Injury time – that’s where Irish football finds itself right now.
With just over two months to go to the European Championship Finals, and as far as the physical well-being of his players is concerned, Martin O’Neill finds himself in essentially the same boat as Davy Keogh and all the other Irish supporters who can do little more than finger the beads in the hope that no further serious problems befall the boys in green between now and then.
All were briefly shocked into having to contemplate something like a worse case scenario when waking up to the news on Thursday morning that Jon Walters could be in a race against time to be fit for France — then just as suddenly given fresh reason to believe by the man himself, as he delivered an upbeat report on his speedy recovery prospects from a knee operation.
Next came the revelation that Robbie Keane too has gone under the knife in a bid to have himself ready for the finals. And barely had we time to digest that, than we learned that Shane Long had checked into hospital for a scan on his left knee.
And it will be a pleasant surprise if we don’t have to endure a few more scares like this, and potentially worse, between now and June 13.
Just in the space of the two Easter games, we saw Kevin Doyle deprived of perhaps his last chance to impress and, though the striker’s gaping leg wound was grotesque, worse, much worse, was to follow for the unfortunate Rob Elliot, when an even more freakish twist of fate — as he made the most routine of movements for a goalkeeper — was enough to do the devastating knee damage which has ended all his dreams of going to the European Championships.
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By contrast, the sight of Shane Duffy playing a commanding role at both ends of the pitch against Switzerland brought us another happy chapter to savour in an especially uplifting story of an Irish footballer overcoming serious injury.
In truth, ‘serious injury’ is to woefully understate things – the 24-year-old’s emergence as a candidate for France (or should he fail to make the cut, certainly the next World Cup campaign), is nothing less than vibrant proof that there can indeed be life, and football, after near death.
Along with other media colleagues, I was standing on the sidelines at Malahide United’s Gannon Park in May, 2010 to watch Giovanni Trapattoni’s senior players take part in a training game against the Irish amateur side.
It was 35 minutes into proceedings when the then 18-year-old Duffy collided in the box with Carrick United’s Adrian Walsh as the ‘keeper leaped to punch the ball clear. It was an entirely accidental coming together, with both players only having eyes for the ball, but the force of the collision left Duffy prostrate on the turf. He managed briefly to get to his knees but then, in evident distress, collapsed to the ground again.
After lengthy treatment in the penalty area from the FAI medical team, the stricken player was removed from the pitch by stretcher, an oxygen mask clamped to his face, and then rushed by an on-site ambulance to the Mater Hospital for what would turn out to be life-saving surgery.
Duffy had suffered a laceration of the hepatic artery which supplies blood to the liver – the kind of injury, team doctor Alan Byrne said later, that was more like “something you would see in a high-velocity, blunt-trauma traffic accident”.
Byrne also revealed that there had been real fears that Duffy would not survive the ambulance journey – on which he was accompanied by his father Brian who had been watching the game – and then again at casualty in the Mater when he “crashed”, meaning his blood pressure dropped to a dangerously low level.
Said the doctor: “John O’Byrne (the FAI orthopaedic surgeon) rang me a couple of times from the ambulance and he thought he was going to die. There were 3.6 litres of blood in his abdomen that had leaked from this artery. And he had received over 20 units of blood. So you are pouring it in one way and it’s leaking out the other. There was a sudden drop in his blood pressure and he very nearly arrested.”
It was The Mater Hospital surgeon and former Meath Gaelic football star Gerry McEntee who performed the operation which saved the young man’s life, and by midnight Shane’s condition had stabilised.
Recalled Alan Byrne: “I cannot describe what it felt like when we got the call from Gerry McEntee to say that the surgery had been successful. We were with Shane’s dad Brian and his uncle and cousin, and we were jumping around. It was like winning the World Cup. In fact, it was better than that.”
And, movingly, Shane’s father Brian said: “I hugged the surgeon and cried when he told me the good news about the operation. When Trapattoni, John Delaney and Marco Tardelli were gathering (at the hospital), I really feared I was going to lose my son.”
When the patient was discharged from the Mater, we in the media were invited along to have a few words with him on the steps of the hospital before he headed home to Derry with his family.
“Welcome back Lazarus,” quipped a colleague by way of greeting, bringing a smile to Duffy’s face. But, in all honesty, what I recall mostly thinking at the time— as I took in the teenager’s waxy pallor and tall but slight frame— was that it would probably be more than enough if Shane Duffy went on to live a long life of never again doing anything more strenuous than flower-arranging.
Remarkably, less than two months after the incident, he was back on the pitch, in action in Sligo for Everton reserves, following which he travelled down to Dublin to attend the opening international, between Ireland and Argentina, at the new Aviva stadium.
Flash forward six years and, last Friday, he was back again at Lansdowne Road, this time impressing everybody else looking on: a big, strapping centre-half in the classic Irish mode but, clearly, with a sharp football brain as well.
“I know what happened that day in Malahide,” he once said. “I know that I nearly died on that pitch.
“I don’t want the injury to be hanging over me for the rest of my career or my life. I can’t live off that forever. I want to push it away and just be known for my football.”
Mission accomplished then – and, one feels delighted to say, with the promise of so much more to come.
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