On May 12th, 2019, O’Donovan Rossa star Donal Óg Hodnett suffered a season-ending cruciate knee ligament injury. One year on he was ready for a comeback, until the Covid-19 pandemic halted the GAA year. KIERAN McCARTHY caught up with the Skibbereen man to chat about his journey back to the football field
DONAL Óg Hodnett should have made his comeback from injury this month. He had a target in mind, the last of O’Donovan Rossa’s Kelleher Shield games in May, but a global pandemic ended those hopes. Instead, the wait goes on.
Like all GAA players, he’s in limbo right now. No-one knows if the GAA season will return this year – but after spending 12 months on the sideline since rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in May 2019, Hodnett is eager to get going again.
Instead, with all GAA activity suspended because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the talented attacker doesn’t know if he will get the chance to play this year, but he’s more keen than most to get back out on the field.
‘If the GAA makes the decision to scrap things this year, you are talking nearly 24 months before I play any competitive game, league or championship,’ the 28-year-old says.
‘I can’t wait to get back, it’s been a long year since I last played a game, but it comes down to what the experts say and what the medical advice is.
‘If they opened up things tomorrow I’d try to play a game in a few weeks’ time, but being realistic I find it hard to believe that the GAA will back on in August or September.
‘They’ve said GAA is a semi-contact sport but there are some fellas on our team that are not semi-contact and there are some fellas on the opposition who are not semi-contact either!
‘It will be tricky because you have guys on every team across the country who might have underlying conditions like asthma – are they going to want to go back and risk their health? I’d imagine that they won’t, but we’ll have to wait and see what the medical experts say.
‘I’m more hopeful than anything. It was hard to go from playing 17, 18 games in a ten-month period to not playing anything in 12 months, but the hope of getting back on the pitch is keeping me hungry.’
Everything was going according to plan for Hodnett pre-coronavirus. His rehab was on course. His left knee felt good. He was back training with the panel, even playing in A versus B practice matches. He was ready to go.
‘We were due to play St Nick’s in the Senior A championship at the start of April but I think that would have been a few weeks too soon for me,’ he says.
‘My first game back was never going to be a championship game, I’d rather get myself back into the swing of things by playing league games and challenge matches. I was hoping for the mid to end of May to have a full game under my belt.’
Skibb’s clash with Nick’s was pencilled in for Brinny – and the last time Hodnett played there, his knee crumbled.
In the past 12 months there are certain dates that stick in Donal Óg Hodnett’s mind. Sunday, May 12th, 2019 is one of them – that’s the day he ruptured his ACL playing for Skibb against Valley Rovers in a Kelleher Shield game in Brinny.
Twelve months on, he still hasn’t played a competitive game.
‘I had the ball, I went to sidestep a man and the next thing I was down on the ground in agony,’ Hodnett recalls.
‘I’ve spoken to people who have had the same injury who say they don’t know what happened and I’m the same. I don’t know was it the type of boots I was wearing, was there a divot in the ground or what caused it to happen.’
Instantly, he knew this was a serious injury. There were tell-tale signs – the sudden jolt of pain was ferocious but it was the loud pop that caused concern.
Valley Rovers’ Fiachra Lynch was behind Hodnett when he went down and he remembers the noise.
‘There was a fairly clear, loud pop,’ Lynch recalls.
‘I think he’d run past me, I was chasing him back and he tried to sidestep one of our defenders, and then he went down. You could see he was in trouble and he was in brutal pain too.’
Lynch works as a physio, and he kicked straight into physio mode.
‘He fell face down, I got him to turn over onto his back to keep his knee as stable as possible,’ he explains.
‘All you can do is tell a fella that he’ll be okay, to reassure him.’
Hodnett remembers hearing his knee ‘pop’, remembers the pain and remembers Lynch helping him.
‘In fairness to him, he bent down and held my knee in case it was bad. He knew what to do,’ Hodnett says.
‘Because the noise was so loud we thought that there might have been a crack in a bone or a shin bone. I was taken away to the A&E in CUH to get an X-ray to rule that out – and that was all clear, thankfully.’
An MRI the following Tuesday showed Hodnett had suffered a full rupture of the ACL.
‘That’s the main ligament that joins your shin bone up with your thigh bone,’ he explains.
‘There was a bit of damage done to other ligaments around the knee and a bit of cartilage damage, but nothing too serious that could have complicated things.’
Hodnett was expecting bad news, but it was still a blow. His GAA season was over in mid-May. He was O’Donovan Rossa’s captain last year and they were coming off the back of county championship wins against Carrigaline and Ballincollig, the latter just the weekend before he suffered his injury.
‘It had looked like a promising summer ahead for the team and for me personally so to get a blow like that was very disappointing,’ he points out.
Donal Óg Hodnett is the most talented O’Donovan Rossa footballer of his generation.
