'I don't want to be the guy who left an All-Ireland behind him'
Dublin's comeback king Keaney aims to banish doubts over code switch with hurling glory
Conal Keaney's farewell image of his motorbike was one snatched through the rear windows of the ambulance.
It was still semi-upright, embedded in the side of the van that had sent him tumbling at a notorious junction close to the St Anne's GAA club in Bohernabreena. He remembers thinking it might be some time before he'd ride it again. Two years on, such innocence makes him chuckle.
It was July 2011, just a couple of days before Dublin's All-Ireland hurling quarter-final against Limerick. Keaney had been on his way to work in Blessington when the van driver misjudged the timing of a right turn, veering directly across his path.
The memory returns almost in slow motion. "As he turned across me, I kind of tried to turn with him. And, when I realised there was going to be an impact, I jumped off the bike, hoping to land on my feet. As I did so, the van and the bike both caught my right foot so that all of my weight came down on my left foot. And that was when my knee buckled."
He was brought to Tallaght Hospital where the initial medical concern fixated on a badly swollen right ankle. The deeper, more disconcerting pain, however, registered in his left knee. It was only after being transferred to the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry that an MRI uncovered the reason why.
As Ray Moran came in to address him, Keaney was still thinking about Dublin's looming battle in Semple Stadium. He knew he wouldn't make training that same evening and, thereby, probably would not now start against Limerick. But he'd be ready to step in off the bench ...
Then Moran's pronouncement cut through him. Cruciate. The word obliterated everything else in the consultant's message. Keaney had just ruptured his as well as the anterior ligament, rendering his future a long-term guessing game. "Look," said Moran, "the chances of coming back from this and playing a high level after aren't always great."
Keaney could feel the blood drain from his face. He'd come into the clinic preoccupied with Sunday, but was now wondering if he'd hurl again.
"Ray was fairly blunt with me," recalls the Ballyboden St Enda's man. "He painted such a bad picture for me at the time, but it was probably the right thing to do. I needed to know what was coming down the line. It was one of the low points of my career."
TO PUT YOURSELF IN KEANEY'S BOOTS, you maybe need to understand the context of that year in his life.
He had left the Dublin football squad to return to his first love, hurling. After winning five Leinster football titles, he'd chosen to remove himself from the city's lovesick pursuit of Sam Maguire. And, that May, he was part of the Dublin hurling team that won its first National League since 1939.
Anthony Daly sold a faith he knew he could truly believe in. Next thing, he was picking himself up off a road in Tallaght.
The first 10 weeks of recuperation from cruciate surgery demand the virtual suspension of a normal life. Your leg must be left completely free of weight to facilitate recovery. The couch becomes your kingdom, daytime television your crutch.
And at the precise time that Conal Keaney had to immerse himself in this sedentary hell, Dublin's footballers went and won the city's first All-Ireland for 16 years. Sod's Law. If he felt genuinely thrilled for old colleagues, he also now felt challenged to prove something to himself.
"I felt I had to do something with the hurlers," he remembers. "It was a real killer, sitting there wondering 'Is this it now? Am I going to end with nothing really to show for a whole career in a Dublin jersey?' I'd made a decision some might have considered drastic in leaving the footballers.
"Now they'd won the All-Ireland and I suppose I felt I needed to justify what I'd done."
Fate offered a couple of consoling arms. Tomas Brady had ruptured his cruciate just weeks earlier in the Leinster Championship defeat of Galway, while Keaney's Dublin and Ballyboden colleague Stephen Hiney ruptured his that March in Wexford.
Moran delayed the operation on Hiney to explore alternative avenues of treatment, even twice flying in a specialist from Sweden to make sure all possibilities had been exhausted.
By the time Hiney underwent surgery, he was just two weeks ahead of Keaney.
It meant that they could turn rehab almost into a private race.
Keaney and Hiney live close to one another and, if anything, their relationship became competitive.
"A huge part of the recovery is mental," explains Keaney. "Particularly in that first 10 weeks when you're basically allowed do nothing weight-bearing on the leg. That's when you feel most helpless. I would have worked a lot with Stephen, getting lifts to the gym just trying to keep sane almost.
"It's that sitting on the couch that can drive you crazy. You're over-analysing stuff, trying to figure out why one fella might get back quicker than another. You have to find a way of flushing any negative stuff from your head. So we used to do a lot of upper-body weights as well as work on the good leg."
Eventually, when it came to removing the brace from his injured knee, Keaney felt like a man being asked to bungee-jump without a cord. "I remember standing in the clinic, the physio holding my hand. He's saying 'Just take a step on it there ... ' And three or four times, I tell him 'I just can't do that! I can't'.
