GAA Football

Shea Downey's had enough of being Down on his injury luck

Shea Downey in action for Derry minors in 2015. His progress at senior level has been stunted by a series of unfortunate, and badly-timed, injuries that he hopes he's over heading into 2021. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

BEING wheeled down the corridor signing consent forms, Shea Downey wasn’t even sure which hospital he was in.

Hours earlier, he’d looked the cut of his uncle Henry, stationed at centre-back as Lavey overcame their old adversaries Dungiven in a first round Derry SFC match.

Nothing had happened to make him feel the pain in his stomach that he was experiencing the next day. By night, it was a quick run up the road to Antrim Area and a rapid diagnosis.

“They said my appendix was about to burst and they had to operate,” he recalls.

Lavey would reach the county final for the first time in 25 years but it would be the following April before Downey would play again.

Despite having been called into the senior Derry setup almost straight out of minor, he is yet to make his championship debut.

It’s not for any lack of ability or application.

His appendix operation initially appeared to have gone as routine, but in the months afterwards, he was dogged by an infection that just wouldn’t clear.

“They did it and the doctor was happy enough how it went, but it was whatever way I reacted to it. There was still an infection there.

“They sent me home but I was still getting bad pains in that area, so I had to go back into hospital. I stayed in for a good few days. It took me ages to get over it.

“It was a few months before I could even run. I just couldn’t get rid of it.

“We ended up going to Kingsbridge [private hospital in Belfast] then to get it sorted, I got a scan done up there and they said there was a bit of an infection there and they gave me something to get rid of it.

“It was just a waiting match then, you had to wait until the infection died down before you could even start. I was trying to do a bit of jogging to get back for Lavey, they were doing well, but it just wasn’t happening.

“I couldn’t jog at all with the pain, I could barely move.”

It was around the same time as Tottenham Hotspurs’ Eric Dier had the exact same issue. While he returned to playing, it took him many months to properly get the better of feeling sore and ill.

With his father Seamus and great-uncle John Brennan at the helm, Shea could only watch on as Lavey embarked on their run to the Derry final, in which they were left to rue a poor first half against Coleraine.

“You could see about the place when we got to that final, it was a big deal in the parish. It was covered in orange and black flags, there was a scarecrow, a painted car and everything. It was hard watching that, not being able to play in it.

“After every game boys were asking me and I said I’d be back for the next round. But I was trying to do a bit at the pitch and it just wasn’t happening.

“I was still in the changing room. I togged out in the final, I don’t even know why for I wasn’t getting on. That was the only game I togged out.

“We came back well after half-time and that’s why it’s so hard to watch nearly, you’re jumping out of your seat and you just want to go and help out. That’s just the way things happen. Hopefully we can get back and go that step further.”

It was January before he hit the field in Owenbeg to resume training with Derry. But having recovered from the appendix issue, his hamstrings started playing up. They haven’t stopped since.

The second training session with the county side, he popped the hamstring. It’s been such a regular occurrence on both sides that he’s not even sure which side went first.

Turned 23 last week, it had been anticipated he’d be a regular in the Derry team by now. Instead, he’s still yet to make his championship debut and has only played in a handful of Allianz League games.

The injuries themselves have been unkind, but so too the timing.

He missed the whole of 2019’s inter-county campaign with the hamstring issue that flared up in that first session.

Indeed, a final year Business Studies student at Ulster University, he is set to finish up without kicking a ball in the Sigerson Cup unless he goes down the post-graduate route.

Through work with S&C coaches Ollie Cummings (2019) and Peter Hughes (2020), as well as medical and physio teams, he has built his hamstrings up.

He had a good run at it during the early part of the 2020 league and the lockdown allowed him to work on at them, but a concussion suffered in the first club championship game set him back. He was only able to return for Lavey’s knockout game against Magherafelt, and the hamstrings were acting up again after the layoff, causing him to be pulled late from Rory Gallagher’s squad for the Ulster SFC loss to Armagh.

It hasn’t been an easy ride, but then if anyone has the bloodline to overcome the early setbacks, it’s a son of Seamus Downey.

This was the man who tore his cruciate in 1989, a time when it was a career-ending injury.

But he rebuilt the knee without an operation, doing relentless, gruelling rehab to eventually win an All-Ireland at full-forward four years later, scoring Derry’s goal in the final win over Cork.

Shea Downey and his three brothers have kept each other in company over lockdown. Enda, Oran and Calum, along with cousin Matthew and the upcoming Conor, will mean the Lavey team will have six Downeys on it in a very short space of time.

They’re sports nuts too. As he takes the call, there’s just enough gap between Tottenham-West Brom and Ireland-Wales, followed by Liverpool-Man City and the late-night shift for the SuperBowl.

His soccer allegiances fall the way of Sunderland, where his mother has cousins that they’d have visited as youngsters, and ended up at the Stadium of Light for several north-east derbies with Newcastle.

Shea Downey’s just about had his fill of watching and not playing, though you wouldn’t quickly detect any impatience.

“What’s done is done. There’s no point dwelling on it, you just have to focus on getting right and hopefully this year I’ll get a clean run at it. I’m just looking forward to playing games.”

With any luck, the world will see him at his best in 2021.

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