Coleman’s leg was horrifically broken by Wales’ Taylor RYAN BYRNE/REX FEATURES
Published 28/03/17, The Times
The shock will have subsided; the warm blanket of morphine will now be beginning to fade. The reality of that surreal and traumatic event will now be clear to Seamus Coleman, whose long journey back to professional football now begins.
I, like most, winced and drew breath when I saw Coleman’s broken leg flailing in the air after the brutal impact of Neil Taylor’s tackle on Friday evening. Having suffered the same injury myself, while playing for Chesterfield, in November 2009, I felt a shudder go through me knowing just what lies ahead.
The memory of that moment, when I lost a year of my career, is clear: the sound; my leg’s unnatural angle; the rush of disrupted nerves; the look on the faces of team-mates before they turned away in horror. Then, the realisation that life was going to be very different, just as focus began to fade.
It remains that way for the first 48 hours which, given the nature of the operation, is just as well. On Saturday Coleman’s leg will have been cut open at the knee, a titanium tibial nail inserted down the centre of his realigned shinbone, holes drilled in his ankle, and below his knee, and screws inserted and tightened to hold it all in place.
When I awoke, in a blur, my leg appeared twice the size that it had been before. But the first of many tests of mental fortitude was not far away.
Believe it or not, the Irishman will already have been asked to get out of his hospital bed to stand on his own two feet. Perhaps, after asking if that was a joke, as I did, he will have heard that his leg is “going nowhere”, that it is now “stronger than before” — words he will get used to hearing but which do little to detract from the incomprehensible thought of putting weight through a broken leg.
It stimulates the fracture site, you are told, circulates blood and encourages the bone to knit and repair. I nearly passed out. Sleepless nights and the throbbing pain fill those first few weeks, spent almost entirely in bed but for much-dreaded trips to the bathroom. During each visit, I would pause in front of the mirror, crutches under my arms, and steel myself to put weight through the leg, before collapsing in a sweaty mess until the next time.
In those early days you are given simple exercises in an attempt to maintain some semblance of definition in your leg — single leg raises while lying on your back, and hours with pads of the electronic muscle stimulator attached to your leg leave you in a similar state of breathlessness. Never does playing football, the fitness and fluidity of movement that is so taken for granted by players, seem so distant — unimaginable, almost.
When, eventually, you can begin your rehab programme in the gym, the resistance exercises, maintaining fitness on the bike and in the swimming pool, is monotonous, but unavoidable. Monthly X-rays gradually show the cloudy calcifications beginning to cover the clean, sharp image of the fracture.
If there is any positive to be taken, it is the realisation of just how fortunate you are to be a professional footballer. You hear your team-mates moan about a hard day’s training, as you may once have done, but would give anything to be out there on the grass kicking around a ball for a living.
Being injured can detach you somewhat but my first day out on the grass, after around seven months, demonstrated my team-mates’ appreciation of the toil it had taken to get there. As I jogged around the training pitches they gave me a round of applause. But, in football, rarely is an act of kindness without a swift return to cutting humour. As I ran on, with an understandable limp in my stride, one player began to sing the circus theme song. Laughter erupted, of course.
However that is one of many milestones in the recovery — the day you say goodbye to your crutches, the first one-legged squat, running, jumping — but nothing compares with the first time that you kick a ball.
It is a journey filled with pain, fears, false starts, and countless hurdles to overcome in your mind. The greatest test of all is the moment you put your leg into a tackle, when instinct and adrenaline collide. The physios and strength-and-conditioning coaches support you every step of the way, become best friends, but you are on your own in that defining moment.
Coleman will return. The sweat and toil will have been worth it when he steps back on to that pitch.