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Former Ireland U21 captain refusing to succumb to repeated setbacks

Few are more familiar with the road to recovery than Tommie Hoban.

“The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

IT’S PROBABLY SAFE to assume that Thomas Edison didn’t have injury-plagued footballers in mind when those words were uttered.

Nonetheless, it’s the kind of mantra that Tommie Hoban has been forced to latch onto as he strives to ensure that his professional career remains a going concern.

soccer-fa-cup-third-round-chelsea-v-watford-stamford-bridge Watford's Tommie Hoban tangling with Diego Costa of Chelsea during an FA Cup tie in January 2015. Source: Adam Davy

With the end of another journey on the road to recovery in sight, Hoban speaks to The42 over the phone while taking a train to a London clinic. There, he has been rehabilitating at his own expense since being released by Watford at the end of last season.

“There’s a lot more riding on it this time,” he says of the battle to overcome his latest setback. “There’s also the feeling of being in almost constant pain for so long. That really grates on the brain and forces you to ask yourself how many more times you can go through this – is it going to happen again?”

Just a few months removed from his 17th birthday, the future looked bright for Hoban when he made his professional debut for Watford in the Championship. However, the centre-back’s career at club level has since amounted to just 83 games. He turned 26 last month.

It’s almost a year to the day since Hoban – brimming with optimism after accumulating a run of games for the first time since 2016 – made his sixth consecutive appearance during a loan spell with Aberdeen.

Just before half-time in a Scottish Premiership fixture against St Mirren, he caught his studs in the Pittodrie turf and his knee gave out. A couple of days passed before the injury could be officially diagnosed, but Hoban didn’t need medical experts to confirm what he already knew. The snap of an anterior cruciate ligament was a familiar sensation.

On the eve of a new Premier League season with Watford, he ruptured the ACL in his other knee in the summer of 2017. Before that, he was hindered significantly by a complicated pelvic issue. Shoulder and ankle problems also condemned him to extended periods on the sidelines. A separate shoulder injury stymied the early stages of his spell at Aberdeen too.

The repeated setbacks have impeded the career of a player who was described as “an unbelievable talent” by Gianfranco Zola during his tenure as Watford manager.

Amid reports that he was generating interest from the likes of Liverpool and Manchester United at the age of 18, Watford tied Hoban to a five-year contract which was later extended for two further seasons. 

At international level, the London-born defender pledged his allegiance to the country from where his mother (Dublin) and paternal grandparents (Limerick and Westport) hail.

He captained an Ireland U21 side that included future senior internationals like Jack Byrne, Callum O’Dowda, Sean Maguire, Alan Browne, Josh Cullen and Darragh Lenihan.

Martin O’Neill monitored his progress with a view to a graduation to the senior ranks, but injuries ultimately prevented that interest from developing further.

Having been out of action since February 2019, Hoban is on the cusp of a return. His most recent injury required a second bout of surgery in October, but he’s now days away from being ready to put his body to the test again. Although there are unlikely to be any contract offers until he proves his fitness, several clubs have offered him the opportunity to do so.

thomas-hoban-with-uros-durdevic Hoban wins a header during an U21 European Championship qualifier against Serbia. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“I don’t have a contract this time so it’s important that I’m 100% ready,” says Hoban, whose 10-year spell on the books at Watford was brought to an end last June. “I can’t risk any sort of setback. There’s no club to support me if that does happen. It’s a risk I can’t afford.”

Hoban tackled the recovery from his previous injuries in a team environment, aided daily by the expertise of on-site medical staff and encouragement from fellow players. This time it has been a solo project.

“It’s been a hell of a lot harder than I even imagined it would be,” he says. “I kind of expected to be supported a lot more than I have been by Watford. As a club they haven’t really been great, which is obviously disappointing. But that’s how it is in football. 

“I have to look after myself and put in the hours in the gym on my own. There have been tough times along the way, especially back when I had that second operation. 

“I was wondering if it was ever going to get better because by that stage I should have been pretty close to training, but I was in a lot of pain. Thankfully the surgeon was able to go back in and tidy up a few things that weren’t quite right. Since then it’s been feeling a lot better.”

Asked to elaborate on his grievances with Watford, Hoban says: “There were individuals at the club who did offer support, a couple of physios that I’d known who had helped me at times, and for a period I was going into the club. 

“Without getting into too much detail, I hoped that I’d receive a bit more support than I have from the club. That’s just the way football works. Once you’re not there anymore you need to move on.

“Thankfully there are people who have supported me, giving me help and a bit of structure with the rehab. I’ve seen people privately myself and the main thing is that I’m feeling good now.

“There have been a lot of long days in the gym, just sort of grinding out on my own. I’ve just kept the end-goal in sight throughout it all. Now that I’m finally nearly there I’m feeling positive.”

While his injury problems have caused Hoban to give tentative consideration to a different career, his misfortune has yet to convince him that it’s time to raise the white flag. As long as football is an option, he’ll do everything he can to pursue it.

“If I look too much into other possibilities, I don’t want to start getting doubts in my head,” he says. “I want to avoid putting too much focus on that and taking it away from what I really want to do, which is getting back to the highest level I can in football.

“That remains my main focus, but I have thought about stuff outside of football for when it does eventually come to an end. That definitely isn’t now. Football is still my main goal.” 

During the many difficult days he has endured over the last 12 months, Hoban has been fuelled by his determination to provide for his family. Next month, his partner is due to give birth to their second child, a little sister for his 18-month-old son Finley. 

“Every injury has been really tough. When I was younger I was on quite a long contract so I always had time on my side to recover. But then that contract ran down and the injuries kept coming. 

nottingham-forest-v-blackburn-rovers-sky-bet-championship-city-ground Celebrating after scoring the winner against Nottingham Forest during a loan spell at Blackburn Rovers. Source: Nigel French

“The pressure is always building but this time it’s a different kind of pressure. You’re not earning and you’ve got a family to take care of, which are things you didn’t have to think about before.

“The negative thoughts can tend to spiral but I’m lucky to have a good family around me. My missus has been unbelievable in supporting me. There have definitely been days when I thought about packing it all in but she keeps me positive. The parents as well have been fantastic. 

“I try and stay as positive as I can because there are far worse situations that I could be in. Football is important, but with the family I have I know I have so much to be thankful for.

“I’m still as confident as I’ve ever been in my own ability. Hopefully if I can get a bit of luck, get a run of games and get the body going again, I can work my way back up and get back to where I was before and hopefully even higher. I’m just really excited to get back playing at any sort of level – even if it’s just a game in the park!”

Should the situation not play out in Hoban’s favour, it certainly won’t be for a lack of effort. 

Success isn’t a certainty, but he’s ready for one more try.

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About the author:

Paul Dollery

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