By Frank Craig
Paddy McGrath has targeted Donegal’s massive Ulster SFC opener against Tyrone for his return to county colours.
The Ardara man is approaching the midpoint of his rehabilitation programme having suffered a tear to his left anterior cruciate ligament in last August’s Super 8s loss to Mayo in Castlebar.
The player had already come through a rehab process of sorts in relation to a cruciate injury. He previously damaged his posterior cruciate ligament back in 2017, but was able to return to action without surgery.
That recovery involved building up the muscle in the areas around the knee to offer stability to the afflicted ligament. The lay off, six months, was much shorter then.
He was magnificent right through the 2019 season and rightly picked up an Ulster All-Star.
By his own admission, he’s a bad patient. Patience also isn’t a virtue when it came to that initial idle period immediately post surgery.
He explains: “At the start, it can be frustrating. Just the wee things; they might look or sound simple but it’s really hard work getting through that initial part of the rehab.
“But once you get there it’s really encouraging. You’re off the mark then.”
Second time out, McGrath says the procedure – performed by Dr. Ray Moran in Santry – meant a much different kind of rehab programme to the one he’d previously gone through when he’d first encountered a problem with the knee.
“I’d a brace on my leg the first time,” he said. “It was uncomfortable – especially in bed at night with sleeping. But it was manageable. This time out, post surgery, I was on crutches and not able to walk.
“It was a difficult enough process getting off the crutches and trusting the knee, putting weight on it. There is a fair degree of pain. But the physios are persistent, they really push you.
“The crucial thing, the thing they don’t want to see happen, is muscle loss. That was the big aim, to retain the muscle I’d built up in the leg.”
As well as having to contend with Donegal’s All-Ireland elimination in McHale Park last August, McGrath and the Donegal medical team’s worst fears were confirmed a few days later when an MRI revealed the exact extent of the damage sustained.
But the fingers were out more or less right away as he totted up the nine month rehab stint and immediately centred on a potential return date.
“Right away, I wanted to get the operation done as soon as possible. I didn’t want to be wasting time. I picked up the injury last August. It wasn’t until the month after, the start of September, that I had the operation.
“I’d to wait for the swelling to go down and get some movement in the knee before I had the procedure. That was one of the most frustrating parts.
“It was the Patellar tendon at the front of the knee, that’s where they took the graft from. I was happy with that as I didn’t want them interfering with my hamstrings!
“Funnily enough, that was where the most pain was coming from after, where they’d taken the graft from. But it’s all moving in the right direction now. Even since Christmas, I’ve noticed a big change.
“I’ve been concentrating on the stationary bike and the gym work. You’re conscious of your fitness and you don’t want to be playing too much catch up there. That wasn’t the easiest thing over Christmas!”
The big question, the one we all want to know, is when he’ll be back. We’ve seen before with the likes of Patrick McBrearty, it’s a delicate process. Nine months, McGrath says is a “ballpark figure”.
There can be set backs. Some grafts can take a little longer to knit and settle. It’s a battle. It can be a lonely one with early mornings and late nights spent in the gym.
McGrath’s recuperation has been broken down into three periods of three months. And the news following that first consolation in Santry before Christmas was very positive.
He doesn’t manoeuvre around the question regarding Tyrone, MacCumhaill Park and May 17. He’s forthright and brilliantly blunt.
“Listen, that’s what I’ll be aiming for. Why not? I want to be back as early as possible and back for championship. It is a nine month process. The graft needs to mature and take. I have to be aware of all of that.
“The next test in Santry will give me a much better picture of my progress. I’ll know if Tyrone and May 17 is a realistic target after that. I’ll just have to see how it goes.”
To play intercounty football at the highest level now you sacrifice so much. McGrath admits that his family, and especially his wife Stephanie, continue to facilitate those demands.
“It’s serious support that’s needed. You wouldn’t be fit to commit to it if you didn’t have a wife or partner that was willing to commit to it as well. It really is a family thing. People don’t maybe see that or understand.
“The other lads would understand, they’re in the same boat. You’re away all the time. With the rehab, it can be very intensive, particularity early on. We’ve just had another baby girl. That’s two now. It’s busy times but brilliant times as well.”
Rewinding back to Donegal’s Super 8s exit, there is no doubt that matters had begun to conspire against Declan Bonner’s men long before throw in against Mayo.
Eoghan Ban Gallagher’s season had come to an abrupt end a number of weeks prior. And while it was kept under wraps in the lead up, others too were struggling.
Neil McGee missed out while Jason McGee was also one of those in trouble beforehand. He was a first-half departure in Castlebar while the rug was subsequently pulled on McGrath’s season around the midpoint of the second period.
“It was a disappointing end,” the 2012 All-Ireland winner reflects. “We didn’t have a good day in Castlebar. A few things just didn’t go our way. Other things like Eoghan Ban breaking his ankle were a blow. Wee things that we needed to go for us didn’t. But I’m very hopeful on the coming season.
“We are really determined to push on and improve again. We have Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster championship. That is absolutely massive. We’re back up in Division 1. That will reveal a little more about us.
“We’d a good run out in the McKenna Cup. It was disappointing how that ended but it really couldn’t be helped. But it’s all geared towards Mayo now on January 25.
“It’s a Saturday night, it’s under lights at MacCumhaill Park. Division 1 is where the best sides play. There is so much to look forward to now over the next few months. The less experienced lads will get a real feel for league football at that level.
“It’s important too that we get off to a good start. We’re at home and you want to be wining your home games. Mayo will bring a big crowd and there’ll be plenty of interest in it.”