“When they told me, sure what could you do only cry?”: Paddy Lynch on cruciate, career and Cavan

Paddy Lynch was in the form of his life this season but four days after Cavan’s extra-time defeat by Tyrone, he suffered a torn cruciate knee ligament at training. He speaks candidly to Cahair O’Kane about facing up to the first serious injury of his career 33 years after his father Padraig suffered the same fate in a Cavan number 14 shirt…

Paddy Lynch takes a moment after the final whistle having scored 1-9 against Monaghan in Cavan's championship opener this summer. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Paddy Lynch takes a moment after the final whistle having scored 1-9 against Monaghan in Cavan's championship opener this summer. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile (Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

THE cruciate. The cruellest of torturers.

You kinda know the minute it happens. Pop. Agony, for 30 seconds.

And then it often subsides. For hours, it can torment you into thinking you don’t know what you think you know.

When Paddy Lynch went to bend on the last ball of Cavan’s Thursday night training session four days after their defeat by Tyrone, a team-mate no more than brushed against him. He fell awkwardly, a bit of his mate’s leg coming down on his right leg.

Pop. Agony. Then, nothing.

He got into the car and drove home, kept the leg moving through the evening.

The initial fear of the cruciate barely receded from the foreground of a racing mind for 24 hours, but he didn’t know.

The leg itself was manageable that evening. The mind?

“To be honest, I didn’t really sleep much that Thursday night, you were kinda… I broke down in tears, now, most of Thursday night hoping it wasn’t it.”

‘It’. This curse upon Gaelic footballers that needs no name, no introduction. ‘Did ye hear Paddy Lynch did the knee?’ No specifics required.

He’d left training without too many recognising the severity of it. When he got home, it took him an hour to rise anyone on the phone.

When Raymond Galligan called him back, they left it that he’d see the Cavan team doctor first thing on Saturday and just pray that it wasn’t what they kinda knew it was.

By the time Saturday morning came, he knew.

Cavan’s S&C coach Aodhagan Fox brought the timeline up, got him a physio appointment for early Friday. The word there was that it might, might just be a partial tear. Maybe no surgery. Take those crutches with you for now, sure. Hope.

But he couldn’t go another 24 hours without knowing.

So he booked himself into Santry Sports Clinic in Dublin for an MRI that night.

The ACL was gone, a tear in the meniscus as well.

“I drove up myself to Santry, I was still driving around and still fine. I found out then that Friday night it was gone.

“When they told me that, when I got into the car, sure what could you do only cry as well? ‘Cos that was the year over like.

“It was tough waking up them few mornings after it now, to be honest.”

Tough until he found his sense of perspective. It’s eased a bit since. Not easy, but easier.

Lynch turned 24 in March. The nearest thing to a serious injury he’d ever had until now was the grade one hamstring tear that came for him the week of their Tailteann Cup exit at Down’s hands last year.

Since then, he’d become a really serious forward.

The Crosserlough man was the top scorer in the whole National League this spring. In Cavan’s championship opener, he hit 1-9 against Monaghan. The long-range goal came 30 seconds too late to snatch BBC’s man of the match award that had already been designated for Rory Beggan, who was gone walkabout as Lynch scored.

The pair of them had come face-to-face in the first half when Cian Madden’s delicate ball put Lynch in, only to be denied by a stunning low save from a man not long back to earth from his NFL sojourn.

In training, Cavan had run that move time and time and time again in the lead-up. It was a Stephen O’Neill special, the combination of a back-door cut and an out-to-in run, finishing in the middle of the goal.

It was O’Neill credited with transforming Cathal McShane into a leading light that has shone too briefly for Tyrone. The similarities between Lynch’s movement this year and McShane’s a few seasons back were notable.

“He’d be a big fan of the back-door cuts,” says Lynch of the Cavan forwards coach.

“That Monaghan game, only for Beggan’s save, that shot in the first half, we had worked that play on the training field the last while before that. It’s just a pity he got down to it.

