Stephen O'Donnell recently returned following a long-term injury. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

'I was told everything was banjaxed' - Dundalk's Stephen O'Donnell on his injury nightmare

The star has spent much of the season out of action, but will be available tonight for his team’s title decider.

WHEN STEPHEN O’DONNELL sprinted onto the Oriel Park pitch against Shamrock Rovers 11 days ago, a season spent largely on the sidelines had come full circle.

It was against the same opposition, also in league competition, back in April that the midfielder had torn his anterior cruciate ligament right in front of the always vocal Shed End. At that moment in time, the noise ceased. On O’Donnell’s football career, the lights had almost gone out — had he not sought out a second opinion.

Within 24 hours of his injury, the two-time League of Ireland winner had been told his career was over. “I was brown bread,” he tells “I was told everything was banjaxed — my ACL, the whole knee, everything.”

Thankfully, a second opinion was sought. “You try to cling onto any little bit of hope you have and I went to see from Ray Moran in the clinic in Santry. He said it was nothing I couldn’t get back from.”

Dundalk’s club captain has returned in timely fashion. Not only has he resumed first-team action within six months of suffering his injury, O’Donnell has added experience to his side’s ranks on the final leg of a title race going right down to the wire.

The Galwegian has made three substitute appearances since his comeback to first-team contention, and he admits he is in “bonus territory.” The real bonanza awaits should the Lilywhites claim a first league title in 19 years against Cork City tonight.

“I’m delighted to be back and involved. But, it’s human nature that when you get back, you always want more. Winning the league would be great.

“Usually when you’re out for five or six months, you train for a month or so before you even think of playing a practice match. But with the window so close now, I knew if I wanted to play any part, I’d be thrown into a game situation quicker than normal.”

O’Donnell’s body has reacted well and after those three cameo appearances, he is pushing for a starting berth. Having been out of contention for selection for the majority of the season, the 28-year-old has had time to take in and understand the dynamics of the Oriel Park dressing room.

Few sides have seen such consistency in team selection as Dundalk, while as other top teams saw several ins and outs over the summer transfer window, Stephen Kenny elected to leave things as they were — bar the arrival of Donal McDermott from Huddersfield Town.

“It’s the hardest working, most dedicated dressing room I’ve been in since I came back to the League of Ireland, probably ever. The worth ethic is brilliant. Often, there’d be a few unhappy people with players not getting in the team or not even on the subs bench.

“They boys who don’t get in the squad can have as big an influence as anyone, because they can drag the morale of the side down, but they’ve been great,” he continues.

“The manager has a special way with players, especially those lads on the bench. They want to win it for him. It’s a unique sort of thing. Usually, they’d hate the manager if he isn’t playing him. That’s what makes it so special. There’s no animosity in the group or cliques or bad eggs. We’re all striving for the same thing and hopefully we can do that tonight.”

As the season has progressed, attentions turned to this final-day fixture, as the Leesiders went toe-to-toe with Dundalk at the league’s summit. During the Louth side’s European campaign, the league routinely changed hands on a weekly basis, with Cork playing all of their games a day or two before their rivals. Early on, O’Donnell didn’t particularly see John Caulfield’s team as challengers. He did, however, see similarities with the Dundalk team of the 2013 season.

“I am probably a little bit surprised at how well they’ve done,” he admits. “But they have some very good players, experienced players and we know from last year, once you get on a run — you have a mindset of having nothing to lose. We know that from last year. No one expects you to be there and you can play with a freedom.

“At the start of the season, I wouldn’t have said they’d be top going into the last day of the season but not many people thought we’d be in there challenging. A lot of people were going for Rovers or Pats or Sligo, the usuals. But we’re both in the position and we both deserve to be there.”

Expectation probably rests with Dundalk ahead of tonight’s decider. When Stephen Kenny guided an unfancied ‘Town’ to within three points of the league title last year, their arrival on the scene was surprising and revelatory. This time around, with quality reinforcements in tow, the captain says an improvement on the runners-up finish was the aim.

“To finish second in the league — the same as last season — we’ll be disappointed. We’re in the position now where we know what we need to do. It’s black and white.”

A league title winner with Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers, O’Donnell considers the night in Belgrade that secured Rovers’ Europa League group stage qualification in 2011 as his career highlight. Considering where Dundalk have come from, a league win tomorrow would rank among it.

“If you said when we all first got together — 20 complete strangers — that within 18 months we’d be champions, we’d have said you were crazy. I don’t think it’s been done before and I don’t think it’ll be done again.

“It would be totally unique. We’re looking forward to it. Hopefully, it can happen.”

Two years ago, Dundalk required a come-from-behind relegation play-off win over Waterford United to stay in the league. Weeks earlier, they had come perilously close to ceasing to exist. A win tonight would clinch a historic tenth league title. The Lilywhites will have come full circle.

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