fears just confirmed today. Cruciate gone again #disaster#gutted.” How much can a man take?
Paul McCormack, the doyen of sports physiotherapists, has treated them all, from Linford Christie to Roy Keane. In 1993, he wrote “The McACL” the standard paper on rehab for Gaelic footballers. He says he has seen the problem occurring in siblings, suggesting a genetic weakness. He thinks that perhaps studded boots on dry ground may contribute.
But after a professional life devoted to the study and treatment of the problem, he concludes that it is mostly just an occupational hazard. When a footballer plants his foot to turn, the weakest point in the chain is the cruciate and sometimes, it snaps under the strain. It occurs in approximately one in ten footballers at club and county level. The injury is now very treatable, but involves 7-12 months of gruelling, desperately boring work. For elite athletes, McCormack’s current program requires a minimum of two hours per day.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for O’Neill. Roy Keane, under McCormack’s supervision, returned to soccer with a vengeance and played out a glorious career. Kieran McGeeney tore his ACL in 1994. McCormack says that none of his patients ever worked so hard. Sometimes, McGeeney was physically sick during their workouts, so hard did he push himself.
The rest is history, the Armagh man leading his troops to an immortal first
All-Ireland in 2002 and establishing himself over a decade as a competitor of the highest order. O’Neill has done it before. At just 24 years of age, he can do it again. High catch, left foot, right foot, the crowd gasping with excitement. Next time he faces Donegal in Croke Park, he won’t hit the bar.