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Dublin: 3°C Tuesday 13 April 2021

'Ignorance is bliss' - Playing on a torn cruciate for 10 months but missing All-Ireland glory

Kildare captain Grace Clifford casts her mind back to a whirlwind time.

Kildare captain Grace Clifford.
Kildare captain Grace Clifford.
Image: Paul Mohan/SPORTSFILE

GRACE CLIFFORD PLAYED the 2015 All-Ireland final with a torn cruciate.

In fact, the Kildare captain played on it for 10 months without knowing that she had done the dreaded damage.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tests done by physiotherapists are not conclusive and other knee injuries can result in much of the same types of symptoms. The only way to definitely diagnose an ACL tear is through an MRI scan.

As Clifford is well aware of now.

Years on, the memories are just as vivid, the feelings are just as painful and her absence from the Lilywhite’s All-Ireland final win in 2016 is just as heartbreaking.

Unaware of the ins and outs of the back story, it’s put to her: You were there for that 2016 win over Clare in Croke Park but you had done your cruciate?

She laughs a little now when it comes up.

“It was kind of a complicated situation,” Clifford tells The42, more than happy to explain every detail of the story.

“We were in the All-Ireland final in 2015, we lost. I actually done it that summer, that June, but I didn’t know. I was playing on. It was a weird one. My knee was sore, people were saying it wasn’t and I kind of ignored it with playing on…”

Hold up, though. What about the moment it happened? That club match in June 2016?

She remembers that as well as day.

Vividly, she nods. She jumped up for the ball, landed in a hole and knew straight away.

Mayo v Kildare - Mayo v Kildare - TG4 All Ireland Senior Championship - Qualifier 4 'It was real mixed emotions.' Source: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE

“I could hear, and even my marker who I knew from playing county underage was like, ‘I definitely heard a pop.’ I was like, ‘Oh God.’

“I remember ringing the Kildare physio, crying on the way home, going ‘I definitely done my cruciate, 100%.’”

The physio did her utmost to console Clifford over the phone, calm her down and reassure her.

In the following days, she was in for tests and passed them all. There wasn’t a whole pile of swelling so she was sent on her way, fairly confident that it wasn’t just as bad as first anticipated.

It wasn’t the dreaded cruciate after all.

Or, so she thought.

“I just played on, played the All-Ireland final that we lost. Didn’t know,” the 24-year-old says. “People are always like, ‘Fair play’ but when you don’t know… ignorance is bliss.”

Plain and simple: she managed it. Come off in one game, play four. Skip a training here and there, everything was grand. There always was that little bit of doubt in her mind though.

Playing college football with Carlow IT through the winter months, she swore that after the O’Connor Cup weekend she’d seek a further opinion. Peace of mind more than anything else.

“I was like, ‘After this, I’m getting an MRI. This is it.’ I went in to get the MRI, got the results, that was it.”

That was April 2016.

Her biggest fear was confirmed and there was no doubt about it, she had to get the operation.

Grace Clifford dejected Dejected after the 2015 final. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I went to see the surgeon and he was like, ‘Ok, you played on for the last 10 months which is brilliant. You clearly have the strength in your leg but there’s a lot of cartilage damage.’

“There was a little kind of cyst and things like that from the damage that was done from playing on it. He was like, ‘You lasted 10 months, I think it’s best to get it done.’”

She went under the knife the following month.

“The worst year to get it because they won the All-Ireland! I was the fabulous water girl on the sideline there,” Clifford grins. “Did you see me? That was me!”

She’d rather focus on the positives: how she hasn’t had any issues since then, how she was back for pre-season in December and how it’s made her the player — and person — she is today.

But under it all, it’s clear to see that missing that All-Ireland final win, especially after the heartbreak of the previous September, really hurt. Not being on the field as a player when Kildare finally reached the Holy Grail was a bitter pill to swallow.

“It was a real mixed emotion,” she says, the pain still etched all over her face.

“I’ll always say that. Talking about winning the All-Ireland… I have the medal and all because I was still part of the panel, I still went to training but I just was in the gym.

“But I’m always like, ‘When they won’. The girls are like, ‘No, no… you were just as much a part of it. When we won’. It’s always going to be a weird one to look back on, 100%.”

Earlier in our conversation while discussing captaincy duties and the year ahead, Clifford spoke at length about the importance of the panel. She alludes back to that point as she delves deeper into ‘missing out’ on that All-Ireland in 2016.

Kildare celebrate at the final whistle The final whistle of the 2016 decider. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“That’s why I’m really like, ‘Come on, I need to do it’. It’s really hard, and probably hypocritical of me to be going on about people being on a panel and stuff… and me feeling because I wasn’t part of playing that day; just the warming up and stuff like that.

“It’s hard to look back on it in a way, I have mixed emotions towards it.”

What likely made it all the harder was while the Leinster county were on this remarkable run to Croke Park for the second year in-a-row, Clifford had her own rehab work to battle through.

