BY KIERAN McCARTHY
HE can still remember the moment when his leg snapped.
Nemo Rangers defender Stephen Cronin burst onto the inter-county scene last year, making his debut against Clare and holding onto his position in the Cork defence for the rest of the championship. The first Sunday in August, a week after the Rebels were dumped out of the All-Ireland by Kildare in Semple Stadium, the Nemo man was in action in a county league Division 1 game away against Clonakilty.
That’s when he suffered a horrific injury – a freak collision saw him fracture both his tibia and fibula.
‘I went up for a kick-out and landed back down. A Clonakilty fella fell across my foot and my own player went through my back so my leg got caught and it just snapped. It wasn’t that painful, which was strange enough,’ Cronin (20) recalled.
‘I broke both bones. The tibia break was a lucky break, in one way, because I didn’t damage anything else. The bone just broke and it didn’t come out through the skin so, if I was looking for silver linings, that was it because it didn’t do any more damage.’
Six months on the sideline followed and he watched on as Nemo won the Cork SFC, but he was busy in rehab, concentrating on his comeback to get back on track. That moment came earlier this year, ahead of Cork’s U21 championship campaign, as he tested his leg to see if it could withstand knocks and kicks.
‘I have a metal bar up through the middle of it so I was told that no matter what I do, I can’t damage it, so I was full whack in straightaway,’ explained Cronin, who will undergo an operation later in the year to remove the bar.
‘My first game back was for 20 minutes against Clonmel, they were raring to go for their All-Ireland semi-final so it was a good game to come back into. I went hell for leather and there were no problems. I trust the physio and I trust the doctor so once I was given the okay.
‘It’s back to 100 per cent. It’s taken a while. I’m after a lot of work with the Cork physios and Ian Kelleher. I’m feeling good the last few weeks and, being honest, I didn’t feel good until about a week before we played Clare. I was after playing a couple of games by then but I needed those to get me going again.’
The Cork U21 captain is now preparing for a Munster U21 final against Kerry in Tralee on Thursday, but he admits that the Rebels’ wins against Clare (0-23 to 0-8) and Waterford (3-18 to 0-2) has not been the best preparation ahead of the date with Jack O’Connor’s Kingdom charges.
‘We would have much preferred tougher games. We got tested in the first half against Clare and we pulled away from them then, but the Waterford game wasn’t much good to us ahead of playing Kerry, who we know will be different class,’ the Cork skipper said.
‘Kerry have played and beaten Tipperary, who are just as good as us and Kerry, and they had a close match then against Limerick. We know ourselves that we benefitted from hard, close games like that in the past. They are the type of games you need but there’s nothing we can do about it, that’s the way the draw went.’
Travelling deep beyond enemy lines next week doesn’t faze Cronin or his teammates. He played in the 2014 Munster U21 quarter-final at Austin Stack Park when Cork won 0-18 to 2-8. In 2013, he was in the Cork half-back line when the Rebel minors beat Kerry (3-6 to 0-8) in Munster MFC quarter-final replay at the Tralee venue.
‘We have no fear of the place. It’s the same set of goal posts irrespective of where the ground is,’ he said.
‘The big thing this year is that everyone is signing from the same hymn sheet. We decided at the start of the year that everyone will focus on the U21s and give it everything. I think this squad is a lot closer than it has been over the last few years because we have been together so much. There are no egos, everyone is playing for the team, and that’s a big thing.’
Right now, Cronin is fully committed to the Cork U21 campaign and, with each passing game, he shakes off the rustiness of his six-month injury nightmare. Once the U21s are put to bed, then he’ll see if the senior management come knocking at his door.
‘I haven’t been in with the seniors. They told me they’ll see how I go with the U21s and they’ll take another look. They haven’t been in contact with me too much. I have been focusing on the U21s, that’s the main thing at the moment,’ Cronin said.
‘I’m back playing two months now and I’m still trying to build up confidence and test the leg in any way I can at all. Every training session, every game, every week, you get more confident and you get back to where you were beforehand.’
And victory against Kerry this week would act as another step along the road.