Friday 15 December 2017

Battling O'Driscoll spirit finds a new home at the Emirates

"Doctor, meester, steech me! Steech me foot! I play yes! I play yes!" There are times when sport really is a universal language.

Arsenal club doctor Gary O'Driscoll thought he would never again encounter the sort of courage particularly typified by his more famous cousin, Brian, throughout a decade at the peak of his profession in the international rugby game.

It is March 3, 2009, and he has left the nascent Irish Grand Slam tilt to take up an invitation from Arsene Wenger, which even a Manchester United fan couldn't possibly refuse.

Arsenal are at home to West Brom. It's half-time. The newly arrived and hitherto unconvincing Andrei Arshavin limps from the fray. O'Driscoll motions to Wenger, while nodding towards Arshavin. He draws his finger across his throat.


O'Driscoll turns away. Suddenly, an impatient tap on his shoulder. "Doctor, meester, steech me!" O'Driscoll laughs incredulously.

"This tiny little boy," recalls O'Driscoll this week, "he could barely reach my shoulder! He's tapping me on my back. 'I play,' he says. What do you say? 'I play!' What do you mean? 'Put steech in foot, I play big sock, is okay.'

"So I put the stitches in -- EIGHT stitches -- he puts his boots on and scores in the second-half. His first goal, a brilliant goal. I thought to myself I'm going to enjoy this job. I felt like I was in a rugby dressing-room again. He reminds me of Brian, that Arshavin, he's a tough little one."

It needed something significant to wrench O'Driscoll away from rugby, in general, and Ireland, in particular. His father, Barry, was an Irish full-back, capped a handful of times in the 1970s.

After playing with the North England schoolboys and London Hospitals, Gary linked up with the Exiles before the Irish U-21s came calling. "Babydoc" would soon become an indispensable fixture in successful senior dressing-rooms for years to come.

Ironically, his departure last year coincided with the country's greatest triumph.

"I did the first three games then I had to make a commitment to Arsenal," he says. "For that final game in Cardiff, I was sitting on the bench in Newcastle. I never saw or heard a minute of it, none of our players had an interest.

"I felt totally lost, devastated. I didn't know the score. I got back to my hotel at 2.0am and watched it on my own with a tear in my eye.

"It was sad, but I could picture the dressing-room, the fierce pride that would have been there. I felt I played a very small part in it. They're friends I'll always have."

He's making new ones now, often in invidious circumstances. As we speak, he is accompanying Aaron Ramsay to his parents' house as he recuperates from the leg fracture sustained against Stoke.

"It's been absolutely awful. That's the fifth time in my career that I've seen fractures of both tibia and fibula, including Lawrence Dallaglio and Geordan Murphy. I was hoping that when I moved to soccer I wouldn't see it. But it can happen in any contact sport, unfortunately.

"It affects the player and the family for much longer than others realise. The story is big for 24 hours but then people move on. For the people involved it's not nice. It takes a long while for it to sink in to the player involved.

"Being discharged has given him and his parents a lift. He can start recovering at home. The operation went very well which is a plus and the early signs are positive. To say his mood is good is as far as possible from the truth as you can imagine. He can at least see the turn in the corner. But it's going to take a long time."

Gary has had to accompany his cousin in darker moments -- Brian was invalided in two Lions tours -- and his pride burns in this special week for the Irish captain.

"As a human animal, that man is not going to change. He's a gladiator, a warrior. He doesn't know how to stop, how to say no. The nature of the guy is unique and Irish rugby will be lucky to see his like again.

"I remember him pulling a hamstring and I told him to come off. He said: 'I can't, my team needs me.' You can't coach that kind of stuff."

Gary remains a staunch Manchester Utd fan; the team's parting gift to the doctor was a framed United jersey. Surely it's awkward for Gary? "It never came up at the interview!"

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