“Your back-door cuts then, he always talks about the dirty runs, 30, 40-yard runs. They’re not nice to make but as a forward, sometimes you have to do it. Even just coming around on loops, all that stuff. He is very good now.

“And the mentality thing as well. Probably some of us didn’t have… I won’t say a winning mentality, obviously we want to win, but that steeliness. He’s brought that to everyone as well.”

O’Neill had no shortage of knee trouble in his own playing days but gave Enda McGinley’s number to Lynch after he’d done his.

McGinley was the same age, 24, when he tore his cruciate in a club game weeks after the pair had won their second All-Irelands with Tyrone.

His operation didn’t take place until the January. He played in the Ulster championship four-and-a-half months later.

Very few would meet that timeline but once the idea of being sidelined had settled in him, McGinley set about using the time to improve his game.

For the first time in his playing career, he had a few months where he knew he had no games to play.

Paddy Lynch was the top scorer in the whole of the National League this year, hitting 1-48.
Paddy Lynch was the top scorer in the whole of the National League this year, hitting 1-48.

He took that as a chance to work on his kicking. He’d felt his shooting was letting him down, that he was dropping shots short more often than he ought to have been.

For instance, it was his dropping effort that gave birth to The Block in 2003. McGinley’s shot fell short at one end, Paul Hearty punched clear and within seconds, Conor Gormley was having to throw himself full-length to deny Stevie McDonnell.

The few months out offered McGinley chance to go away and focus on correcting the technical side of kicking the ball. He dropped a lot fewer short for the rest of his career.

Lynch took a lot out of his conversation with the Errigal Ciaran man.

“He said it gives you this time to work on other stuff. Other areas of your game, to focus in on this stuff, where things haven’t been going right.

“Whenever I get the surgery, the next few months you can’t, but that four or five-month mark after the surgery, you can start working on it again. There are benefits to it, but obviously it’s disappointing that the year is gone.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

PADDY Lynch will head to Santry in a fortnight for his surgery, on the Spring Bank Holiday Friday.

Dr Ray Moran will perform the operation.

33 years ago, an emerging Cavan full-forward went under Dr Moran’s knife for the same injury.

A Crosserlough star, a free-taker of great renown, a young footballer.

His name was Padraig Lynch.

Paddy’s father.

His had happened on a Bank Holiday Monday in early August 1991.

Butlersbridge club had inaugurated the Con Smith Memorial Cup, with Cavan facing Leitrim for the honours.

Padraig Lynch was Cavan’s number 14, the primary difference being that he was a citeog.

A few minutes before half-time, he suffered the same fate that has now befallen his son.

The Anglo Celt’s newspaper simply reported that he’d gone off injured. No details, no drama, no fuss. Perhaps he didn’t know until he knew either.

Crosserlough reached their first county final since 1980 that summer and he missed it, but made his way back in very different medical times to play in one six years later. Both ended in defeat.

Padraig was the club’s left-footed free-taker in those days. Paddy didn’t lick it off the stones.

Since he was no age, they’ve spent their evenings down at “the park”, as he calls the club’s home patch, just kicking endlessly.

Former Tyrone forward Stephen O'Neill is part of Enda McGinley's new-look Antrim management team. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Former Tyrone forward Stephen O'Neill's coaching has shown in the play of Paddy Lynch this year.

“When I started kicking with Dad, I’d always pretend there’s a circle behind the goals and that’s always what you’re aiming for.

“Say if I was kicking off the ground, when you’re playing with Cavan, there’s boards behind the goal and you’re setting yourself up to aim for the boards.

“It does help, that sorta stuff. I find out of the hands is just routine. I take me three hops, next thing settle myself down and the rest takes care of itself, kinda.

“The frees is all to do with confidence. From chatting to other free takers – Ray was a free-taker – you do gain some insights into their routine. It’s kinda all about routine.

“Once the free is given, you kinda go into your own bubble and it’s all about yourself then. Definitely they were going well this year up until that.”

It is something that just takes time and practice to get right.

