Evan Treacy/INPHO Neil Farrugia pictured at a Shamrock Rovers media event on Thursday.
# Rejuvenated
2 years ago, he was attracting Premier League interest. Now, he just wants to play
Neil Farrugia is back in action after having a torrid time with injuries.

IN 2019, Neil Farrugia was widely considered one of the hottest properties in Irish football.

During Stephen Kenny’s first competitive game in charge of Ireland U21s, a 3-0 defeat of Luxembourg, Farrugia was a standout player.

The former UCD man scored one and set up another for Adam Idah, as the Kenny era got off to a winning start.

Six of the starting XI from that game, as well as one of the substitutes, have since gone on to earn Ireland senior call-ups.

It was an exciting time for Farrugia. Along with fellow UCD graduate Liam Scales, he trained with Man City’s U23 team amid reports of plenty of interest from suitors across the water. Ultimately though, he opted to sign for Shamrock Rovers.

It would be fair to say the youngster hasn’t really kicked on since, though it is persistent injury problems, rather than anything to do with attitude or ability, that primarily explains why his progress has been halted.

Farrugia’s most recent setback came in May when he was forced off after coming on as a substitute late on against Waterford, but manager Stephen Bradley believes the niggling problems are finally behind him after a successful operation in early June.

“Neil has had a difficult time but a really positive one at the same time as we have got to the bottom of his injury, which was causing him real problems,” the Hoops boss explains. “He now had the chance to go and really kick on and get a few games and get into his stride.”

“It was tough,” says Farrugia. “Even before the Waterford game, I was struggling. To go back towards the end of last season, I was struggling with this injury. Pre-season took me a bit of time to get it right, but there was still something that wasn’t right. Then I broke down against Waterford with another tear. In the end, I probably had about five of those tears, only then, we find out I was tearing my tendon and it could get operated on, there was light at the end of the tunnel so to speak.

“So it’s been a very long journey. To be fair, when I had the operation, I didn’t think I’d be back before the end of the season. We sat down, did the plan and it was felt I could be back for the last 10 games. That was a big bonus for me, a motivation to get through the rehab and to be back for the business end of the season.”

Farrugia made his comeback last month and has gradually been getting back to 100% fitness since then, making his first start of the season in last Saturday’s 1-0 win over Longford after a couple of substitute appearances.

He spoke to Kenny about his problems, and the Ireland boss put him in touch with fellow winger Callum O’Dowda, who also has had persistent issues with injury and underwent a similar operation, as did Tottenham star Harry Kane shortly before the 2018 World Cup. 

“Before I’d seen the surgeon I definitely thought, at times, there was no cure for this. It happened so often. To be fair, we worked so hard here, with Tony [McCarthy] over why I was breaking down so much. There were times where I’m thinking this could be my career. And do I want this to be my career?

“When we made contact with the surgeon and went for scans over there, it turned out to be completely different to what we thought it was. In some ways, it’s a good feeling to hear the surgeon saying: ‘Look, we can operate on you, we can make you better.’ That was one of the better feelings I’ve had, even though it meant an operation. Having a solution was good. I went to London, the surgeon [Fares Haddad] did quite a few hamstring surgeries in the UK.

“More specifically, it’s called a t-junction tear. It’s really hard to spot on the scans. It was only when I went over to London they were able to spot it. It’s only come about last four years or so and they’re saying the risk of re-injuring your hamstring with this type of injury is about 50% so it was no surprise I kept breaking down. It was definitely an unusual one.

“[Haddad] did loads of hamstring, different types of tears, Harry Kane was more of a proximal tear. He would have done Callum O’Dowda, that was more of an intramuscular tear. He definitely did t-junctions. He did loads of the Leinster Rugby players as well.”

stephen-bradley-with-neil-farrugia Ryan Byrne / INPHO Rovers head coach Stephen Bradley with Neil Farrugia during the game against Waterford last May. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Farrugia has been dogged by injury throughout his two and a half seasons at Rovers. He even arrived with a hamstring problem in the summer of 2019, meaning he could not make his debut until the following October, and his game time has continued to be somewhat sporadic since then.

