'To do your cruciate once is horrific, to do it twice is unthinkable'
Having suffered two cruciate injuries in the last 12 months, Wexford's Liam óg McGovern has learnt the virtue of patience as he continues the solitary journey back to full fitness and, hopefully, a place in Davy Fitzgerald's plans for 2018
The roar is what they all remember, a sound clawing echoes from the sky that everybody in Wexford Park knew instantly to be bad news
"I'll never forget it!" Davy Fitzgerald remembers. "I was sitting in the stand and just knew that it was gone again. To do your cruciate once is horrific, to do it twice is unthinkable."
Liam óg McGovern was just beginning to run free again when it happened. The roar? That was more a cry of anguish than physical pain.
It was the realisation that his immediate past had, in an instant, cartwheeled into his immediate future.
He'd never been one for melodrama with injury, but knowledge was the enemy here. Two torn cruciates in ten months... there could be no gentle readjustment either physically or psychologically now. Rehab is a solitary place and, having worked through the longest winter to have a shot at involvement against Kilkenny on June 10, his year was over again one week before the Cats hit town.
McGovern remembers being helped off the field, clinging to the flimsiest thread of hope that his summer might still have air in its lungs. But somewhere in his subconscious, he knew too that he'd never been one to roar when hurt. And, well, that was now the sound he kept returning to.
His reaction to the familiarity of that popping sensation, the pain rush. "I was trying to cling to the optimistic side," he recalled this week.
"But I kept going back to that roar. I thought to myself, 'This isn't good!'"
* * * * *
On Wednesday evening, Wexford played their first competitive game of the year, a five-point Walsh Cup victory over Carlow in Castlebridge.
Around throw-in time, McGovern was in the Westwood gym in Clontarf, continuing the long journey back to a destination that, as yet, has no date or colour. On some level, he suspects he fixated on the black and amber last summer and a comeback target that, despite medical endorsement, might just have made him push too hard too soon. That's nothing more than a sixth sense mind.
Rehabbing a reconstructed cruciate is a process without guarantees. Had he given himself another couple of months, nobody can say if the knee would have held. All he does know is that, for the few minutes before it all went wrong again, he felt utterly, gloriously alive. A 15 v 15 practice game in which everybody seemed keyed to the highest competitive intensity. A couple of early points off Simon Donohue.
"It was the first time in that whole period that I felt like I was back," he recalls. "By that I mean it was the first time I had my full confidence back.
"Then it happened."
So how does a man just emerging into the light recalibrate the mind for another plunge into darkness?
"The biggest challenge psychologically was knowing all the work that I'd put in to get back," he says now. "I've been involved in team sport all my life and you're kind of removed from that now because there's so much work you have to do on your own. You're far removed from the group.
"So, in that split second, all you can see is all the work you've done. That's what flashes before your eyes. The realisation that you're going to have to do it all again. But you have the surgery, get on the road again and time moves very quickly. You know it isn't all doom and gloom. It's quite an experience.
"There are some positive aspects to it as well and you have to see those or else it could swallow you up."
"There's a lot of time for reflection," suggests McGovern, an account manager with the software company, Oracle. "I think I've matured quite a bit as a person off the back of the two cruciates, strange as that may sound. I think you build a lot of resilience. I mean I see some players now who pick up a hamstring strain and might be out for three or four weeks and they think it's the end of the world.
"I would have been that person before I experienced a cruciate ligament injury.
"The injuries made me take a step back and appreciate what was important to me. It just makes you question a few things. 'What's actually important to me here?'
"Your relationships, your work. Like as much as I love hurling, as much as it's my passion, it's not my profession. I still have to be vigilant to what else is going on in my life. And I suppose in the last year or two, I've been able to invest a bit more time in other areas of my life that I mightn't have been able to do previous to that.
"And yet, to be honest, my passion for the GAA has been rekindled too in a weird sense."
Within hours of crumpling to the grass that evening in Wexford Park, McGovern had been invited onto Davy Fitz's backroom team as a forwards coach. It was an invitation accepted quickly in recognition of the potential traps set by self-pity. He also joined the management team of his club, St Anne's, for an intermediate championship campaign that would win them promotion back to senior status.
McGovern says he found both roles hugely educational experiences that could, long-term, make him "a better player".
