Cronin had established himself as one of the brightest young stars in the country before he fractured his tibia and fibula while in action for Nemo Rangers in a senior league match against Clonakilty last year.
The 19-year-old had burst onto the senior football squad last summer, nailing down a defensive spot in his senior championship debut against Clare. But following half a year spent in rehab he will play a crucial role for the Rebels who play Kerry in tomorrow night’s EirGrid Munster U21FC final at Austin Stack Park.
“The recovery was all about the Cork U21s and they’ve been really behind me,” he says. “Aidan Kelleher, one of our selectors, has been massive. They’ve put a lot of belief in me. I didn’t know if I’d be back at all to play. They put their faith that I would be.”
A week after they exited the 2015 championship to Kildare, Cronin travelled with his club to play Clon and at one stage he rose for a high ball. When he landed, one of his own teammates came through him.
“There was already a Clonakilty player on my foot and so the leg just got caught in a couple of places. There was actually no pain. I was lying on the ground waiting for the ambulance to come and they wouldn’t even give me morphine because the pain level I said I was a two. You need a seven. I’ll know for next time!” he laughed.
The recovery was six months of sheer perseverance. Cronin says learning to walk afterwards was a lot more painful than the initial leg break.
There were times when he had to pull the reins in, knowing that too much might be too soon.
“I’d be mad for road. I was working with Eddie Harnett, (the Kerry football physio who also serves as the Cronin family physio) and he knows me well enough. Every time he was just constantly ‘no, no, no’. I was in good hands there.”
For November and December, he ploughed a lone furrow. Solitary gym sessions. After training he would eat by himself because he was finished earlier than others.
“There’d be times there when you’re going through it and you’re wondering am I ever going to come back. There is no interaction with the other players and at that stage of the year, I was the only fella doing physio work, doing rehab work,” he recalled.
“It was quite lonesome but the phone calls and the texts and just making sure how you’re getting on. That’s a big thing, especially as a younger fella, that’s a massive thing.”
The first big landmark in his recovery came when he negotiated the steps at Páirc Uí Rinn.
Cronin counted four steps to be conquered as you climb up the stand. On the first day he couldn’t hop up a single one. Three or four weeks later he was hopping up and down.
“That was kind of the first big thing. The last landmark? Even playing Clare only a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t jump backwards. I couldn’t jump one legged backwards and then a ball just came, I jumped up and tapped it down. They actually got a score out of it but I looked to the sideline and Aidan Kelleher was there with the thumbs up - we both knew it was massive.”
The Cork team to face Kerry in the decider shows one change from the side which defeated Waterford in the semi-final. Corner-back Dylan Quinn, who missed the semi-final through injury, reclaims his place at the expense of Eoin Lavers. Cork 2015 minor football captain Sean Powter is named among the subs.
A Casey (Kiskeam); M McSweeney (Newcestown), J Mullins (Éire Óg), D Quinn (St Finbarr’s); K Flahive (Douglas), S Cronin (Nemo Rangers), K Histon (Cobh); S White (Clonakilty), R O’Toole (Éire Óg); D O’Driscoll (Clann na Gael), S O’Donoghue (Inniscarra), R Harkin (Mallow); B Coakley (Carrigaline), P Kelleher (Kilmichael), M Hurley (Castlehaven).
Ross Donovan (Nemo Rangers), C Kiely (Ballincollig), K Cremin (Boherbue), E Lavers (Dohenys), S O’Leary (Bantry Blues), S Sherlock (St Finbarr’s), Dan Ó Duinnín (Cill na Matra), S Powter (Douglas), S O’Donovan (Ilen Rovers).