‘I’ll come back and I’ll come back stronger’ - Johnny Dunleavy
THE expression on the face of the knee specialist told Johnny Dunleavy everything that he didn’t want to know. He could feel his eyes welling up.
It was June 17 and the morning after the night before at Turner’s Cross.
One of the stories of Cork’s incredible season was the successful rehabilitation of their popular young captain who had bounced back from the career threatening injury that ruled him out of last year’s European run and the joy of FAI Cup final success.
The process of making up for lost time was going swimmingly when he challenged Limerick’s Chiedozie Ogbene and went down in a heap.
When the physios straightened his leg, they heard a pop and a paramedic suggested it was a kneecap popping back into place. “I thought then that it was my kneecap I’d dislocated,” he says.
False hope. The whole knee had been dislocated and that is bad news.
After a rough night’s sleep, he went in to meet the expert. “He did the cruciate test on me and said it would be remiss of him not to say he was worried. Then he watched the video back and said he was fairly certain I’d done it. The scans showed that I did. When I heard the confirmation, I burst into tears.”
Nobody could blame him. Dunleavy’s football life has been a story of shuddering setbacks. Severe ankle problems halted his progress at Wolves. The Donegal man came home to become an adopted Leesider but it’s been a stop-start experience. He missed chunks of 2015 and his 2016 season was cut short by a complicated micro fracture.
“I haven’t done the cruciate before,” he says, with a wry smile. “It was the same specialist that treated me last year and he stressed that my last one was a career-ender, the micro fracture, so to come back from it as well as I’d done was incredible. He just turned to me and said ‘Your luck’s bad.’
“It’s not related to any of my other problems; I’ve done my right knee this time and last year it was the left. He said if the pitch was wet, my foot would have slipped out of it rather than getting caught in the turf.”
It’s a cruel game, but adversity can bring the best out of people.
There are two things from the experience he will never forget. The first was his teammates’ reaction when they came in after another win to find the distraught defender sitting on the physio bed. “Every one of them and the staff came over and hugged me and I’ll never forget that,” he says, “It means so much to you at the time because naturally I was heartbroken.”
The following day, his cousin Brendan called from Dublin. “I knew at this stage it was my cruciate and he asked if I wanted to come to Dublin to get away from it all. I said ‘Look, I’ve no way of getting there, I can’t drive now’ and he said ‘OK, no problem.’ He rang me back forty minutes later and said, ‘Listen, me and three lads will be down to you there this evening.’
“So they all drove down, three of my best mates and cousins and they stayed with me that day and the day after and it meant the world to me. We just chatted about anything we could to take my mind off it.”
The messages of support from around the league were a comfort too. Players from a variety of clubs were in touch. He mentions Finn Harps and Galway. Paul Corry from Shamrock Rovers, another player who has known too much injury pain, reached out too. As did Stephen O’Donnell and Chris Shields from arch-rivals Dundalk.
“Stephen has been there,” he says, “And so have some of the others. I think they realised how difficult it was because of the work I had put in to come back from the last one. Even though there’s big rivalries in the league, there’s a lot of support there as well.”
But there will be down days too, much as his natural disposition is chirpy and upbeat, and he’s prepared for them. After undergoing surgery at Bon Secours Hospital, he went back to Donegal to rest up and take stock.
With a leg brace fitted, he can’t get around too much but the keen horse racing fan still accepted an offer from a pal to take in an evening at Kilbeggan Races as a distraction.
He watched JP McManus land in a helicopter to watch one of his horses enjoy a facile victory and wondered what it would be like to be so lucky.
There is no firm deadline on his comeback, but his season is over. With an abundance of spare time, he will think about non-football related ventures too with an eye down the road.
He did return to Cork last week and plans to be around the group as they make their way towards the league title; he’s proud to have been part of their winning run. The 3-0 triumph at Oriel Park on June 2 was one of his favourite nights in the game.
“They’re a great bunch and I’m a bit of a joker so I enjoy the craic,” he grins, “It’s good because it helps my head.”
The match day experience is not as enjoyable. He finds it hard to watch games when he is not involved, and sitting in the stands for the first leg Europa League defeat to AEK Larnaca last Thursday was an enervating experience. “It’s difficult to watch when you can’t control anything,” he explains.
Well-wishers queued up to offer encouraging words, but they don’t always have the desired effect. Cork’s team do their gym work at the Mardyke Arena in UCC that is open to the public. He might do the hard rehab in a less public setting this time.
Every kind and sympathetic word is appreciated, but he could do without having the same conversation umpteen times as he aims to think positively about another arduous challenge.
The surgeons are happy with how the operation went and the stitches have been removed. He’s on the way.
“The cruciate is an easier rehab,” he asserts, “And the likelihood of coming back from it is much, much better. I won’t say that every footballer comes back from it, but most do.”
His parting message is clear, and delivered with conviction.
“I will come back from this,” he says, “And I will come back stronger. If there’s someone out there mentally stronger than me, I’d like to see them.”