Friday 23 February 2018

Wheel of fate turning again

After his nightmare time with injury, Tomás Waters hopes the worst is over, writes Damian Lawlor

Wexford hurler Tomas Waters in St . Vincent's hospital.
Wexford hurler Tomas Waters in St . Vincent's hospital.

Damian Lawlor

TOMáS WATERS sits in his hospital bed at St Vincent's and tries to make sense of the last four months.

Waters' trouble began in July, as a young Wexford team set about clawing back a six-point deficit against Clare in the All-Ireland qualifiers. In the 64th minute, Dómhnall O'Donovan surged out of the Clare defence, a sight we were to witness again later in the year. Waters sprinted to get in front of his marker, Shane O'Donnell, but the ball flew over their heads. Waters turned, wrenched his knee and fell in a heap. He tried to get back up but wobbled before collapsing again.

"I knew I was in trouble," he recalls. "The ref was on to me to get off the pitch but I just asked to be laid on the ground for a minute. To be left alone. I couldn't figure out why the ref wouldn't stop the match, and (physio) Peter Kirwan was roaring at him to do so. But the ref just ran by."

The physio came on and shouted at Diarmuid Kirwan to stop play. Instead, play went on around Waters who was being treated. Meanwhile, Clare pinched two crucial points. The physio again roared at the referee. Eventually, he got up and made to hobble off the field. He leaned on Peter Kirwan's shoulders but as he trudged off his knee gave way again. "Get me off this field now," he roared.

"I couldn't even think about the hurling match," he recalls now. "The pain was unbelievable."

And yet instinct took over. He swivelled around in agony to see the scoreboard and caught sight of O'Donnell shuffling despondently to the other side of the pitch. Waters had enjoyed the better of their duel, becoming more influential with every play. O'Donnell would later recover from that setback to go and enjoy an incredible championship finale, but that baking hot night in Thurles held no happy ending for either man.

"It's gas the way our seasons went from there," Waters smiles. "Shane went on to end the year by scoring three goals in an All-Ireland final and I'm stuck watching him from a hospital bed. Some contrast. I met Shane at the All Stars last Friday night and we spoke about it. He's a good lad, modest. He said he knew I was in trouble the moment I hit the deck."

And since then there has been the long hard process of recovering from ACL damage. First, he had to wait a month for the swelling to recede. Then build up the muscle before surgery which was pencilled in for August 23. Tick.

"I had been given four weeks on crutches before the operation and when I went for my pre-op they found I was after losing a lot of muscle. A lot more damage was evident than what had showed up on my MRI scan. I had micro-fractures, for example, which meant that there were two little chips on the bone."

Still, he underwent the procedure and went home expecting to make a full recovery. Following the initial surgery, Waters had to endure another four procedures to the knee. He hasn't lived one normal day since that Clare match and has been in hospital for 48 days, and counting, between various stints at home.

After the operation, it wasn't long before he felt unwell. One weekend he went to Galway to meet his girlfriend, Maria Hoey, but within a few hours of his arrival she was so worried that she rang one of the local hospitals at midnight. Thinking he had the 'flu, Waters had taken a hot whiskey and headed for bed early two nights in a row, but when he was readmitted to hospital they discovered his knee was infected.

"Just feeling very sick," he adds. "I didn't know how to gauge the pain off anything else but I knew this could not be standard."

The 26-year-old had missed all of the previous year due to an impingement on both of his hips but the recovery was smoother than what he was dealing with now.

"After I was readmitted to hospital they diagnosed an infection. So I was knocked out again as they washed out my knee."

In total, he was under anaesthetic five times in six weeks, having five operations in total. He asked to be transferred from Santry Sports clinic to St Vincent's and is still trying to regain full health and strength.

"Tomás has had an awful time of it," says his manager Liam Dunne. "He hasn't worked a day since that Clare game in July and it's very hard to see because he got his chance this year when others were injured and we needed a full-back. I see him as an example to all other Wexford players of what can be achieved if you apply yourself. It's just hard to see him like this."

He's lost almost two stone. He's still very weak and even when he does get out he faces a further 12 weeks on antibiotics.

"There are two screws in my ACL. The infection has probably latched onto them and it might be in my bone a small bit too. The doctors have this pick line pumping antibiotics into my heart and I get that every six hours. They're trying to find an oral antibiotic to suit me so they can let me out. They tried me on about five or six different ones in total but I reacted badly to them. The two screws holding the graft in my knee are considered a foreign body and the body finds it hard to cope when it doesn't know what its dealing with."

Best-case scenario, he gets out soon, takes his medicine for three months and resumes his promising inter-county career – he received his first All Star nomination this season. Worst case, they'll have to take the screws out and operate on the ACL again. He dreads the thought of it.

"Hopefully, it won't go that far. I think they are on top of it now and I have bloods taken here every day so the feedback is great. Hopefully, it won't come to having another operation."

