By Frank Craig
Kieran Gillespie hopes that a prolonged rehab stint over the course of the last year and a bit will mean he’s finally ready to put his injury woes behind him.
The Gaoth Dobhair man has endured a cruel run of luck over the past number of years that has robbed both club and county of a player of real quality.
Gillespie last tasted competitive action back in October of 2019 as then county champions Gaoth Dobhair were held to a draw by Naomh Conaill in the first of those three titanic tussles.
He’d only just returned to the ranks following a long lay-off. The season before, he’d suffered a cruciate ligament tear during his side’s Ulster club clash with Erin’s Own.
Cruelly, a similar issue – in the same knee – would again take him out of the action. In the past there was also hip issues that required two corrective procedures.
At just 24 years of age, he doesn’t turn 25 until July, the time is still there to go on and make a real mark – particularity for Donegal. His last appearance for his county came in that Qualifier drubbing at the hands of Galway, in Markievicz Park, back in 2017.
There were whispered reports last term that he was closing in on a return. With the Covid-hit Championship delayed until November, the timing appeared right.
And while the GAA did finally gave us a season of sorts, Gillespie explains that a conscious decision was taken to extend his period of recuperation.
That extra respite, he hopes, building and honing his entire body, can make the ultimate difference during this latest comeback.
A strength and fitness coach by trade, a reset button was pressed by the player and a meticulous rehab plan has been followed to absolute instruction. Gillespie says he feels good and is excited to road-test all of that work when the chance finally comes.
“It has (been tough),” he told the Donegal News. “At the same time, I’ve been very fortunate to have the likes of Cathal (Ellis) to help me through it. The start of it, it is very frustrating as you’re trying to work through it, that initial range of motion.
“That drags a little. But once you get back on the pitch you begin to make progress and the time starts moving much quicker.
“The Glenties game…I’d actually played a few times before that. I came off the bench against St Eunan’s (semi-final). Everything felt fine.
“I remember trying to put in a tackle on one of the Naomh Conaill lads. I came in from the side. Whatever way we collided, it was the cruciate again and it was the same knee.”
He added: “I’d love to get back into it as soon as possible now. But things are a little up in the air regarding training and Covid. My last game at that level was 2017.
“I think that was my downfall last year. I came back flying fit but my actual ball skills and game awareness wasn’t on point.
“I feel I’m ready physically but I still think it’ll take a wee while to get into it on the pitch. But it’s something I’m really looking forward to, getting out on the pitch and getting comfortable with the ball and the action once again.
“That’s the part I’m looking forward to – playing football. Running around like a mad man just trying to get fit, you can only take so much of that!”
The form is good now, but such a consecutive run of disappointments meant that there were dark days when those setbacks threatened to get on top of him. But, he says, there was no use in feeling sorry for himself or, as he puts it, “moping about”.
Friends, family and teammates were there and he also took on more responsibility with his club in terms of training and having an input on the line. It was a distraction and a motivating factor at the same time.
“You just have to keep the head up. Losing the county final that year, even missing out on the Ulster club run; it was tough to take.
“Again, you can’t dwell on it too long. You have to pick yourself up and go again. One you get through each phase, start seeing results, you soon feel that momentum.
“It’s that first three-month period, where you’re pushing that range of motion and maybe only applying body weight, that’s the difficult time.
“Once you get back in the gym, or can get jogging again, that’s when the head lifts and you really start to push yourself on.”
The delayed 2020 GAA season meant the scheduled end point in his rehab, that crucial nine-month mark, did intersect with the re-jigged playing calender.
But after some discussion with the likes of Cathal Ellis and the rest of the Donegal medical team it was decided to bypass the year entirely, and train his complete focus on 2021.
“I’d worked myself into a really good position,” he said. “Yeah, I could have but again, it would have been taking a chance. The extra time, just working on strengthening and pushing myself, it was decided to use it to continue building everything back up.
“I think it was nine months on the dot the last time I came back. Pushing the way I did, I could have maybe come back this year. The work was under the belt.
“In the long run, I really didn’t see it being worth it. I looked at the bigger picture. We were always hoping and looking for a quick return in 2021. And that’s what we decided to aim for.”