“That was actually quite a bad tear. We discussed with the doctor Alan Byrne back then whether to have an operation at that stage.

“We thought no, I’m so young and my healing capacity should be quite good.

“To be fair, we handled it well and though it took a bit of time we got there in the end.

“But it probably left a weakness there which is kind of what the surgeon said. When you have such a big tear there is definitely a bit of weakness there.

“I turned the bottom part of my hamstring where most of the load, most of the energy, was going through, as the top one is probably not as strong, if that makes sense.

“It’s a bit technical, but it was definitely linked. But it should be all good now.

“The surgeon said the top hamstring is good and the bottom is sewn up.”

He continues: “I didn’t think it could be my career finished because at the end of the day our thoughts were that it was just a muscular tear. A career doesn’t end on a muscular tear.

“I did envision a career whereby I would come back for a stint and then break down again.

“Tearing it is sore enough. It’s more so the anticipation of it, knowing you are coming back.

“A big part of the rehab was mental, trying to overcome the fact that I won’t break down again, especially when I got the operation.

“This is not what it was like before. When I was struggling a bit, every training session was: ‘Am I gonna feel my hamstring here? Am I going to tear it again?’

“That was the sort of anticipation that I hated. I’m over that now.

“Coming back from the op is a completely different rehab process than it was when I didn’t have the operation

“It took a bit of time. I was on the pitch passing the ball, getting confidence back into it. But after each training session, it was like: ‘You know what? It’s completely different, I feel much better.’

“Then I was going into training with the focus of playing football, trying to get back onto the pitch in the stadium. A completely different mindset to what it was like before when I was just trying to get through training to make sure I didn’t break down.”

After such a demoralising period, Farrugia is delighted to be back playing. If he can help Rovers beat Finn Harps at Tallaght Stadium this evening to secure the 2021 Premier Division title, it will be a particularly emotional moment for the 22-year-old.

“When you are out for that long, you feel a bit separated from the group like, any injured player would feel the same way. They’re going on and winning games and being successful and you want to be a part of that. There is an injury holding you back, it can be quite sad.

“Having the chance to come back for the last few games and actually be able to contribute in trying to cross that finish line means the world to me because I didn’t think I’d be in this position. I thought I’d just be thinking about next season. Being part of the team again, and being able to play and being able to contribute to winning the title — hopefully — means the world to me.”

While Farrugia has been recovering, others have been making great progress. Scales, who came through the ranks with him at UCD, and joined Rovers not long after he signed, recently earned a move across the water to Celtic after impressing in the Premier Division.

“I’m delighted for Liam because, to be fair, he really deserves it. He’s a top-quality player and I’ve always thought that. I played with him at UCD and with the 21s. I think he’s a great technical centre-back, which is really hard to come by with a left foot as well. And I used to love playing alongside him at Rovers here and in that sense, it was a bit sad to see him go because I thought he’d really complement my game.”

For a long time, it looked as if Farrugia — who has not yet signed a contract for next season — was destined for a career across the water, an ambition that he admits to striving for. Yet the last few years have taught him that fate does not always work out as planned.

“Prior to the injury, my aspirations were to go away and get a good career, maybe outside of Ireland, keep going on, keep trying to progress and not have a ceiling where it’s ‘this is where I’m at, I’m happy here’.

“But once I got the injury, I was like: ‘You know what? I just want to play.’ I was like: ‘Get me on the pitch, I want to play.’

“I hadn’t really had the time to think about where I want to be. I just want to stay at Rovers and try to do more than I have recently. I want to be a real asset to them. And hopefully, on the back of that, I’d like to progress on to higher divisions in the UK. I can only really control my performances and that’s where my focus is at the moment.”

- Originally published at 06.30

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