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Dublin: 9 °C Friday 10 July, 2020
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'By the fourth or fifth injury I was thinking was it even worth it and was considering packing it in'

Cork footballer Sean Powter on his injury struggles, a return to football in 2020 and a plan for a career in medicine.

Cork footballer Sean Powter
Cork footballer Sean Powter
Image: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

THAT FIRST NIGHT when the Páirc Uí Chaoimh doors were thrown open and the floodlights illuminated the end product of the stadium revamp, that was when it started.

Sean Powter was coming off the back of a 2017 campaign that had seen him enjoy a meteoric football rise.

He kept up his end of the performance bargain as Cork’s challenge flat-lined in a Munster senior final in Killarney, rampaged through the Mayo defence to crack a goal past that year’s national netminder of choice in a qualifier thriller in Limerick and earned a Young Footballer of the Year nomination for his seasonal endeavours.

The start of November saw attendance at the All-Stars, a county U21 title win with Douglas and departure to Australia for the International Rules series in the one weekend. The 20-year-old was a late call-up to Joe Kernan’s setup and got to experience a couple weeks in a star-studded squad for games in Adelaide and Perth, while with his Dad a native of New South Wales, the trip afforded the chance to meet extended family members.

It was a year that looked set to be a sporting catalyst yet transpired to be a summit that has been difficult to reach since.

Back to January 2018, that first night out and a routine play early in the second half against Tipperary.

“I remember I kicked a ball down the sideline and went off again to take after it and I just heard a click in my hamstring. It wasn’t painful, I tried to get up and go again but then I was like, ‘Okay there’s something wrong here’.

“From there I’ve had four right hamstring tears and two left.”

A long-term tenant on the treatment table.

Playing the waiting game in May is not alien to Powter. The frustration of no matches in early summer. The prolonged uncertainty of when he’ll be back in action.

He started out on the senior road with Cork in 2016, a teenager juggling Leaving Cert exams with a Munster semi-final against Tipperary.

This should be his fifth season, today a blockbuster Munster tie with Cork entertaining Kerry.

Covid-19 has ripped apart the carefully made plans for 2020 but he has grown accustomed to seeing playing schedules dismantled.

sean-powter Sean Powter in action in the 2017 International Rules Series. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There have been enough lost summer days when he was forced into a watching brief from the sideline that it hardens the sense of disappointment now that there are no games on the horizon in a year when he felt fit and refreshed and back enjoying the sport.

Here’s the patient history, hamstrings the root cause of Powter’s troubles.

“The first scan said it was only a six week injury but then that was sent to a specialist and he was like, ‘Yeah you’ve torn your tendon here and it’s more three or four months recovery’.”

He stuck to his recovery diligently, was closing in a comeback when a straightforward sprint yielded a familiar feeling. He knew it was a recurrence, the damage proved less severe but the rehabilitation requirements were the same.

“I was back then in the summer of 2018, we played a challenge games against Roscommon. I kind of felt in the warm up but with all the rehab behind me, I felt it was okay and just a pain getting back playing.

“I played 20 minutes of that, kicked a ball down the sideline and heard it click again. So then we got a scan, exact same thing but to a lesser degree.

“I rehabbed it again and came back for an U21 club game against Kilmurry in championship, went up to catch a ball and the exact same click again.”

There was a realisation that something was amiss at the close of a wretched run that year.

“I went over to London see a few specialists and went to see a surgeon, another physio who had treated Usain Bolt and those kind of athletes, and they all rearranged my programme. Colin (Lane), Brian O’Connell and Aidan Kelleher (all part of Cork’s medical team) all worked together and then I was near enough back fully and then the left hamstring went (in a challenge game against Laois).

“The first time I did it was a novelty, I’d never been injured before. By the fourth or fifth injury I was thinking was it even worth it and was considering packing it in.

“I’d a conversation with my Mom then. With the left hamstring starting, I was thinking was this round two?”

AL6I2815

After the 2018 championship was devoid of action, he got back for a cameo last July in the Super 8s against Tyrone. But the hamstrings needed to be minded and extra work was required to get him right to attack 2020.

“We took it slow this time but a different view of the rehab. The first couple was a case of going at it, building up the conditioning and the strength and the fitness, and then introduce speed. But this time Brian introduced speed from the off when I hit 70-80% and I think that helped me in the long run because most of the time when I did my hamstring it had been when I was sprinting.

“Kevin Smith and Cian O’Neill took me aside and said, ‘Look we’re going to manage you. If you trust us, we’ll get you playing properly. To be fair to them, they did. Coronavirus came at the wrong time for me anyway, I was getting game time under my belt but this situation has hampered that.”

