O'Neill: Hard work starts now after dream return
FOR two days, Colm O'Neill had every right to feel chuffed with himself – a point in Croke Park against All-Ireland champions Dublin on Saturday night with his first touch of the ball on his return from a third cruciate ligament repair in five years.
Another point with his second touch to turn the screw and lift his team-mates significantly completed a fine contribution to a third straight win as Cork preserved their unbeaten record in Division 1 of the league.
"You couldn't really wish for anything else," beamed O'Neill.
Then on Monday his phone beeped with a message from ever-diligent Cork physio Colin Lane suggesting that they meet in Pairc Ui Chaoimh the following morning for a 7.30 rehab session. Reality had bitten again.
The rehabilitation work is far from over and will become much more a way of life for O'Neill for the rest of his career. He can't afford complacency.
"It was a gentle reminder that the show is not over, to keep doing the rehab to build stability on my knee," he said. "Going forward that's what we're planning. The last two times it happened, once I got back and got into a few games, through no fault of anyone except myself, I maybe forgot about keeping on top of things and keeping doing the exercises.
"I just fell in with the rest of the team. This time we're going to keep doing the rehab. I'm going to have to be different to most lads now in that I'll have to keep doing a bit extra the morning of training or before it."
Still, for 20 minutes or so last Saturday night, those cameos made all those early morning visits to the Pairc over the last 12 months worthwhile. Recovering from his previous two ruptures on his right knee, he had built some match fitness with a succession of club games with Ballyclough.
This time he was thrown in at the deep end, into a match that was churning out scores at a rate of one a minute in the opening quarter.
"I was very nervous going into it because I had nothing at all done, bar bits of training," he said.
"I was wondering why I was so nervous. In the back of my mind I knew I had the work done, so I should have been confident enough.
"The last two times I had five or six club games under my belt before I actually played with Cork.
"This time I was coming to Croke Park with not a lot of work done. There is no place that you will be shown up more than there if you're not right. Thankfully it went very well."
The "easy part", according the 25-year-old, is over. Now the hard part begins in earnest. O'Neill noted how Cork's squad for Sunday's visit of Derry to Pairc Ui Rinn features six forwards in reserve. Paddy Kelly is added for the first time this season.
"The hardest part for me has yet to come, trying to nail down a place on the starting 15," he said.
"Cork football is on the up. We're not getting carried away, but the younger lads coming in have brought a bit of freshness to it. They have no fear, coming on the back of so many successful teams."
O'Neill can attach some humour to the predicament he has found himself in. The repair work on his knees is as routine as a filling at the dentist, he jokes. If he ever appears on 'Mastermind' his chosen subject will focus on 'Home and Away', such are the hours of afternoon TV he has put in recuperating from three operations.
Certain things have given him perspective. In one of his 'GAA Just Play' blogs written throughout last summer, he recalled a moment being driven to the Whitfield Clinic in Waterford by his father.
"On the way in there was a sign pointing a different way for a cancer unit. My dad said to me, 'It could be worse, we could be going that direction'," he said.
"Around the time it happened I was at home watching 'The Saturday Night Show' – Donal Walsh was on and he was inspirational.
"At that time I was starting to feel a small bit sorry for myself. It was only two weeks after the operation. But I shook myself and said, 'What have you to be down about, it is only an injury?'"
His familiarity with the injury instantly told him that his AIB work colleague Colm Cooper was in trouble when he crumbled to the ground in Dr Crokes' All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Castlebar Mitchels.
O'Neill, an employee at the Patrick Street branch in Cork, was close by in his capacity as an ambassador for the competition sponsors.
"He stayed down for a good bit. I knew that he was in trouble. People were saying he walked off after it, he'd be okay," he said. "I was thinking the first time I did it I walked off as well and I was actually contemplating coming back on. The initial pain is very severe after one or two minutes and then it eases out."
O'Neill reckons he can have "eight or nine" good years at the top if he minds himself. Had he ruptured the same cruciate a third time, however, his career may well have been over.
His surgeon, Tadhg O'Sullivan, didn't say that in so many words but that's what he took from their conversation.
"When I went down and met him it was the first question he asked. 'Which one was it?' He just heard I went over on my knee. He obviously knew I did the right one before, he didn't know exactly which one it was.
"'I know it is hard to think of positives now,' he said, 'but if it was the third time on the right leg you would be seriously questioning your future as a GAA player.' At that time it was a positive for me to say that it wouldn't be career threatening."
O'Neill admits to having "sleepless nights' wondering about the only link there was between all three ruptures. They had all happened within a three-week window between mid-March and early April.
But his mind is strong and his focus is clear. Colm O'Neill is ready to put a lifetime or two of bad injuries behind him once more, and Saturday night was the perfect starting point.
Meanwhile, Michael Shields returns to the Cork team to face Derry after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
Shields replaces Eoin Cadogan, who returns to the hurling squad, while Andrew O'Sullivan comes in for Aidan Walsh, who is also committed to the hurlers this weekend.
With the U-21 footballers being rested ahead of their match with Kerry the following week, Tom Clancy and Kevin O'Driscoll come in at half-back. Donncha O'Connor joins Kelly among the replacements.
Cork (NFL v Derry) – K O'Halloran; A Cronin, M Shields, Tomás Clancy; J Loughrey, Tom Clancy (Clonakilty), K O'Driscoll; F Goold, A O'Sullivan; M Collins, P Kerrigan, J O'Rourke; D Goulding, B Hurley, J Hayes.