For now, though, impatience is the obvious enemy. It has been his own choice not to set a comeback target given how preoccupied he had become with June 10 this time last year. And Fitzgerald, mindful of what he regards as McGovern's meticulous application to rehab, has been happy to abide with that resistance.
He regards the St Anne's man as "one of the best forwards in the country", somebody perfectly suited to Wexford's tactical adjustments on his watch. That McGovern has yet to play a full game for Davy Fitz is a frustration the manager says he is happy to endure in service to the long-term interests of the player.
McGovern remains part of the players' WhatsApp group, participated in the pre-Christmas fundraiser and was with the squad for their day out at Leopardstown Races on December 27.
At 26, he has low enough inter-county mileage in his legs too. Having played with Wexford footballers in 2011, McGovern spent 2012 as part of his studies in Canada and then, having had both of his hips operated on in January and February of 2013, spent that summer in California on a J1.
His first senior championship season with the county hurlers was, thus, that epic summer of 2014 when Liam Dunne's men beat the then defending All-Ireland champions, Clare, in a replay. Fitzgerald, of course, was in the opposition corner that day and remembers McGovern as an attacking breeze they could never quite subdue. Wexford then beat Waterford to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final, but that would be the high point of their time under Dunne.
There are no easy explanations as to why the promise of '14 petered out so quickly.
"Sport is strange," suggests McGovern. "Everybody is quick to say we got carried away with ourselves in 2014. I don't necessarily buy that. We had a number of injuries in 2015 and, if you have a poor league campaign, sometimes the confidence can get sucked out of a team.
"And maybe the confidence was taken out of us. We suffered a really heavy championship defeat in Nowlan Park and that was tough to take for a lot of the young guys. We just met Kilkenny on a day they were at full power and a hammering like that, maybe, took a long time to get over.
"Liam Dunne did a very good job with Wexford, bringing a level of professionalism into the set-up that maybe hadn't been there previously. I'm not sure he got the credit that he deserved."
The following summer, Wexford's first championship win over Cork since 1956 could not save Dunne his job when they then lost an All-Ireland quarter-final heavily to Waterford. McGovern had been one of those who excelled in the Cork win.
But, by the time Davy Fitz came through the door, he'd be on crutches.
* * * * *
They knew from that first meeting in the Seafield hotel that the energy around them was about to turn electric.
Fitzgerald had his full backroom team assembled at the top table and spoke in the way of a man already making serious plans. McGovern remembers: "It was very impressive just walking in there. The message was, 'We're here to work, nothing else!'"
Promotion to 1A was followed by a first Leinster final appearance since 2008 courtesy of their first championship defeat of Kilkenny in 13 summers.
And that, of course, should have been the evening of redemption for McGovern. He'd come on for the last five minutes of their quarter-final victory over Laois, feeling so excited "it was like making my debut". One week later, he was on the ground again.
So why does the same cruciate end up snapping twice?
If they had a definitive answer, this journey he's on now would be less daunting. But for all the orthopedic excellence, for all the care and attention of Enda King, head physio in Santry Sports Clinic, and Darren Siggins, Wexford's main Strength and Conditioning man, there are no simple conclusions to draw.
McGovern reckons between 30-40 GAA players suffer this injury every month, the clinic in Santry so busy "it's like a revolving door up there".
There is the sense too that there could be some hereditary thread to this story, given McGovern's father and brother both suffered cruciate injuries during their own playing careers. "It appears there's an obvious flaw in our gene pool," he surmises.
No matter, for now the priority is to take small, sure steps as distinct from hopeful vaults into the unknown.
He's still not quite six months into this rehab, so all of his current work remains gym-based, rebuilding muscle around the knee. Soon, he will start the process - effectively - of learning to run again. Of, as he puts it, "re-gaiting" himself. After that? McGovern reckons his body will tell him what is and isn't feasible.
A year ago, he had the support of fellow cruciate sufferers, Andrew Shore and Shane Tomkins, within the Wexford set-up. This time, he is happy to work within his own space and, for now, towards an invisible time-line.
"I possibly made that mistake last year and I don't want to fall into a similar trap this time," he says.
"Hopefully, the body will tell me when it's right and then I just need a bit of luck. I'd love to think I'll see a bit of action this year but I know now you can't really focus on a fixed date.
"That's a dangerous road to go down."