Away from the spotlight, away from the buzz, away from the group. She was slaving away in the gym, working tirelessly to build up the strength in her knee and the muscle around it.

It’s a lonely process. A long old road and an extremely tough time, not just physically, but mentally.

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“I always say that,” she agrees. “People were like, ‘Do you feel like you’re back?’ or, ‘How did you get back?’ But there’s two aspects to come back from it.”

People squirm pitifully when they’re told it’s an ACL injury. That even adds to the mental struggles; those reactions, that sense of pity, the idea that this is it. Game over.

“Like how many players have done it at this point? Nearly every second person has done it. That’s how I have to look at it now: a lot of people do it and they come back better if anything.

“I always say that, you come back physically but with your ACL, it’s mentally.”

Carlow Institute of Technology v Mary Immaculate College Limerick - Giles Cup Semi-Final Lining out with IT Carlow. Source: Matt Browne/SPORTSFILE

Help and advice from others who had done it before was a huge boost for the Eadestown club woman. The amount of people who reached out was something else. From far and wide, the men’s and ladies’ game, from club, college and county. 

“That’s so huge,” she smiles. “Your biggest fear of doing it is, ‘I’m never going to play again’ or ‘I’m never going to be the same player I was before I did it.’

“When you take a step back you go, ‘It could be worse’.  I know a lot of people in way worse situations. A good friend of mine, Jamie Wall… his situation. My boyfriend is from the same village as him so I’d know him very well.

“Situations like that put things into perspective. There’s always a different situation. An ACL, right, you’re out for nine months — not ideal. The year I did it — not ideal. But there’s always another worse story.

“There’s other injuries that are putting people out, and various different things. Everyone has their own different thing and that was mine at the time.”

The return was just like anyone’s who had been sidelined with such a serious injury.

Nervous going out onto the field that first training back, worried about turning with anxious team-mates almost afraid to touch her, but after a few minutes all was normal.

“Then you’re just back into the mode and you forget that it even happened, to be honest.”

There’s been nothing of concern since, thankfully. And long may that continue.

Looking back through the years, Clifford has fond memories of her childhood. She was one of those kids who played everything and anything under the sun, threw her hand at whatever came her way. But strangely not camogie, no.

There was none of that in Eadestown. “It’s literally the smallest place. You drive through it, you blink and you’d miss it. When you’re competing against really big areas in Kildare… it’s so big for us. Massive.”

Mayo v Kildare - Mayo v Kildare - TG4 All Ireland Senior Championship - Qualifier 4 Facing Cora Staunton. Source: SPORTSFILE

And she goes on to share their ladies football success. They won the All-Ireland junior club title in 2006 and won their first county senior crown in 2018 just gone. A feat teenage Grace would have been more than proud of.

“I would have been that really annoying person in PE that no one wanted to be against,” she smirks. “Do you know that meme on Facebook, it’s like, ‘Calm down it’s only PE, it’s not the Olympics.’ I get tagged by people I haven’t seen since school still in that.”

At lunch time in primary school, she played football and soccer — pretty much anything with a ball — with the boys. Other girls didn’t, but she was stuck in the middle of it all. And happy out. 

“My area is such a small place there’s just a football pitch, a church, a hall and a school. Really, if you didn’t play football, you really had nothing else to do with your life. To get out, you played football and you played with anybody.”

That’s being instilled back into the game. The structures at grassroots, the campaigns in schools, the #seriousupport from Lidl. The profile of the game has risen, along with the standards and the interest levels.

Clifford works as a recruitment consultant with Leinster Appointments — it’s a competitive industry, just like football — and she’s asked about ‘what she plays’ constantly.

People who have no interest, people who don’t even know when the men’s All-Ireland final is, know bits and pieces.

It’s great to be a part of it.

That 2016 final comes to mind once again as inclusion comes up.

“You’re always going to wish you were part of it. But obviously you see the team and the girls who won that day,” she adds as her thoughts switch to Aisling Holton. A true ambassador for ladies football and camogie in Kildare.

Aisling Holton lifts the trophy Aisling Holton lifting the cup. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“To see her winning and being the captain, it was just ideal. People say about Johnny Doyle: ‘It was a pity he never won one’. It would have be that if we didn’t win for Aisling Holton, in our eyes. It was a fairy tale ending for her.

“There was herself, Aisling Savage, Mary Hulgraine, Maria Moolick… All these girls who gave their lives to inter-county football so it was so deserving.”

Girls she looked up to? “100%. And then you’re part of the team with them which is unbelievable too. They were definitely so deserving. We just have to take what we learned from them that time and take it in now to where we’re at as a team.”

There’s been a rebuilding process, of course, but Clifford feels that this could be their year. 

She’s taking what she’s learned from them, and using it in her role as captain now.

It all goes in circles.

There’ll be highs, there’ll be lows but that’s all part of it.

She’s overcome enough in the past to battle on through. And enjoy the journey en route.

Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look ahead to Ireland’s Six Nations meeting with Italy and discuss the week’s biggest stories in the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Emma Duffy

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