Thursday 22 February 2018

Joe Brolly: Gooch and fellow players counting the cost of inter-county demolition derby

Kerry forward Colm Cooper
Kerry forward Colm Cooper

Joe Brolly

The patient is anaesthetised. The surgeon takes his scalpel and opens a 10 or 12-inch cut through the knee, peeling back the flesh to expose the bones. Now for the joinery work. Using a saw, he removes the top of the shin bone.

Then, he saws off the bottom of the thigh bone. Sometimes, he will have to remove the knee cap as well. Now, he takes a hammer and uses it to hammer a plastic cap over the top of the shin, before screwing a metal cap onto the bottom of the thigh. He cannot use metal for both jobs as metal on metal will heat up. Plastic on plastic, meanwhile, causes friction at the join. The knee is sewn up and the patient awakes to begin a laborious and painful recovery. First on a zimmer frame. Then a walking stick. Recovery takes around 12 months.

The patient will be able to walk, but not as freely as before. He will never run or cycle again. But at least he will be able to sleep and work.

At the Ulster GAA coaching conference in 2014, the medical team from the Elite Athletes Institute based at University of Ulster Jordanstown (Sports Institute Northern Ireland) gave a presentation on chronic injuries in Gaelic football. The opening graphic in their powerpoint presentation was an iceberg, with a ship sailing straight at it. The iceberg represented chronic injury: knee, hip, groin, back. The ship was county football.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament tears have reached epidemic proportions. This injury almost guarantees osteoarthritis. Up to 80 per cent of sufferers will have that arthritis within ten years. Gooch, Colm O'Neill, David Moran, Eoin Bradley etc. When the arthritis sets in, it brings chronic pain, inflammation at the knee joint and stiffness. It affects sleep, work and mental health, and in the end the pain, as Martin Loughran, elite physio at SINI, puts it, "drives the patient out of his mind." The only cure is the surgeon's saw and hammer.

Back injuries are thriving too. Within the last six months, four of the current Kerry team have either had back surgery or are about to have it. The surgery is performed by a neurosurgeon. Spinal surgery is a rather delicate affair. Hip surgery is rampant as well. Overtraining wears away the cartilage around the hip socket. Bone begins grinding on bone. Then, it is onto the surgeon's slab. With arthritis waiting impatiently, like the grim reaper. In the end, a total hip replacement is the only cure. Where's that saw, nurse?

It was revealed last week that Colm Cooper has seriously injured himself again, which seems to spell a miserable end to a career that started with such brilliance. Thank God he began his county career at a time when real football was still being played. For the last five years, our Nobel laureate of skill has had negligible impact on the big stage, either toiling against blanket defences or limping through Killarney on crutches. In the final just past, he spent most of his time in his own half, tracking Dublin's counter-attacking corner-back. The fact that the corner-back scored and Gooch didn't tells you all you need to know about modern county football.

It is fascinating to see how Gooch's physique has transformed in the past decade. At first, a lithe, supremely supple footballer, running riot in his first final against Mayo. In the end, a muscled, tight, gymnastic physique. Darragh ó Sé described this metamorphosis brilliantly a few years back with the classic line: "You used to see Gooch swigging a bottle of Coca-Cola and eating a bag of crisps. Now, he walks down the main street in Killarney sipping spring water and eating a banana."

In the period between September and May 2013, over half of the Kildare senior squad (16 players) went under the knife. At the time, manager Jason Ryan said: "Surgery for senior inter-county players is now just a part of life." So, when it was revealed last week that nine Kerry players have undergone surgery in the past six months or are on the waiting list to have it, it was no surprise, since the lot of a county footballer serving too many masters is overtraining, intensive sessions and insufficient rest. Kieran O'Leary joins the depressing list of county footballers who have had major surgery on the cruciate ligament.

Paul Geaney (back surgery), Shane Enright (back surgery), Anthony Maher (hip surgery), Mikey Geaney (back surgery), Johnny Buckley (knee surgery), Peter Crowley (shoulder surgery), James O'Donoghue (shoulder surgery, for the second time), Gooch (shoulder surgery). It is a pattern now familiar in every county.

For almost a decade, physios, surgeons and radiologists have been warning us that Gaelic football has become a demolition derby. Until now, those warnings have been ignored as the arms race intensifies. Never mind that it is an arms race that is self-defeating, with county boards throwing good money after bad to get absolutely nowhere. Meanwhile, it is the lads who suffer. And when they're unable to walk or sleep without pain, getting steroid injections, taking their arthritis medication and ibuprofen, having their hips and knees replaced in their 40s, who will give a damn then? And who will pay?

The problem is aggravated by the fact that in the last decade, it has become virtually impossible for a county footballer to build a meaningful career or start a family while he is playing. Which means that the full impact of these injuries will only be felt at a time when he is starting to make his way in the real world.

It is fascinating to see how Gooch’s physique has transformed in the past decade’
It is fascinating to see how Gooch’s physique has transformed in the past decade’

The first and most essential component in any process to reverse this sick situation is to shorten the season, reduce the opportunity for training, create an off-season and begin the process of rebalancing in favour of the clubs. Paraic Duffy's proposals are the essential starting point for this.

I spoke with Paraic at the Monaghan County convention last week, where I was giving a talk on organ donation to the clubs. Paraic worried that he might not get the support he needs to get his proposals over the line. To me, this would be astonishing. The GAA should arrange for a camera crew to tour the hospital wards, interviewing our seriously injured county players. Then follow their rehab. Speak to their loved ones. Interview the surgeons and the physios. Then show the video on a big screen at Congress. Then invite any objectors to speak.

Last Sunday, I wrote that I had been told DCU are currently training twice a week, Monday to Friday. I now realise this is not the case and that DCU trained two evenings per week and am happy to make that clear. Apologies to the DCU Sigerson management team and players for the error.

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