At this moment in time, a real level of uncertainty continues to hover over the new season. Covid numbers haven’t regressed and the organisation faces into another campaign shadowed by serious concerns.
For Gillespie, he still retains plenty of hope that we’ll get back down to action sooner rather than later.
He’s waited this long, and he’s prepared to wait a little while longer if he has to.
“Covid, in a way, probably did mean there has been more time for me to work on my recovery. The S&C, I’d the time to do that twice a day sometimes If I felt it was needed.
“When it came to the gym work, there was also that little bit more time to get in and get the work done. There were pluses and at times there were negatives as well.
“With the lockdowns, I couldn’t see Cathal face to face like I had done. I’d been meeting him up to three times a week sometimes. Zoom is one thing, but for physio it takes a little bit more getting used to.”
To occupy some of that extra time and to even plug into the energy that being around a sports team provides, Gillespie took on the responsibility of helping to train the Gaoth Dobhair senior side.
At such a young age, it can be difficult to suddenly start attempting to give direction and orders to your teammates – especially ones much older than him and with some of the biggest medals out there in their back pockets.
But by being assertive and taking that bull by the horns, he believes it’ll be a much easier transition in the future if he does decide to tread a path into management or coaching.
“Yeah – it can be a little daunting,” he explained. “But at the same time it was great to be involved. Instead of just landing to watch games or going along to training to lean in over the fence, it was just brilliant to be involved in the middle of it.
“It’s a different kind of involvement but it was really enjoyable being there and involved with all the lads. At the beginning, it can be strange (giving instructions) to lads you know really well.
“But as you go, you get more confidence and you grow into it. It builds confidence too and you soon get more vocal as the weeks go on. In the long run, I think it will definitely help me be more vocal, even with the sides I’m playing on.
“Even with my own line of work, in the gym, it’ll stand to me. And down the line I’ll be much more comfortable right away if I do decide to ever help out with a team.”
When the action finally got under way in November last term, expectation of Donegal grew to the point where an All-Ireland semi-final shot at Dublin was viewed as a forgone conclusion in most quarters going into the Ulster final.
Cavan’s ambush denied Declan Bonner’s men that opportunity. With the benefit of hindsight, there is no doubt Donegal missed some big hitters that evening at the back.
For a variety of reasons the likes of Gillespie, Paddy McGrath, Stephen McMenamin, Odhran McFadden Ferry and Conor Morrison weren’t available for selection.
That cluster bring a certain skills set to the table. It’s unlikely we’ll see Morrison in 2021 in action for Donegal and with McFadden Ferry in the Lebanon with the Defence Forces, his involvement remains uncertain.
But if the remainder of the above list are there, there is no doubt Donegal will offer much more resistance in defence.
“It’s never nice looking on at a game you could have been involved in or helped out with. We’d still a good team on the field. But it’ll be great if there is that extra competition this year.
“No one expects to walk into a team. But it would be a big help to have the options. I still think we’re a young squad. If that experience last year, and it was a really hard one, but if it can be used as motivation this time out then we’ll be all the better for it.”
The trek around Errigal and on into Convoy isn’t anything new. And while it’s been a laborious enough journey in the past, Gillespie says he’s looking forward to it this term for a number of reasons.
Odhrán MacNiallais will make it once again and that, he says, is a huge development. Neil McGee – at 35 – is still prepared to make it and Gillespie says his veteran clubmate is the example for everyone else when it comes to the green and gold of Tir Chonaill.
“Convoy, with the old prefabs was never that enjoyable. You dreaded getting into the car if it was a bad night. But the facility there now means I’m really looking forward to getting out there and seeing a little bit more of it up close.
“It’s also great to have Odhrán back. I was delighted to hear that. Neil, what more can you say about him. He’s a Donegal legend. He’s been through it all.
“And I’m really glad he’ll be there again when we get back. “He’s someone you can only learn off. He puts in the work every single night. That’s why he’s still such a competitor and performer.
“He didn’t miss a beat last year. And the way the season has been planned out it’ll suit him down to the ground once again.”