Gary O'Neill beating the odds in remarkable return to action
"IT must be a sympathy vote," joked Gary O'Neill, with typical good humour, as he collected an award recognising his remarkable performances in the face of adversity.
The Drogheda United striker was the outstanding candidate for the SSE Airtricity/SWAI Player of the Month award for March, given that his chances of being involved at all this season were slim when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer last September.
Against the odds, he took a full part in pre-season and kicked off the new campaign on a high with the Boynesiders, a club that have exceeded expectations as a group under Robbie Horgan. The highlight for O'Neill was a brace at Dalymount Park against his former club Bohemians which rescued a point – his second goal came in injury-time.
"After that, I said I really wanted to do this," he says. "If we were getting spanked, I might have reconsidered and said I'd made a mistake by coming back."
Football has provided a welcome change of focus from concerns about his wellbeing. He faces monthly tests for the remainder of this year to check that his health is under control.
"For the first year, I go back every month, for the second it's every two or three months and in the third year you get remission," he explained.
"Now, I go to the specialist, he tells me, 'no, things haven't changed; at the minute you're still the same' so just keep going forward. And then I go out and bury that until next month."
The only advice that doctors have given the Dubliner is keep the stress levels low, which isn't always easy.
"I'd be quite uptight," he confessed. "I could get wound up. I'm just trying to get back to the way I was starting playing football as a kid – just for the sheer joy of it."
Support from the football community has helped to keep the spirits high. The out-of-the-blue contact from Ireland assistant boss Roy Keane has been well documented and they remain in constant touch, with O'Neill attending the recent Manchester derby as a guest of the Corkman.
"People say you should never meet your heroes, because you'll be disappointed, but this was totally the opposite," he said. "I honestly can't say enough about the man. He's a massive hero of mine.
"We just spoke a lot about football. I was talking so much about other stuff, that it was refreshing just to talk about football."
Former Celtic and Everton player Alan Stubbs, who suffered the same illness, also got in touch to discuss his own struggles. "It was great bouncing things off him because he's been through it," said the 32-year-old.