Friday 18 October 2019

'It would come into my head that maybe I wasn't going to get back'

Niall Donoher has had more than his share of injuries but he’s aiming to make up for lost time

Niall Donoher is determined to make up for lost time Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Niall Donoher is determined to make up for lost time Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Laois' Niall Donoher isn't one for hanging around just now. You see, there's been enough of that. Enough dark days and lonely hours of rehab where the only thought he had was if he'd ever get back to taste the big time. Or if a freak injury picked up in the course of an O'Byrne Cup match was to be his last act in a Laois jersey.

It all started well for the Courtwood man. He followed the path of many a Laois footballer of recent times. An All-Ireland minor title in 2003 was followed by a Leinster U-21 crown a couple of seasons later. It all hinted at a promising senior career.

But Laois struggled while Donoher had his own travails, leaving him to wonder if his career was to be prematurely cut short.

"I got microfracture surgery done on my knee a few years ago so I missed 18 months straight up," he explains. "And then I picked up a few other knocks to the knee. I missed two championship seasons and three league campaigns from 2012 onwards. And I missed a good bit of football in the two and three years after that. So when you get a chance to get back in, you are not going to be pass it up."

He's 32 now and knows there's more football behind him than ahead of him. The injury happened so simply that he knows every game has to be cherished, starting with tomorrow's Leinster SFC final clash with Dublin. The task is a daunting one but considering injury might have robbed him of the chance to play in games like this, it's one he is relishing.

"Personally in your own head, you will go through those feelings. Sometimes like, it would come into my head that maybe I wasn't going to get back here. But I had loads of unbelievable people behind me, got loads of backing.

"In fairness, I wasn't left to do anything on my own. All the people backed me and I put in the work - and the knee has been good ever since. There has been no problem with it. I was just playing an O'Byrne Cup match in Dr Cullen Park one day and twisted it going for a ball. It was a simple twist of the knee and the cartilage just completely broke out of the side of my knee, so it was pretty bad.

"I hadn't heard of the surgery that I got but I recovered, the surgeon said it was a brilliant recovery. So, it recovered as good as what it was going to do. The surgeon said there was no reason why I couldn't go back playing football as long as I managed it properly.

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"It is just something that I have to manage. It has been good since, and, touch wood, I haven't had many problems with it since. I will stay going as long as I can."

Perhaps Donoher and Laois are back in the big time later than they expected but they are there nonetheless. He was part of the panel that went close to beating the then All-Ireland champions in 2012 but admits the sides have gone in different directions since then.

"I was on the panel (in 2012) but that was my first year with the knee injury, that was my first year out. But I was on the sideline for it, that was a close game that day.

"There was only a kick of the ball in it that day, but that is a long time ago now and the teams have moved in opposite directions since then.

"You only have to look at the league tables and our championship results since then to see that, but look we are hopefully moving in the right direction now."

Laois found themselves in the basement division in the spring and confidence was low. Meanwhile, Dublin have been setting all sorts of records and marking themselves out as one of the great teams the game has seen.

Slowly though, the O'Moore men are in recovery. Under John Sugrue, they have ten wins on the bounce this year. And Donoher believes his side are getting better with every game.

"There is no point in beating around the bush. We started off at a pretty low ebb this year. Personally, I didn't think this day would come around when we were starting out at the start of the year.

"But we had a good league, confidence was built up when we got a few wins. And the group has really got tight and we know what we were about. Once we got through the league, I don't feel surprised now.

"The last few years have been very, very tough. Confidence was low in the group. But just from the start of the year, there have been a good few new lads that have come in, the older lads have come back and really knuckled down this year.

"It is paying dividends. It is amazing what a few wins can do, how much it can raise confidence."

Promotion from Division 4 and reaching a first Leinster final in 11 years is a start. But Donoher insists that it can be more than that. "Look, that is the basis of what has been the team for the last few years.

"All those players from those underage teams but there are some brilliant young lads coming through now, some fellas that are coming who are really talented footballers. Hopefully, getting to a Leinster final and the senior team improving will hopefully increase interest again because you can see the youngsters now, they are all so interested in football again. There is a huge batch of young lads going to the game so the interest is coming back."

Donoher's interest never wavered.

"I never felt like giving it up. Your career is short enough and I missed a good bit of ball myself."

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