Dunleavy eyes cup joy after escape from pain of dark days
John Dunleavy remembers the day he hit rock bottom. When he thinks about it, he can still see the picture in his mind.
He was a young kid on loan at Barnet, desperate to make up for the time he'd lost from a succession of injuries at his parent club Wolves. Bad luck followed him to London.
On a day when, in his own words, he 'wrecked his ankle', Dunleavy arrived home on a pair of crutches and immediately realised he was in a spot of bother. Barnet had put him up in a nice apartment, but it was a two-storey effort which meant that the sole occupant had to climb a set of stairs to make it to the living area. Even with the crutches, he didn't have the strength to reach the top floor in a conventional way.
He concluded that the only solution was to throw them up to the top and then, slowly, crawl from step to step until he reached his destination.
This was no way to live.
"With injuries, you learn a lot about down days and how you get through them," he recalls. "But there were days when you wonder if it it's all worth it and that was one particular point. I was on my own in my flat for seven or eight hours a day going a bit mad thinking about everything. That was so disheartening."
It took a lot to break his spirit. Three years earlier, in 2008, the world was at his feet. The Donegal lad was a leading member of the Irish U-17 team that competed in the European Championships in Turkey. Robbie Brady and Conor Clifford were two of the star turns. Richie Towell, who Dunleavy sees a lot of these days, was another member of the strong Dublin contingent.
They were all at good clubs and the Ballybofey native felt that he'd made the right choice by opting for Wolves.
His judge of the club's character was vindicated by how they treated him during a dreadfully unfortunate stay which was kicked off by a freak foot injury from stepping awkwardly onto a kerb. An infection turned it into a complicated problem. A knee injury was the pain at the end of the tunnel.
The familial atmosphere that was created by Mick McCarthy's Irish colony helped him through the grim spells. Dunleavy broke his second metatarsal at the same point as Stephen Hunt, which meant going through rehab alongside an established first-teamer with a unique personality.
"We were in the gym one time," says Dunleavy. "And he called me over to ask what I was doing at the weekend. I told him I was doing nothing and he asked me if I wanted to go to the All-Ireland hurling semi-final. I said that I would and asked him what time the flights were so I could go and book them. He just said, 'No, you just be ready to go and I'll look after it.' I didn't have to do a thing. Waterford were playing Tipp and I ended up sitting next to Shane Long.
"On the Monday morning, we were back in working with the physio. But it was easier after the break. That was Wolves. The injuries can taint your view but, from the caring side of things, I was well looked after."
But there was no fairytale ending. Like the majority of every generation, he was called into the manager's office and told sympathetically by McCarthy that his contract would not be renewed.
He went on the trial circuit, including a stint with Vancouver, yet sensed that his next move would be home. However, the persuasive call came from a part of the country that he'd never stepped foot in. Cork boss Tommy Dunne urged him to come south and assistant Billy Woods drove the newcomer around to give him a sense of the place and the facilities. The sales pitch worked.
His team-mate Karl Sheppard has said that he feels more like a full-time footballer in Cork than he did in Dublin because of the local interest and Dunleavy agrees with the sentiment.
"I'm further away from home here than I was in England," he says. "The major appeal here is that, in a lot of ways, I'm away from it all. We have phenomenal facilities so I can focus on my football."
After four seasons, the versatile defender is part of the furniture. He speaks with a maturity that belies the fact that he is just 24, and that was recognised by John Caulfield who made him captain when he took the reins from Dunne.
Last term's title challenge and the run to Sunday's FAI Cup decider with Towell's all-conquering Dundalk side has given Dunleavy reasons to jump out of bed.
Earlier this year, when he damaged his knee in a league game with Dundalk and required surgery, his outlook was immediately positive.
"When it happens, there's nothing you can do about it but accept it," he explains. "I collapsed in pain in the dressing room. But how do you deal with it? You think, how can I come back better?"
His father Brendan, who played 137 inter-county games for Donegal and had knee trouble of his own, would endorse that sentiment. Dunleavy returned after four months with the purpose that has defined his approach since Cork gave him a football identity. The memories of teenage desolation make him appreciate the little things.
A few weeks back, he was out with friends and family from Donegal watching the Manchester derby in a bar when they were approached by fans in Cork gear looking for a photo. The visitors were taken aback. "They were looking at me and asking if it happens all the time," he laughs. "And it does happen. People will stop you on the street to chat. It goes to show the club has a massive reach."
The cup build-up has stepped up the attention levels. "A dream come true," he enthuses. "To be able to walk out there in front of 25,000 people will be amazing. It makes it all worthwhile."
Strengthened by adversity, there's another flight of steps in his sights. In his mind, there's a trophy waiting at the end of it.