By Frank Craig
Conor Morrison admits that 2020 was a season that he’d targeted from way out.
The juggle of tying to obtain a college degree and make a dent on the Donegal senior football team had come to an end.
Rory Kavanagh, his St Eunan’s teammate, had previously told him that when the books were finally put away, everything else with Donegal would seamlessly fall into place.
An excellent club championship campaign with the Black and Amber seen him hold Jamie Brennan scoreless from play in O’Donnell Park. And there was also that memorable ding dong tussle with Patrick McBrearty earlier in the campaign shown live on TG4.
There was no doubt that the 24-year-old was revelling in that role as man-marking enforcer for his club. And the expectation was that he’d be given his chance to replicate that form for Donegal whenever the inter-county season got back under way.
The newly qualified mechanical engineer had also just found out he’d secured an undergraduate position with Mercury Engineering in Leixlip, Co. Kildare.
However, just as matters appeared to be coming together both on and off the pitch, fate conspired against him in the most devastating fashion on a August evening in Fintra.
“It’s exactly three months from yesterday (Monday),” he said on the debilitating injuries suffered to his knee in a SFC clash away to Killybegs.
“It was August 16. When I went down, there was a pop and a sort of tear. And you just know. Usually, you get a bang and you think about getting back up. I knew I wasn’t getting back up. There was just that amount of pain.
“But the Donegal medical team were on the ball right away. I’d two missed calls from Cathal Ellis before I even got my phone in my hand.
“Cathal was watching the game on a stream. He was actually at my house waiting for me. Right away he did the various tests like the cruciate one on the table.
“That was the Sunday. Dr. Kevin Moran organised the MRI for the Wednesday. I then travelled to Dublin on the Thursday morning to see Dr Cathal Moran at the Santry Sports Clinic.”
Morrison anticipated bad news and was braced for the confirmation of Donegal physio Cathal Ellis’ earlier prognosis. Still, there would be external complications that would make what was already a very difficult experience that little bit more distressing.
“The damage that the MRI disc revealed was, and Cathal was bang on, that there was cartilage damage, damage to the LCL (lateral collateral ligament).
“Both the LCL and ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) were ruptured, the MCL (medial collateral ligament) and lateral meniscus were both torn. I’d a fracture to my kneecap, a small tear to the bottom of the hamstring…there was a long list of things really.
“I had my first operation on October 23. I was due to get the first operation in September. The standard procedure at the moment, if you’re having surgery, is to have a Covid-19 test two days beforehand.
“On the Monday morning I had a Covid test in Santry. That night, I received a text message saying it had come back positive. I’d absolutely no symptoms. I hadn’t been with the Donegal squad in over a month so there was no worry there.
“But of course I rang Kevin (Moran) just to see what should I do. I came back to Donegal right away and self isolated for the two weeks. My granddad passed away last year so his house was vacant.
“My operation was put back six weeks because of all of that. I finally got a cancellation then for October 23. That procedure was to sort out the meniscus and just get the knee straightened as it was locked at sort of a 45 degree position.”
Morrison’s day now usually consists of a 6am rise to be on site by 7. He departs Leixlip at 4.30pm and goes straight to the gym. He then returns home after 7.30pm that evening. It’s hectic but he says it’s proven to be the perfect distraction.
“There’s rehab now and I’m on the phone to Cathal every second day. I get through that in the DCU gym. If I’m not there I’m sitting with the bands around my knee. I need to work on areas like my glutes, hamstrings and quad muscles. I’m not using my knee so the right quad is half the size of the left one now.
“That’s just deterioration from not using it. But that will come back.”
Before Christmas, he’s due to have more surgery, this time to repair the ruptured ACL. Because of the delays in getting under the knife, Morrison has been told to forget about next season. But he says he’s not ruling anything in or out.
“I’m due to have the ACL repaired in December. Work has been very good to me. I can get back home when ever I want to. I’m able to meet Cathal when I’m home.
“I’m ready now for the next procedure. And the hope is to get that done now in the next few weeks. The surgeon, after the first operation, he ruled out next year. Just the fact that there were two operations, I lost a bit of time because of Covid and that as well.
“But I haven’t ruled it out myself. Everyone progresses differently. I’m obviously not going to rush it but I’ll push as hard as I can and as hard as the likes of Cathal allow.
“With these kind of things, there are targets you have to meet and tests that will show your progress. It’ll take about four months, when the operations are done, to see exactly where you’re at in terms of progress.
“The target I’ve set for myself is July. I’m not ruling myself out just yet.”
That brilliant positivity means you certainly wouldn’t back against him defying those odds. But there were moments at the beginning of this setback that Morrison now admits were very bleak.
“I’m not going to lie. It was a really hard time. The good thing was that I started this job back in September. I’d moved to Dublin and it meant I’d an instant distraction. I’m really busy. There is only so much feeling sorry for yourself that you can do.
“It’s hard watching the games. There is no point saying other wise. I was back last week rehabing in the gym in Convoy as the lads were back out training. That was nice.
“Before the injury, I felt I was in the best shape ever. It was coming together nicely. I’d finally put the books away. That balance with studies and the engineering degree, it was often a struggle.
“But I’d finally got past all of that. I just have to knuckle down now. With the athletics and cross country background, the gym and fitness work is something I’ve no bother getting stuck in to.
“When I’m back out on the field with the likes of Cathal and Paul Fisher, the aim would be to add something different to my play as well and improve on that side of things as well. It’s just about staying positive and using the time to the best of my ability.”