His weeks are pretty consistent. Monday gym, Tuesday and Thursday training, Friday back up home to Cavan from his base in Phibsboro in Dublin.

That leaves Wednesdays, where he’ll dander ten minutes around the road to Grangegorman pitch, home to St Brendan’s, or else Na Fianna, where he’ll get in a bit of practice.

For half an hour before Cavan training and twenty minutes after, he’ll kick and kick and kick.

In his nine games this year, Lynch scored 2-62. He missed just six frees, despite having to kick from the wrong side too, disguising the lack of a natural left-footed free-taker in their ranks.

That takes him back to Enda McGinley’s advice. He’s comfortable kicking off the left in open play, and has kicked frees for the club off his weaker side, but hasn’t yet ventured there with Cavan. In time, maybe.

But barring a McGinley-esque recovery, or something like Bernard Brogan’s 23-week rehab after Dr Moran sorted his knee in 2018, Lynch won’t kick a ball again in 2024.

It’s been three weeks since. The pain has settled, the swelling too. He’s trying to strengthen the knee, straighten the knee.

He wasn’t on the scene for the Ulster title in 2020 and spent his first two major summers as a Cavan footballer slumming it in the Tailteann Cup.

The plans this summer were so very different.

The group stage that he could hardly more than look at yet still felt compelled to follow has thrown them a weekend trip to crackling Castlebar followed by a home tie with All-Ireland champions Dublin.

Tentatively, and based on how far Cavan might go, he’d made plans to go to Boston and kick a bit of ball there.

But all his life he’d dreamed of being a Cavan footballer on days like these.

“Since growing up, it’s what I’ve always said, I wanted to be a Cavan player. This is just the next step with it.

“I don’t really need too much into ‘the next best thing for Cavan’,” he says, asked about the pressure of such a tag.

“I’m just out there trying to do my best for Cavan. We talked numerous times there about Cavan, you’re playing for Cavan to try and leave the jersey in a better place.

“That’s what I’m trying to do, and hopefully along the way we win things as well. I wasn’t involved in 2020, most of the lads were, and that’s something I’m striving towards is winning an Ulster title.”

Dublin’s Brian Fenton shoots for a point during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi final between Cavan and Dublin at Croke Park. Pic Philip Walsh
Cavan will host Dublin in Breffni Park in just over two weeks' time, the weekend that Paddy Lynch will go in for his knee operation. Picture: Philip Walsh

The roar that rose up through the concrete while they ate into Tyrone’s eight-point lead had him thinking there were twice as many in Breffni that day as there actually were.

“I honestly thought there was 15 or 16,000 people there, I couldn’t believe there was only 9,000 at it, with the roar. That Dublin game, you could be looking at 20,000 for the Dubs coming down to town

“The boys will love that atmosphere and hopefully we can get something from those three games. It would drive the team on, that kinda roar. You’d be hoping the Cavan support out again, I’m sure they will, for these three games.

“They’ve probably been written off already so there’s kinda nothing to lose as well. We know ourselves what we’re capable of and the Cavan people know what we’re capable of at this stage as well.”

All year, Cavan have operated the policy of just the 26 players in the matchday squad travelling with the entourage on the team bus.

Lynch is vice-captain, he’s stayed around the training since the injury, but when they got to Castlebar on Saturday, he’ll make his own choice of whether to go via Leitrim or Longford.

He’ll sit in the stand and watch his team-mates, including his cousins Cian Reilly and Luke Fortune, go about living their dreams while resetting his own dial for next year’s league.

“When you’re with yourself, thoughts’d go through your head about the whole lot. It’s sad, like, but you kinda have to keep a good head because it’s gonna be a long road ahead.

“There’s gonna be plenty of dark days ahead with the recovery. It’s the team you have around ya, just to be so supportive of ya. Please God, it’ll go well.

“Even the last nearly three weeks since it happened, you probably take it for granted when ye are playing, but Jesus the last while, you’ll never take it for granted again.

“It’s something I love doing, I love playing, and for it to be wiped away like that it’s tough.

“Just get back on the horse for next year.”