For Cork his absence robbed them of a valuable asset during some turbulent times for the county’s football fortunes. In 2016 he was catapulted into the senior frame when fresh out of minors and just off the back off an U21 journey that had culminated in an All-Ireland final appearance.

Powter played minor hurling for Cork in 2015 alongside those that would help revive the senior team in Mark Coleman, Darragh Fitzgibbon and Shane Kingston. That spring he had contested two Munster schools finals with Rochestown College.

But football would command his interest and he illustrated what he had to offer with a blend of versatility, powerful running and strong ball-carrying as he adapted swiftly to the senior games. Injury stalled that progress.

That helps to explain why the start of 2020 was so personally positive. Nailing down a place in the league against Offaly and remaining a constant presence on the pitch subsequently on Cork’s Division 3 tour that featured Leitrim, Down, Tipperary and Derry.

“Before I was going into training and matches, not even focusing on performance, just hoping I’d get through the game rather than I hope I score two points or keep my man scoreless.

“But this year I kind of felt I was back to where I was a few years ago. The fitness was getting up and I was getting confidence in my football playing matches week in week out.

“It was a new experience. After the first game against Offaly I was lying in bed cramping up but it was kind of a good pain, it wasn’t a tendon tear, it was because I’d got through a game.

“I remember Kevin Smith came over to me after that game and I remember hugging him, just a pure emotional hug because I knew I was there this time. I was 100% confident whereas the other times after playing I wasn’t sure.”

sean-powter-scores-a-goal Sean Powter scores a goal for Cork against Kerry in the McGrath Cup last December. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The mental challenge was the biggest one to tackle during the cycle of two seasons dominated by injury.

“There’s a lot of time spent in your own mind.

“Is this ever going to be right?

“Will I ever get back to the standard of playing inter-county football?

“It is an isolating experience but I think that stood to me here because I know what I need to do and what I need to keep my body right. I think the rehab helped me build up resilience in every aspect of my life.

“The hardest part is when you’re going to training knowing you’re not doing any running, you’re just going straight to the gym and watching the lads play outside. It really is just you and the physio.

“But the likes of Johnny Holland and Brian Hurley, they were super. They were always giving me positive words of wisdom. That it would get right. Just to keep pushing, keep doing the rehab, keep trusting the physios and doctors. That gave me comfort.

“This year we’d felt we were in a better place than the last couple of years. As a team there was just more togetherness, a greater bond. But obviously with the situation, everything is on hold now.”

AL6I2941 Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Still rather than dwelling on a league promotion bid or a championship shutdown, the current climate offers a healthy supply of perspective.

“That’s exactly it. Football is a hobby. You think of people losing their lives and GAA players working on the frontline, that’s what really matters, your health.

“Football gives people a bit of hope and a lift. I think when we get it back, people’s hopes and general spirit will be lifted to see players running out onto a pitch again.

“But it is about the players’ health. If there’s still a concern that people are getting infected and the virus can still spread, I still don’t see how we’ll be allowed play.

“We’re amateurs, we’re going home to our families and some players might be living with older family members who are vulnerable so until a vaccine or something like that comes, I really don’t see how we can go out and play 15 on 15.”

He’s tipping away at some training and keeps in contact with Cork’s medical brains trust to ensure his hamstrings remain in good shape. Collective work is off the agenda with Cork but their fundraising drive ‘Club Together 4 Pieta’ has given them a united focus ahead of next Saturday’s run involving their squad.

Final year exams in neuroscience in UCC kept Powter busy recently as well and there is another academic goal in mind now.

“The plan is to do graduate Medicine entry in UCC or UL next year. Medicine was always in the back of my mind. The plan was to go back and repeat the Leaving Cert but I got called into the Cork seniors while I was doing my Leaving the first year. I didn’t really want to give up playing for Cork to repeat the Leaving Cert. I decided to do an undergrad degree and get into Medicine that way.

“The fact I got injured made me interested in sports medicine and kind of learning around hamstring and kind of stuff. I reckon that’d be the plan to go into that area and specialise.

“Cork would be the preference but that’s based off how well I do in my degree so as long as I get to study medicine, I wouldn’t really mind where I’m located. I still think they’re on track to go ahead but I don’t think anyone really knows what the story is with college or schools next year.

“The study keeps you distracted from everything and your mind ticking over and healthy. Once it’s over, I’d to find a new hobby.

“I bought a guitar so I might be able to learn that, we’ll see!”

Back to playing the waiting game for the summer and see what the autumn brings on and off the pitch.

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Information is available here on the Club Together For Pieta fundraiser and how to support it.

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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