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Shane O'Donnell: 'I had accepted I wasn't ever going to hurl again. I was at peace with it'

The Clare star has enjoyed a fine run of form in a new role this season after enduring an extremely difficult 2021.

Shane O'Donnell after Clare's Munster final defeat to Limerick.
Shane O'Donnell after Clare's Munster final defeat to Limerick.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated Jun 13th 2022, 9:35 PM

FROM THINKING HE would never hurl again to being reignited at wing-forward in a high-flying Clare team, it’s been quite the year for Shane O’Donnell. 

Last Friday, a photo memory popped up on his phone that reminded him of the difficult situation he found himself in 12 months ago. 

‘Oh God, that’s a memory I could do without,’ he said to himself.

However, it served to remind the sharpshooter how far he’s come. 

In June 2021, he shipped a heavy blow at Clare training that left him with a serious concussion. It ruled him out for the championship. The effects of the concussion took a severe toll on his day-to-day life. 

“It was very difficult,” he says. “Hurling was just not to the forefront of my mind.

“There were six or seven weeks where my brain was not functioning. I could not process anything. Going from having a normal function where you go through your day and expect things to work.

“And you go from that to having an extended period of time, the guts of two months, where suddenly you can’t process thoughts, your brain isn’t working well, you’re having all these extreme symptoms, pressure in your head. It was an extremely difficult time.

“Also psychologically, it’s hard to know when that’s going to end. And if it’s going to end, because the nature of concussion. It isn’t just that you start with really bad symptoms at the start and it gradually gets better. It comes at you round after round. And it feels like you’re never going to get to the end of it, being honest.”

Such was the impact of the injury to his brain, he thought his hurling days were behind him. 

“Absolutely, hurling was gone. Once I had fully come to terms with what happened a few days after and I was feeling the full brunt of the symptoms, I’d accepted that I wasn’t ever going to hurl again.

“I’d fully accepted that, it wasn’t an issue. I just thought that I’m never putting myself through this again. And if I’ve to give up hurling then that’s a small price to pay.

“It was a really weird experience. Until I fully got back on the pitch 10 or 11 weeks later, and I took a lot of convincing to go back onto the pitch, I’d kind of accepted that I wasn’t allowed play again. I was fully at peace with that to be honest.”

pwc-gaagpa-player-of-the-month-and-pwc-gpa-womens-player-of-the-month-awards Shane O’Donnell with his PwC GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May in hurling. Source: Sam Barnes/SPORTSFILE

O’Donnell returned to action with his club. After making his first start in the Clare SHC, he took another blow to the head and was forced off the field. Some symptoms returned for a brief period. 

He sat out the remainder of the club championship. Ultimately, he had to convince himself that mentally and physically he could make it back.

“I took a couple of hits, and I just wasn’t confident enough that the hits I was taking, I was able to ride through them. They psychologically set me back. So ultimately, I ended up waiting until March this year to get the all clear again from the specialist.

“He told me, ‘Physically, you’re fine. But I think you still have psychological (hang-ups), you’re concerned about it basically…the best way to handle the anxiety like this is exposure. The best thing you can do is get back on the pitch’.”

After opting out of the Clare set-up for the start of 2022, O’Donnell felt ready to make his comeback in March. He broached the issue with Brian Lohan. The response was positive. 

“They were very very open to that, and I was delighted to get back on the pitch. It’s been an absolute tonic to be back, being able to just train, and it’s got me through that difficult head space. It’s been a joy to be back. But’s it’s not been pleasant, the last 12 months to be honest. 

“I am really enjoying it. A lot of it was I came back with the attitude that you don’t know when it’s going to end. I’m just going to take it a year at a time.”

“That gives you a level of freedom but also it puts it all in perspective. What is the worst thing that can happen? If we lose a game yeah that’s devastating and last week was the most disappointed I’ve been in a long time when it comes to a game, but at the same time I’d rather lose 10 Munster finals like that in a row rather than have year I’ve had over the last 12 months. So it really does put that in perspective.”

A switch to wing-forward has transformed O’Donnell. After years ploughing a lone furrow in the Clare attack where he was often double-marked, the middle third allows him get his hands on more possession than he’s been used to. 

“I do enjoy it a lot,” he says of his new role. “It definitely gives you more freedom to actually impact the game when you’re not getting delivered ball directly.

shane-odonnell O'Donnell is enjoying his new role on the wing. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“In the corner you kind of need to be fed the ball a lot of the time and wing-forward is completely different. You can just keep working, even get in the way of the opposition by tracking back.

“You’re doing whatever needs to be done but you can actually influence the game without needing to be directly involved in it by another team-mate. I really enjoy that. There’s also the element of not being as tightly marked.

“Depending on the team you’re playing, sometimes you can have more or less freedom. It gets you onto the ball, makes you feel like you’re actually involved in a game more, definitely.

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“There’s pros and cons. I always loved playing in the corner. When things are going well in the corner there’s no better position and I still believe that. But wing-forward at the moment I’m really enjoying.”

In addition, he feels he’s benefited from the extra time he could spend in the gym while he was sidelined last year. 

“It’s definitely a silver lining that I got to spend a bit more time in the gym but even in the last couple of years, I’ve been extending my off-season a small bit and trying to get to put more time into the gym before I come back in for pre-season.

“But yeah, last year was an extreme example, when I went back in March, all of a sudden I had six plus months of being able to go to the gym. Half of that is being in the gym and half it is not being on the pitch, burning the work that you’re doing in the gym.

“I definitely feel like I’ve put on a bit of weight and feel like it’s helping too. The games are extremely physical in Munster and having that extra couple of kilos has done no harm – you’re able to get involved in things that maybe you wouldn’t have had the impact without it.”

Clare’s Munster final defeat to Limerick after extra-time was a difficult pill to swallow, but they must refocus quickly with Wexford looming in this weekend’s All-Ireland quarter-final.

“It definitely took a few days, probably more psychologically than physically, given the results wasn’t obviously what we wanted. It took guts of a week to refocus and being able to get over that match.

shane-odonnell-arrives O'Donnell before the Munster final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“But the team helps a lot, getting back in with the team within a couple of days. Even if you don’t focus in the first couple of days after, at least you kind of share your experiences, chat to the lads, all that helps with being able to get over it.

“Psychologically it takes a lot out of you, and it’s difficult. But I think the team aspect of it definitely helps.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” he says of Saturday’s clash. “We know they’re going to bring absolutely everything.

“They beat us in the league earlier this year. We’re very familiar with each other and it’s going to be a huge game. They’re motoring well at the moment and I’m sure they’re always confident. They’ve every right to be. So it’s a massive prize, a huge game in the semi-final against Kilkenny is the prize.”

About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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