LIAM MACKEY: The crock of ages: Sustaining an injury in a new sporting persuit

I’m still nobbled on the cobbles ‘cos I hobble when I wobble...

After Paolo Maldini and his partner were soundly beaten in a doubles game in Milan last Monday, there was much attention paid to the great man’s lyrical description of his pro tennis debut, at the age of 49, as having felt like “writing a poem after years of studying maths”.

The celebrated Italian defender also made the startling revelation that, at the earliest of doors in a 6-1, 6-1 defeat, he had actually sustained an injury.

“Ironically, on the very first point of the match I pulled a muscle,” he explained, leaving the rest of us mere mortals to ponder his definition of irony.

But the real reason this detail engaged my attention is that, by coincidence, just last weekend I too happened to pull a muscle whilst engaged in a sporting pursuit. And, like the great Maldini, I too can consider myself a veteran who was taking on an alien discipline.

Unlike Maldini, however, my injury literally stopped me in my tracks. And, again unlike Maldini, the circumstances under which I sustained it were so acutely embarrassing as to be far more painful than the pulled hamstring which, to misappropriate Ian Dury, means that nearly a week later I’m still nobbled on the cobbles ‘cos I hobble when I wobble.

All the gory details to follow but, first, long-suffering readers might recall that this was not the first time your correspondent “tweaked the hammer”, as legendary Irish physio Mick Byrne was wont to say.

And, in what I can now see I should have regarded as a warning from history, it was a blow to the flesh but even more to the self-esteem which was sustained under what were only marginally less humiliating circumstances.

It happened back in 2008 at the European Championship finals after a game in Zurich. Emerging from the stadium, I spotted a tram about to leave from the terminus a couple of hundred yards away and decided to make a run for it.

To my amazement and delight, I found that at the age Paolo Maldini is now, and even with a heavy laptop bag on my shoulder, I hadn’t entirely lost the old yard of pace as, with my hair streaming in the wind and the whole thrilling spectacle doubtless eliciting gasps of admiration from passers-by, I closed in on the tram in great, ground-devouring strides.

That was until — ping! went the strings of my ham and, in full view of the astonished passengers who had been closely monitoring my progress, I was reduced to hopping the final 10 metres on one foot.

Once I’d managed to struggle on board, there was the additional humiliation to be endured of an elderly lady standing up and kindly offering me her seat. Even more embarrassingly, I took it.

So flash forward to last weekend when, much older but clearly not one bit wiser, I somehow allowed myself to be persuaded at the last minute to take part in the ‘Dads’ race’ at the community summer fest on our local green. Never mind the cerebral Paolo’s “like trying to write a poem after years of studying maths.”

Here was a much more prosaic but patently far nuttier undertaking: trying to run after years of walking.

At age 58, I reckon I was about 20 to 25 years older than the most senior of my fellow competitors, a realisation which caused me a ripple of concern but not enough to think it might be even worth doing a few of the old warm-up stretches I vaguely remembered from my now sepia-tinted footballing days.

Nah, this was just for fun and, anyway, what was the worst that could happen beyond finishing last?

The answer came within a second or two of the starting gun — well, whistle, actually. The worst is not finishing last. It’s not finishing at all. Or, to be even more precise about it, not even really starting.

As the rest of the field sprinted away at tremendous speed, yours truly took one stride, at most two, before something akin to a small explosion seemed to go off in the back of my right thigh.

Fortunately, most of the spectators had their eyes and (even more importantly) their camera phones trained on the finish line where all the other Dads were already bracing the tape to a chorus of cheers and the warm embraces of their loved ones.

Just two forlorn faces in the crowd, those of my wife and young daughter, were still looking the other way, back towards the start line where, with expressions mixing pity and dismay, they were obliged to observe the poor oul fella, the family’s certified non-runner, limping heavily from the arena, his face contorted in a spasm of agony, his right hand clutching the back of his leg.

With no prior warning, they had just been subjected to ‘Hammer Horror - The Sequel’.

The only potentially positive upshot of this I can think of is that a pulled — sorry, I should of course say ‘torn’ — hamstring sounds like a proper football injury of the kind which I had always secretly wanted to incur over many years of playing the game with more enthusiasm than ability.

I mean, if I couldn’t ever hope to match the pros in terms of skill, at least I could imagine bonding with them over those pesky knocks and niggles.

The closest I ever came to the real deal, however, was many moons ago when I twisted my ankle playing in a match for the grand old club, Hotpress Moenchengladbach 1891.

Although, of course, that’s not how I described the injury when people subsequently encountered me making the most of a short spell on crutches.

No, to their sincere concern about my well-being, I would wave a dismissive hand and nonchalantly reply in the received vernacular: “Ah, it’s nuthin’. Just done me ligaments playing a bit o’ ball.”

But I have to accept that even that old blather won’t work now.

There can be nothing dignified, never mind heroic, about an ageing hack hobbling around the house with a bag of frozen peas sellotaped to his leg, and, as for professional fellow feeling, probably little or no prospect of his receiving a get-well card from Goodison Park which might read, "Chin up Liamo. Know full well what you’re going through but I know you’ll come back stronger and better. Yours in admiration, as ever, Seamus.”

No, the dream is well and truly over.

Anyone for draughts?


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