In Skibbereen they appreciate his value. They know how good he is. On and off the field, he’s an influence. He is Rossas’ main man.
Considering his talent, it’s a shame that he never made his mark in the Cork senior set-up despite four years, on and off between 2014 and ’17, involved with the extended panel.
Perhaps the various managers didn’t get the most out of his strengths and, equally so, maybe he didn’t fully grasp his opportunity when he was handed it – the end result is despite encouraging signs in his debut season, and some flashes in the league in other years, Hodnett didn’t convince enough.
Cork’s loss was his club’s gain, and at club level he stands out. Hodnett’s probably at his best when he is used in a free role but he has spent a lot of time in midfield for Skibb, too. He can kick off left and right, and he can score, from play and placed balls. He’s a threat.
Off the field, he’s a leader. There’s a reason why he was captain last year. He pushes his team-mates and management. There’s a maturity to his game now that wasn’t there in his earlier days, and one of the most surprising moments of this interview was discovering he turns 29 years old in June. These should be his peak years, and still can be.
Rewind back to 2011 and he was one of the stars of Rossas’ county U21-winning football team. Ryan Price. Daniel Hazel. Paudie Crowley. Rob McCarthy. Kevin Davis. Mark Collins. Dave Shannon. Thomas Hegarty. That was a good team. Hodnett, Cork U21 captain the following season, was a leader in that group and still is now, and he is vital to Rossas.
As one club member said, ‘A fit Dónal Óg improves us substantially, he makes everyone a better player.’
As important as he is to the team, the same is true the other way. In those initial dark days after the injury and the operation, his club was the rock he needed.
‘I did struggle for a while, to be honest,’ he says.
‘I can’t really put a timeline on it when it was that I got my head around it, but what helped was staying involved – and a lot of players would say the same.
‘I was lucky that with the injury I was up and about after a few weeks so I was able to get to the gym and do some upper-body work and I was able to walk around the training pitch, go to matches, sit on the sideline doing water and help out anyway I could. In that sense it did help because I was still involved, even if I wasn’t out on the pitch doing what I wanted to do.’
By the time O’Donovan Rossa were knocked out of the 2019 Cork SFC by Clonakilty, Hodnett was four weeks past his operation on July 23rd under renowned surgeon Ray Moran at Santry Sports Clinic in Dublin. He was on the comeback trail, inching closer to a full recovery, step by step.
(The reason there was a gap between the day he suffered the injury and the operation is that he had already booked flights to America for his friend, Liam Collins’s wedding, so the decision was made to delay the op until after. It gave him time as well to build up the muscles around his knee, which helped in his rehab).
The morning after his operation – his first major op – at Santry Sports Clinic, a physio called to Hodnett’s room, helped him get out of the bed and insisted he walked up and down the hall outside.
‘I thought that was mental,’ he laughs now, and each step that morning was a struggle.
His left knee looked worse for wear and the bruising, from his ankle up to his thigh, hadn’t kicked in yet.
He stuck religiously to his rehab plan, working alongside physio Brian O’Connell, and he saw the results.
‘After eight to ten weeks you are back out running in straight lines; you’re not sprinting or anything but you are still able to go around 60 or 70 percent in a straight line. I did a lot of that going into the Autumn and into the winter I was able to pick things up a lot,’ Hodnett explains.
‘We would have started our own pre-season training round mid-December so I was able to get involved heavily then. I had no issues with a lot of the running sessions but there was a lot of ball work and tackling and things like that I stayed out of.
‘A couple of weeks before the lockdown came in, start of March, I was pretty much doing everything in training, even internal games.’
He was closing in on a comeback this May before Covid-19 came along.
‘I was always going to give it nine months post surgery, which would have brought me up to now. And given what’s going on now, it’s giving me plenty of time to recover but at the same time, you’d be eager to get back at it,’ he says.
‘The knee feels very good, I am happy enough with it, but if the lockdown opened up next weekend I probably wouldn’t go back because I would have missed out on a lot of hard training, so it’s pushing my timeline out a bit. I’m still doing a lot of work on it – running and gym work.’
Physically, he feels in good shape. Mentally, he feels ready to get back on the pitch, too.
‘You need to get your confidence back,’ he explains.
‘Even if you are on the pitch on your own, you can do some twisting and turning and some direction work. I did a few running sessions in Cork with Brian O’Connell – the first time we did some turning and twisting, the technique wasn’t right. I was holding back and it did take a few weeks to get over it and get the confidence back.’
When it’s possible Hodnett will make the trip back up to Santry Sports Clinic for his last assessment, after which they’ll recommend whether he is ready to return to action or not. He’s confident he is, but he doesn’t know when that will be.
A fit-again Donal Óg Hodnett is a massive addition to O’Donovan Rossa. Fingers crossed, he’ll get to play some football this year.