WHAT a year it has been for Owen Lennon. As 2010 dawned, he thought his playing days were over.
A lot of pain, lonely nights rehabbing and even lonelier nights standing on the side of various pitches watching his Monaghan team-mates training left him feeling down.
The day job was also suffering. The cracked vertebra pushing in on his nerve was hampering his role as a PE teacher in Cootehill, Cavan.
It was a tough time. But he kept stumbling along, breaking down how he walked and ran, learning again to do what every child does naturally, but in a completely different way to what nature had taught him originally.
Finally, there was a chink of light. And then suddenly, he was in the open air. After a few weeks of pain-free training, the Latton clubman was named on the bench for the Ulster championship quarter-final before a phone call from Seamus McEnaney the night before sparked an unprecedented turn of events.
With goalkeeper Shane Duffy having damaged a quad muscle, McEnaney decided to use full-back Darren Hughes between the sticks. The resultant reshuffle would see Lennon thrust into midfield. He didn’t miss a beat as the Farney men trounced Armagh. Tomorrow they are in the Ulster final, chasing a first title in 22 years.
Lennon has to pinch himself to make sure it’s not all a dream.
He admitted: “Around Christmas I wasn’t sure whether I was ever going to play football again, so to be back playing and have the chance of playing in an Ulster final is great. I’m not sure what happened, but (the vertebra) was pressing on a nerve and that was the main problem.
“It was serious. I was struggling to get in and out of the car, in and out of the bed. I was playing a lot of last year through the pain and then eventually I couldn’t go on.
“It was probably going on for six to eight months. I went over to England, to Lilleshall, and I got some good rehab and thankfully that worked out. It was mainly getting my posture sorted out and getting me straightened up a little bit. It took the pressure off a nerve in my back and everything fell into place after that.”
He makes it sound easy, it was anything but. “I was doing rehab for three or four months, maybe even longer, and I wasn’t feeling any better. I was wondering to myself would I ever play again...”
When you’ve been playing for the county for the guts of a decade, you want to end things on your own terms. At 29, Lennon reckoned he had another couple of years left.
The end is the furthest thing from his mind now. An athletic midfielder, he has been a central cog in Monaghan’s progression to this clash with Tyrone.
A genial individual, he is as competitive on the pitch as he is laid-back off it and admits that despite his imperfect preparation, he was down at not been named in the initial team to take on Armagh.
“I was back in training a few weeks and my fitness was good. I was just waiting for the call and I was a bit disappointed not to be playing.”
Monaghan haven’t exactly been a surprise packet in reaching the decider with Peter Canavan tipping them to take the honours before a ball was kicked up north.
They are playing an exciting brand of football, totting up impressive tallies and Lennon credits new selector and coach, Paul Grimley for the change.
“He’s a man who’s won Ulster championships, who’s won an All-Ireland. Just him being on the training field and going about telling us ‘you are good enough, you’re as good as players I’ve been around and played with’.
“He’s just tried to instil that confidence in us. He released maybe the fear of losing Monaghan might have taken into games.
“I think it’s an all-round thing Paul has brought to the table.”
Every match is a bonus now for a man who thought his days were numbered. And if Tyrone represents a mountain, Lennon will comfort himself by knowing that he has scaled higher peaks already this year.
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