Less than 24 hours after he “heard a crack” in a tackle and suffered yet another horrific injury, Stephen O’Donnell observed an incoming call from an unknown number, answering gingerly.
“Hello Stephen. This is Ruby Walsh. I just wanted to ring to sympathise about your knee.”
The Dundalk captain has his suspicions about how perhaps the greatest jockey of all time got his mobile number, wondering if a mutual acquaintance put Walsh up to it. The veteran rider thinking of him meant a great deal, considering O’Donnell’s love of horses and that Walsh also broke his leg for what will also probably be the last time recently (Cheltenham Festival in March).
There are obvious parallels between the pair, in terms of their ability and the school of incessant knocks – but at least the jump jockey can expect little else. Walsh was only a few days back after recovering from a broken leg when it happened again at Cheltenham and, whether he likes it or not, Stephen O’Donnell will be remembered by many for how often he was unable to play rather than what he showed when able.
“It was very nice of Ruby,” the midfielder says from his parents’ home in Galway, back where he was weaned. It was here that his precocious talent earned him a move to Arsenal, where he would captain an underage team that included Cesc Fabregas.
“Ruby was saying you’d be more insecure about things like this earlier in your career – losing out on rides and so on – but you get more sure of things as you get older.”
That Friday earlier this month in the RSC in the defeat to Waterford, O’Donnell made a pretty habitual challenge in the engine room and thought nothing more of it until agony took over. As he speaks now, a throbbing pain will not go away, making it difficult for him to sleep at night.
“It looked innocuous on TV really. I landed with my left leg and it planted, it snapped back and I fractured the tibia from hitting the ground. I suppose the more give there is in the ground you’d have a better chance but it was just a freak as well.
“This was as bad as I’d had – I never had rods or plates inserted before. It’ll be six months out or so. I thought it was my cruciate but I went for an X-Ray that night and it showed clearly: a big fracture.
“I got a good clap going off and everyone was very helpful; I’ve had messages from people around the league. Take away the fire and brimstone every Friday and it’s a good community. The whole coaching staff at Cork were messaging me.”
Injuries have haunted O’Donnell with ruthless regularity, the problem being he is now 32 and going to miss the majority of yet another season. He is getting married around the time he should be nearing fitness again in November – “I don’t want to be hobbling down the aisle” – but a new contract at Dundalk can hardly be a guarantee for a guy whose league appearance record in his homeland is shockingly at odds with his influence: not even every other game.
“It’s a disaster really. There are worse things in the world – even you look at Tom Parsons’ injury for Mayo in the Gaelic football on Sunday, I don’t think there’s anything he didn’t break in that incident – but in a sporting and career sense it is a disaster.
“What can you do? It probably hasn’t sunk in – the novelty of being on crutches and all that – but two or three weeks down the line when I’m into a normal routine and the lads are all playing, it’ll have sunk in alright.
“I had my operation last Friday and I see the specialist next Tuesday. I’ll get programmes from the physios to build it up. The gaffer (Stephen Kenny) has sent his condolences. He has a team and a squad to keep going.”
If one more serious injury will surely do it for Ruby, one wonders will O’Donnell even return from this. He is not looking a hundred miles down the road when he’s barely set off on this latest troubling journey, but there may be a major crossroads to encounter at some stage.
“I have not even thought about it either way; I’ve not say down and talked to myself,” he reasons.
“I will see how the recovery goes. I know what is my body capable of and all those questions will be answered. My contract is up at the end of the season. We’ll see what happens. I want another couple of years playing if I can.”
The former Galway United, Bohemians, Shamrock Rovers and Cork City general has long thought about coaching and it seems next to impossible that he will leave the game once he calls time on playing. He talks about the game with such vigour – about why things are getting better in his homeland; how he envisages a brighter future; and feels that the Dundalk team of 2016, which competed well in the Europa League, played its own little part.
“One of my pet-peeves is how we are perceived as a nation. Any Irish team from Ireland gives 100 per cent – that is more or less a given and in our nature – but we are all painted with that brush of being hard workers with little technical ability.
“It is up to us to change that around, to show that we have some very good technical players; to show them that we can handle the ball in those tight situations; that we can have the lion’s share of possession rather than 30 per cent of it when playing in Europe.
“The way we traditionally have played was probably down to a bit of everything, between pitches, weather not being great and managers wanting the ball going from A to B ASAP.
“Supporters are the same: a lot of them can’t understand why it goes back or sideways, while issues with facilities stunt the young players’ technical growth.
“Ideally I would stay involved in football, as it’s my passion. It’s what I love talking about, being involved in looking at football is where my talent lies. I want to coach and nothing I’ve seen has changed my mind.
“I can only be myself. We all look at the game differently but it’s important to get a good crew around you, like-minded people as much as anything.”
Fiancee Michelle is “annoying him to do more things now for the wedding” as football is no longer his excuse. Other managers are monitoring his progress in case the Dundalk fairytale ends.
He is ruling out little, resigned at this stage to being that battered hostage to fortune – a game in which he has rarely gotten a fair hand. “Football is a volatile game,” he adds ruefully.