GAA Football

Donnelly had to look hard for rays of light

From thinking he'd only nipped a nerve to trying desperately to find someone to take on surgery that would repair his badly torn hamstring, Mattie Donnelly went through the full range of emotions. On what ought to have been the weekend of Donegal v Tyrone, Cahair O'Kane caught up with him...

Mattie Donnelly in action against Cork last year. He hailed the positive impact of Rebel star Brian Hurley, as well as Mayo's Ger Cafferky and former Armagh star Kevin Dyas, on his recovery from a horror hamstring injury. Picture by Seamus Loughran.

WHEN the thirst for information and a ray of light took Mattie Donnelly down a rabbit hole, it took a lot of burrowing before he found any good news.

The most obvious, high-profile victim of a hamstring avulsion was Paul O’Connell. You can see the moment when, during a 2015 Rugby World Cup tie, French second-row Pascal Pape falls back on to him and the Ireland captain’s right leg locks out. It tore all three hamstring tendons off the bone.

But then at a week short of 36, despite the planned swansong in France, he was near ready for retiring anyway when he did his.

As much as ‘only’ belongs in such a sentence, Donnelly had only torn one of the three tendons in his left leg.

The bigger problem he found was that so many of sports people who had returned to play had done so without surgery – and evidence of them rediscovering the level they’d previously been at was initially scarce.

Yet this was the fate he was looking at. Surgeons across Ireland and two more in France recommended that the complexity of the surgery – which Donnelly likens to tying a piece of string back together in the middle – meant they a conservative, rehab-based recovery was the way forward.

“I wasn’t keen on that. Any research we’d gone through, we weren’t happy with that approach,” said the 29-year-old.

‘We’ being mostly Tyrone physio Louis O’Connor and strength and conditioning coach Jonny Davis, as well as Donnelly himself. Through friends of friends, he tracked down anyone he could find with a similar experience.

The narrative started to turn. This wasn't a dead end.

Cork’s Brian Hurley and Mayo’s Ger Cafferky were of huge help to him. As was Kevin Dyas, whose potentially sparkling Armagh career was ruined by a succession of injuries.

“They were seriously forthcoming with their support and their experiences. The detail they went into was unbelievably helpful.”

Peter Donnelly, Tyrone’s former S&C coach now with Monaghan, also came to his aid and so too did Derry native Rory Murray, who is the head physio with Bristol Rugby.

Their combined medical experience wasn’t wasted. Donnelly took note of every word they said, every single piece of advice they offered.

When he talked to the like of Hurley, Cafferky, Dyas it was as much about what not to do.

And is Jonny Davis, he found a particularly reassuring voice.

“My head was going all over the place when I got on to Jonny initially but he said ‘no sweat, I’ve brought four or five boys back from this’, Tommy Bowe, Iain Henderson. He sent me their plans and what they did.

“Once you hear that, your mindset changes and you think ‘I can do this, no problem’.”

The support network kept widening and by the time some of the conversations were happening, Donnelly had cleared the surgery hurdle.

O’Connor got through to Professor Fares Haddad, who would go on to operate on Harry Kane soon after the Tyrone forward. The scans were sent over on the Friday and Donnelly admits it was a nervous sit from there.

“That was a long weekend not knowing if I’d get surgery at all. That was the last port of call probably.”

The call came from Professor Haddad on Monday afternoon and within 24 hours, Mattie Donnelly was on the operating table at the Princess Grace Hospital in London.

Surgery went well. And as it happened, the timing was the faintest of silver linings.

Six weeks in a leg brace left him with little to do other than sit at the kitchen table and study for his final exams to become a chartered accountant.

The brace came off on Christmas Eve, and on January 2 he was in the exam hall. They’d already been deferred from the summer, when he had to postpone them from late August when the possibility of them running into an All-Ireland final became apparent.

They were due to take place around the week of the game, and when Donnelly had to make a call, Tyrone had qualified for the semi-final against Kerry. At half-time, the postponement seemed wise, but the dream fell away amid Kerry’s resurgence.

He’d been dealing with a minor hamstring strain pretty much all year. It didn’t slow him down in games, but it took him longer to get warmed up enough to feel ready to go.

On the first weekend of November, Trillick were looking to take a step down the road of an Ulster Club title they seemed capable of. But just as O’Connell’s had straightened out in that World Cup tie against France four years earlier, Donnelly’s left leg locked as his body spiralled out of trying to pick a ball from the turf with his right foot.

The pressure of purple shirts coming at the loose ball, the pace Donnelly was moving at and the incidental contact that occurred created the imperfect storm.

He held on until half-time before being replaced and then remarkably came back on when the game went to extra-time. Donnelly had self-diagnosed it as a nipped nerve and thought that he couldn’t do himself any more harm, but that he might be able to contribute to victory.

“The pain when the injury happened until half-time in extra-time had made it unbearable to even walk or jog or think about coming back on, but as I’d taken pain relief just after the injury, it had started to kick in.

“A mixture of the pain relief, the adrenaline and the psychological outlook of thinking I couldn’t do any more damage to nerve pain added up to me going back on.

“In hindsight I wouldn’t have went near it again.”

Whether the existing hamstring strain had anything to do with it is hard to know. His own gut tells him that if it did, it was a very minor part.

He still couldn’t believe it when, after going for a scan in on the Wednesday after the game, the diagnosis came back the following morning.

Six months on, he would have been putting himself front and centre had there been a game in Ballybofey tomorrow afternoon. Maybe a lack of match practice might have limited his involvement, but his physical recovery feels definite.

The stability of his left hamstring pretty much matches his right again, although he hasn’t ruled out catching it up completely.

The GPS monitor he bought to track his progress says his top speed has now moved towards the high 9s, a level he’d never attained before the injury.

“You never really focussed on it as much and you’d never hit near or over 9 in games. But now I’ve had a chance to focus on it, it’s a good bit higher now at the minute.”

There were a few days where he wondered if his left leg would ever have the capacity to propel him as it has to two Allstars. But he’s over that now.

Whenever football returns, Mattie Donnelly will too.

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