WHENEVER a conversation about serious injuries in GAA crops up, my mind always drifts back towards a St Patrick’s weekend in Páirc Uí Rinn back in 2013 when Colm O’Neill did his cruciate for the third time.
O’Neill had curled over two scorchers in the first quarter against Donegal, one from either side of the pitch, and I remember being mid-sentence on how great he was moving when he turned on a ball right in front of me. His knee buckled mid-turn and the sound of complete silence that followed, the sick realisation from the crowd that the cruellest thing had happened again, is the sort of thing that sticks with you.
This is why we’re taking it handy with the excitement about the continuing return of Sean Powter to game-time with Cork footballers and the growing influence of his explosive speed on games, an influence that will only get larger surely with the fast pitches of summer, so long as it’s allowed to. That mix of knowing it’s great and knowing it can all be taken away.
It seems we may underestimate sometimes just how big a part injury/ being injury free/ history of injury plays in the idea of elite sportspeople being able to perform at their highest level. This is in soccer too. Last week Gary Neville made a case for Mo Salah as Liverpool’s most important attacker based in the end on the fact he can play so often without missing any games injured.
We read a piece recently where Joe Cole described the toll injuries took on his ability to go past defenders later in his career.
On the most recent series of Soccerbox on Sky Sports it was fascinating to hear Michael Owen talk about how injuries deprived him of that killer speed but the main takeaway was the impact it had on his confidence, going from a player who believed he could scare and destroy any defence to one who had to think a differing role on the field.
The mentality aspect of this is huge as well. I remember talking to Conrad Murphy a good few years back where he explained how the constant cycle of injury-recovery-comeback-injury just became such a difficult sporting existence, the frustrations and lost time and that nagging fear of pulling up again that filtered into every training and match.
Even now I recall the real pain Murphy felt describing the first time his hamstring went in a game out in Castlehaven.
This is the reality of injury and the time it sucks out of people. Colm O’Neill told a story before about ringing Conor Counihan when the Cork manager retired in 2013 to thank him for his time before amending his thanks for the two years from five O’Neill didn’t miss through injury, going on to describe a period where he spent more time as waterboy than on the field, watching Munster finals on holidays, that sort of footballer who’s not playing football life.
There was a loneliness to the anecdotes, the details of O’Neill training away down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh at seven on Sunday mornings into the winter of 2013, weeks and months after Cork were gone from championship, all to get ready for the next year and another go.
O’Neill came back and played another five years, pulling Cork through some tough evenings with that constant ability to score goals and points, even if he or Cork never got to explode in the same way on the biggest days again.
Attempts at explaining the injury issues in the GAA tend to leap through various phases. Colm O’Neill’s cruciates all come in February/March time and he often wondered if there was a link to the pitches at that time of year. Sean Powter isn’t a fan of the 4G surfaces for training and is staying away now in general. The switching of S+C coaches in Cork up to recently has been put forward as not ideal.
A glut of hip injuries a few years ago were put down to some not-great training practices at various levels and maybe simple overuse. Too many games/training causing wear and tear has always been in the background.
There can tend to be an unrealistic expectation of no injuries as well, where a club like Man United with its resources and medical staff can seemingly go through injury crisis after crisis (see treatment of Marcus Rashford) and then you look at a GAA player who isn’t a full-time athlete and maybe has several different coaches and teams with varying training ideas and you can see how things can go wrong.
It’s striking then when you think about the avoidance and management of injuries and rehab and comebacks become a pretty major area for any team but just how little attention it can get at times.
Cork currently has Powter and Sam Ryan in a constant monitoring mode. Brian Hurley is on the way back again.
Kevin Crowley’s shoulder added to his list of bad luck. Kevin Flahive is long-term out. If Cork has a history of picking up injuries then it also has a medical and physio team that have been top class in treatment of players’ recovery.
Colm O’Neill mentioned the physio Colin Lane who met him for training on the day he was flying on honeymoon and every single Cork player who’s made that long journey over the last few years has referenced the constant help and commitment they’ve gotten.
It’s possible to come back and be as effective. Ruairí Deane returned from two cruciates and became a better player. Brian Hurley spoke of not having that devastating burst in year one of his comeback but he gave glimpses in year two of getting close.
Sean Powter has explained how his own idea has changed on the responsibility of load management but also how aware new S+C coach Kevin Smith and Ronan McCarthy are of the importance of this.
When Powter was coming through a few years ago, probably the only factor put forward as potentially halting his excellence at intercounty level was injury and the idea that a player who plays with that level of power and pace might be susceptible to picking up muscle problems.
The sight of Powter bombing through Derry’s defence last weekend was a genuine gamechanger for Cork and still the fear lingers along with the thrill of seeing him back. Let’s hope we all get to enjoy him on the field more than off it again.