Seeking a better twist of fate
After two frustrating injuries, John Galvin is raring to go again, writes Damian Lawlor
IT was a dirty day of driving rain and howling wind. The Ruislip pitch was peppered with bumps and hollows and you'd see a bigger crowd at a card game. If John Galvin had dreamed of a glamorous comeback from two cruciate ligament injuries, this wasn't it.
But four weeks ago, Limerick's promotion hopes drifted dangerously in a London gale. The ex-pats had rattled off five points on the trot and Limerick couldn't even get their hands on the ball. The big man was needed.
"We just needed to win a ball at midfield," explains Galvin, who played a full part in a challenge game against Laois on Thursday night. "That was my only job – go on and stop their flow. The London lads were after winning six or seven kick-outs in a row. I only had one thing to do."
He came on late and London had a late goal disallowed to ensure a one-point Limerick win. They've since beaten Clare to earn a ticket to Division 3 and there's a Division 4 league final date with Offaly at Croke Park to look forward to next Saturday night.
Typical Limerick. They cling on by their fingertips against the likes of London and struggle to put average teams away during the early, sleepy months of the year. Then, when the cuckoo comes calling, they transform themselves from ugly ducklings to swans and push giants like Cork, Kerry, Kildare and Meath to the pin of their collar in the championship.
It's as if they need a tightrope to be at their best.
"I don't know what it is about us," Galvin shrugs, "but we've always played better as the evenings brighten. Our mood lifts, conditions improve and our injuries usually heal, although I can't testify to that.
"Take the promotion-decider against Clare. That was the first time all year Maurice Horan actually had to cut lads from the 26-man panel. Until then he was almost stuck for numbers. We don't have a massive squad so with injuries, we suffer. Maybe that explains why we're up and down."
One of the top midfielders in the country, Galvin has been nominated three times for an All Star and was cruelly denied in 2010 when Aidan Walsh and Paddy Keenan got there ahead of him. It adds insult to injury that he hasn't played championship since then.
In the past two years he's been dogged by his left knee. The cruciate first ruptured in a challenge match against Down in May 2011. After a year spent recovering in hospitals, gyms and physio clinics, he suffered a recurrence in a league game against Fermanagh last year. Distraught and disillusioned, he sought to postpone another operation to instead build the muscle around the knee in the hope of stealing some enjoyment from an unforgiving season.
Stubbornly, he joined full training sessions ahead of their Munster semi-final defeat to Clare but shortly beforehand he saw the light and decided on surgery to have a better chance of being fit for this year.
It's been a bleak 24 months. With 12 years' service behind him and a farm that needs his attention, the thought crossed his mind that he might sail off into the sunset. There were dark days of isolation, confinement and drudgery, but he refused to fold.
"If I do the cruciate again I'll definitely walk," he nods warily, "but hopefully that won't happen. I was so gutted the second time but I've always wanted to leave this game on my own terms. There are only three of us from the losing All-Ireland under 21 side of 2000 and we're all Croom men (Stephen Lucey and Mark O'Riordan are the others) and I only want to walk when I'm ready. When it happened the second time I even contemplated coming back without a cruciate. Imagine that. That's how stubborn I can be.
"I wanted to do what Kieran McGeeney did, build the left knee back up. But it came down to a decision – play on at 70 per cent or get the operation and be right for this season."
By the time he walked through the doors of the Sports Surgery Clinic, he had come to terms with his lot. For two weeks he was totally laid up but then he was able to go hobbling around the beef and tillage farm he looks after with his father and brother. At various times of the year, when the corn is set and later cut, it's all hands on deck. But Galvin was able to cope.
"You'd be wary," he cautions. "I wouldn't be jumping off machines or anything, but it was manageable. The Limerick County Board took care of everything so I didn't have to put my hand in my pocket. I was soon able to get back to the farm. That was something."
His routine was as tedious as a goldfish's day. Up early, breakfast and out to work. Come in about five, dinner and then hit the gym. Limerick's physio, Andrew O'Neill, and physical trainer, Jamie Bowman, devised his recovery programme and helped him along.
Mostly, though, he was on his own. "The gym could get very repetitive and it was easy to ignore the right knee or the upper body, but you couldn't do that either," he adds.
Routine became his middle name – between 10 and 15 reps on every exercise, three times a night, maybe three times a week. Then focus on other body parts while the left knee recovered. He ticked every necessary box: squats, dead lifts, single leg presses, core work, hamstring and glute strengthening, Thera-Band exercises. When the walls were restored around his ruptured ligament, he ran in straight lines again. By Christmas 2012, he could warm up with the rest of the Limerick boys before doing his own work for an hour in a corner of the field with the trainers.
"You were getting a taste of being part of a team again," he says. "That makes it so much easier.
"The first year out I stayed with the lads and acted as water-boy. Maurice Horan was very good to me and I suppose it was some form of therapy.
"Second time around, however, I just couldn't do it. My head wasn't in the right place to stay with the team. It would have destroyed me again to be at the Kildare match, for example. We nearly beat them and I would have been dying to get out there. But I would have been no use to anyone, not to Maurice or the younger fellas. I just stayed away. That's why even to get back doing a few drills with the team made me feel rejuvenated."
He is fresh in mind and body now. Says he's raring to go. The only puzzle that lingers is why him? Or why Colm O'Neill who has just suffered a third cruciate?
"God only knows what Colm is going through," he sighs. "He knows just how lonely, painful and exhausting the whole recovery process is. You need nine months to recover from a second cruciate so I don't know how long it will take Colm but I think of him often."
The cruciate ligament crisis is not leaving the GAA. In fact, it's turning into something of an epidemic. Two years ago, in the space of just five months, 14 inter-county players damaged their ACL. A recent medical study that followed 23 senior inter-county football teams showed that 1,014 injuries were reported from 106,885 hours of participation in Gaelic football over four years.
In a sport which places huge strain on knees and ankles, and everything in between, Gaelic footballers are more at risk than hurlers. Of the 470 cruciate cases dealt with under the Players' Injury Scheme last year, the football-hurling split was 319-151.
Apart from Galvin and O'Neill, Meath's David Bray, Kildare's Dermot Earley, Kerry's David Moran and Mayo playmaker Andy Moran have all suffered recently with the injury. A host of theories have been put forward to explain the spate of occurrences including poor biomechanics, posture and stance, muscle imbalances, over-training and footwear.
But Galvin cannot cite any one of those as a reason. "The first time it happened I was in a collision and my left leg was planted on the ground. If it had been a second later my knee would have been in the air and I might never have considered the words 'cruciate ligament'. Second time it just happened as I twisted. One twist can turn your world upside down."
Still, after such close calls in 2004, 2009 and 2010, when Galvin came within touching distance of winning a career-defining Munster title, the giant midfielder is intent on not becoming another statistic.
"There's a lot to be said for walking off the field and knowing myself that my time is up," he smiles. "I feel like I can go for another few years. I feel like a young fella."
He turns 33 in July and that elusive Munster title remains the target. They play Cork in June and that's what is driving him on. And a third appearance at Croke Park, of course. "Try to beat Offaly, win a league title and take it from there," he says.
"I can't say I'm never going to look back and not think of my cruciate again. I'm only human and it will be there at the back of my mind. But if I can get a bit of game time and start winning balls again maybe people will start asking me about football, not injuries.
"There have been plenty of days when Limerick were beaten by a team that was not the better side on the day. That drove me on when I was in the height of it. Eighty-five per cent of the recovery is by yourself so there's lots of time to think these things over."
Too much time.
John Galvin has taken his medicine and come back a stronger man. He just needs to catch a break now.