"I just couldn't figure out in my head that the knee would be able for my full weight again, not having had any weight on it for 10 weeks. Trying to get over that psychological hurdle was huge. It must have taken 20 minutes of him persuading before I took the step.
"Just getting over that moment was like crossing the top of a mountain. My biggest fear was that it was going to buckle straight away and totally end my career. So much of it comes down in the end to having faith in the staff around you."
From that moment, impatience seemed to chase those three Dublin hurlers to a common, wildly optimistic destination. To begin with, they targeted St Patrick's Day 2012. A dream. Then they settled on being game-specific. Kilkenny in Portlaoise on June 23.
Keaney, Hiney and Brady drove each other on relentlessly. They would torment the physios, discarding a night's printed instructions to push further than advised.
By the time they were re-integrated into the Dublin squad, albeit permitted inclusion only in the warm-ups, they'd try to conceal their presence in the group, hoping to go unnoticed.
"Stephen, Tomas and I did all of our recovery together, bouncing ideas off one another," Keaney recalls now. "We'd be ringing each other. 'I'm going to the gym tonight, are you going?'
"If the answer was no, you're feeling 'Jesus he's gone a step ahead of me.' That kept us motivated and helped the process. There's no doubt I wouldn't have been back as quickly without people bouncing ideas off me, helping me like that. I don't know how some lads go off on their own and do it."
All three would make it back to start that game against Kilkenny, Keaney's day lasting just 15 minutes because of a torn tendon behind the recovered left knee. Was it directly related to his cruciate issues? No one can unequivocally say.
All that is down in pretty stark black and white lettering today is that Kilkenny emulsified them, Dublin's year suddenly unravelling like a cheap suit in a brawl. Keaney suspects they should have seen it coming. He remembers heavy rain had left the pitch slippy as an ice-rink and how those conditions now filled his head with negatives.
What if ...
"I think you can physically be back (from cruciate surgery) in maybe nine or 10 months," he says. "But you need a lot of time to get right mentally, to get the hurling right as well as the fitness up to scratch. And it's very, very hard to get all of that together within a year.
"Now I'm not saying it's impossible, but I think we were trying to maybe kid ourselves. It was like 'Look it doesn't matter if we don't train this week, the aim is to be back for Kilkenny ... '
"We all got caught up in that, we were all going to be back for that date and it was just going to happen on the day. And, of course, it never happened.
"We should have been smarter, not to be thinking that just because you've aimed for that date and because you're physically able to do it, that you're ready. Realistically, there were always doubts, in my head, going into that game."
MAYBE OF ALL THE SUMMITS THAT REHAB DEMANDS YOU CROSS, the mind offers the most daunting one. Just now, Dublin and Ballyboden hurler Simon Lambert finds himself in the early foothills of recovery from cruciate surgery too.
He lives around the corner from Keaney and describes a struggle with which his team-mate is familiar.
"He has a long road to go and is hitting the same dark spots that we were hitting at exactly the same time," explains Keaney. "He's at home, on the couch, wondering will he even hurl again.
"So I think it's important for him to keep talking to us, so that we can keep him on the straight and narrow if we can. Because it's all about going through the process and trusting you'll come out the far side."
Lambert will, thus, find hope in close proximity. For he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Keaney and Hiney this year as Dublin won the county's first Leinster senior hurling title in more than half a century. He will know how the brightest light can follow the deepest gloom.
For Keaney (31), the experience has only sharpened a desire to be the best that he can be.
"I think I'm probably hungrier now than I've ever been," he says in anticipation of the harsh winter rituals now looming for county men everywhere.
"Look, I don't want to be known as the person who stepped away from the footballers, leaving an All-Ireland behind him when I probably could have stayed," he says candidly. "I just felt it was the right thing to do and I still want to prove that to myself.
"Winning Leinster this year was, maybe, the first bit of achieving that. To win an All-Ireland would, hopefully, be the final feather in my cap.
"We're in the mix to do that, but everyone probably thinks that now because Clare came out of nowhere to win it this year.
"Everyone will be looking to improve for next year, but I'd like to think we're going to improve too and maybe even get one or two new lads in. When you're younger, you think you've plenty of time for all this stuff, but I've got two kids now.
"Realistically, I've got maybe one more year to give it a go. That's what's driving me on."
On Saturday, Conal Keaney will be a guest speaker – along with Irish rugby star Luke Fitzgerald – at the third annual Sports Surgery Clinic sports medicine conference in Santry, focusing on cruciate injury intervention and prevention. Ticketing information from www.sportssurgeryclinic.com