THERE'S this thing where soccer managers talk about a player coming back from injury being like a new signing and supporters generally moan with discontent.
Still, on the opening night of the national football league last month Cork had four debut players from the 2019 U20s but the biggest thrill came from the return of Ciarán Sheehan and the sight of Sean Powter starting a game for Cork again.
It genuinely felt like getting a new player, a young player of the year nominee from 2017 who has barely played for Cork footballers since. And finishing the game of course.
That was even bigger, seventy plus minutes of tough physical action that left Powter unable to sleep that night, lying in bed cramping – “It felt great to be in pain, a good pain, better than being injured,” Powter laughs.
For a guy who just loves playing football and loves Cork football, two seasons lost was too much.
You know the story – hamstring after hamstring tear on his right leg and then, one brutal one on his left, the sort of devastation that can make a player think things might never work out. They all left their mark but pre-championship 2019 was probably the lowest point.
“I suppose it’d taken so long to get the right one back and then you’re thinking, what if it takes as long to fix the left this as well? Those tough rehab sessions on your own are the worst, while the rest of the team are training down the Páirc and you’re on your own or with the physio in the gym.
"People like Johnny Holland, the Munster rugby player, were great, he was saying to me, look I didn’t get a chance to get back playing but you will get that chance, to be positive with it. Then it’s about making little goals, working towards lifting a certain weight and then later maybe working up your speed levels on the GPS. Small things to work towards all the time.” He visited experts and tried every possible remedy, from eating jelly to time in ice chambers of, 110 degrees and even stepped back a little from the Cork panel, just to make sure he wouldn’t rush a return pulled along by false momentum. The fact others on this Cork football group have been on similar journeys created an obvious help.
“Yeah, it’s tended to be big injuries with this team, you know, three or four months out rather than a few weeks. Last year you had myself and Sam Ryan going through that. Brian Hurley’s had it of course. Kevin Crowley.
"So we know what others are going through, how tough it is. It is hard, you spend a lot of time on your own working away, a lot of time in your own head and I suppose you learn a lot about yourself as well.” Nerves on the comeback trail haven’t gone away completely. Powter admits he hasn’t fully gone for it yet, but every game is a step and those minutes are adding up now. This year does feel different already though in plenty ways.
For starters Powter feels more in control and at ease with what needs to be done with the maintenance of himself. Before the UCC Sigerson game with NUIG, Powter felt a little soreness in his hamstring after Cork training – he rang Billy Morgan and the decision on not playing was easy.
Previously he’d been more inclined to push (he’s spoken before about feeling his leg a little before a challenge game with Cork but not wanting to mention it) and we recall something particularly manic about Powter when he came on against Meath in the league last year, this explosive need to do everything and prove himself. Cork are mindful too.
New S+C coach Kevin Smith has himself and Sheehan on the bikes most Tuesday evenings after matches instead of collective training, monitoring their load.
By the way, one of Powter’s own musings on his run of hamstring issues pondered the effect of the Astro 4G pitch so now he tends to stay off that anyway. Ronan McCarthy has told him not to expect miracle performances in the early stages, so the compulsion to do too much is taken away to some extent at least.
The group is different too. Those young lads have come in and brought competition and mentality. And not so young lads as well.
“I think last year there was something hanging over us all the time, it didn’t seem enjoyable, coming in after games and losses where we hadn’t played well and it was all negative. The feeling in training now, there’s form and an energy to it and mostly the squad is fierce competitive.
"Like, Thursday nights there, you’re not sure who’ll be playing. Lads like Cathail O’Mahony who showed great resilience after a tough day against Offaly or Brian Hartnett who’s phenomenal, I think he did like 12km in the GPS in one game there. And Ciarán’s been a huge influence. I kind of knew him already from travelling to Australia a few years ago but he’s just great for saying stuff that needs to be said in training or after game, just that experience and knowledge.” Cian O’Neill’s training has been good too. Nothing overly complicated, but there’s a focus on doing the basics well. Lots of game-based training with the ball, decision making and working on ideas on how to deal with different situations they’ll face within games.
Basic skills like kicking and catching are repeated every night. “I actually hand-passed the ball with my left hand in the Offaly game for I’d say the first time ever, so these things make a difference.” His own role has been as a sort of free corner-back. O’Neill has explained they feel he’s got more space running onto ball at pace than being marked with his back to goals.
However, he’s not sure how that will evolve through the summer and more attacking opposition. He only knows for now it’s been great to be out there again, zipping through the lines with the rest of a Cork team that’s now got serious speed and legs in that middle third.
Goals for 2020?
Free from injury. Get out of Division 3. Have a real cut off Kerry in Munster.
You can sense the excitement in his voice already. Cork football fans who’ve seen him burst onto ball already this year know that feeling.