He still can't fathom why Diarmuid Kirwan waved play on while Waters was on the ground receiving treatment.

"Mark (Fanning, Wexford's talented new 'keeper) was probably too inexperienced to ignore the directive to play on and instead of pucking the ball high into the stands like an older guy might do, he restarted the game," Dunne says. "Clare scored two points while Tomás was down, but look everyone will learn something from that night. Mark is only in his first year and he's excellent, I'll learn from the episode too myself and so will the ref, the GAA, everyone.

"Something like that will never happen again when a player is down. In fairness, Diarmuid Kirwan didn't know how bad things were and he was probably under pressure to keep the game flowing. Fine, it was at our expense, but these things happen."

Reality, however, kicked in for Waters pretty quickly and daily life would be changed for quite some time. A builder, he is based in Dublin and has three people working for him at his company, Model Construction. Almost immediately he noticed the impact the injury had on his ability to work.

"These days, being a builder is tough enough as it is. But most of my work is in Dublin and I had to ask a lad from Portumna to run the show for me. Luckily, I have great trust in him.

"I have a few projects on the go, so at least I still have work, but I've had to turn away a bit of work too. I've lost a lot of money. People are looking for a personal touch from a builder; they want to deal directly with me but in my case that's not possible. No one likes turning down work because things are tight enough.

"You do anything these days. Residential work, commercial stuff, conservation, renovations – anything to do with building. I'll be ok, I have good contacts but it's not easy."

He shows me plans for a job he is currently pricing and wonders will the fact that he can't be on site hurt his hopes of getting the gig. It must be extremely stressful? He pauses, the frustration of the past four months ingrained on his face.

"I've not been out of work since I left school at 17 to go do my trade. Even when things crashed I went off to find work. I'm not the fella who sits around and does nothing. I couldn't handle it for a day." And your circle of support?

"It's tight enough. My family, the girlfriend and her family. My team and club-mates. And Liam Dunne. That man has been unreal to me. Like, I'm no use to him as a hurler the way I am.

"But he's done – and is still doing – so much for me. I will never forget it. I'll look back on this horrible period 10 years from now and his support is what I'll remember. What I've gone through would make you allergic to hurling but wearing that Wexford jersey and getting back for Liam are the reasons I want to get back."

Surely others have come to help?

"The county board have been onto me and I know Liam is onto them the whole time. Dave Beirne from the Dublin-Wexford Supporters' Club has helped too. It took me about three weeks to make contact with the Gaelic Players' Association but they were a good help when I finally made contact and gave me a benevolent form to fill out. I'm not the type of lad who goes banging on doors looking for stuff so maybe that doesn't help."

Dunne feels that the GPA, who met the €30,000 double bypass costs of ex-Meath captain Shane McAnarney eight weeks ago, will rally round Waters. The Wexford manager has also called on the GAA to make contact with him.

"The GPA do a great job for players, ex-players and people in and around the GAA," Dunne says. "They are there for Tomás. I would also love if a players' man like Dónal óg Cusack came to see him, someone who commands massive respect.

"Tomás has lost a lot of money with work too. The GAA insurance scheme is there but my wish is that when Tomás looks back on all of this, he will say, 'Well, it's not a bad little GAA family after all'."

For now, though, Waters feels the whole saga has changed him as a person.

"I will never take anything for granted again," he says. "The whole thing has knocked me back. Even undergoing anaesthetic so often has been hard. You'd be weak and groggy the whole time. I would be stressed and sometimes at night I would worry a bit."

To help him along and raise a few bob, Wexford will play Kilkenny in a special match on December 8 at New Ross. Waters doesn't want any fuss, nor does he want anyone's money, but he's touched by the gesture all the same. Everything raised on the day will go towards his recovery – sales from the shops, ticket money, match programme sales, even the post-match meals have been sponsored.

His voice quivers when he speaks of his gratitude for what the two teams are doing. He's a strong character and when he does recover he won't be long in goal-setting again.

"I'm not going to set a target and then be disappointed if I don't make it. I'll see how the knee holds up, see if the medicine works, and try to get back to the Wexford set-up around April. But I honestly don't know how I'll be."

Having being introduced to the senior set-up by John Meyler for the first time aged 18 and then spending a couple of summers in the US before having his hips operated on, Waters' senior career has been frustrating.

"I was finding my way slowly this year. But I will not lie to you; it's tough work doing manual work, working for yourself and playing inter-county but I really wanted to get on that team so bad. I just have to get back there now because we're going places and I want to be part of it. I felt we had the beating of Clare that evening in Thurles. We were definitely getting on top of them. Davy Fitz' was going ape on the line when we started winning balls in the backs and I knew we had them rattled."

Right now he's a long way off featuring in that type of occasion again, but after being hauled off on that summer's night, Shane O'Donnell found out that the wheel turns again. It nearly always does.

Sunday Independent

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