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McNamee hoping to defy odds once more

Offaly ace's Faithful departure can wait

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IN WITH A SHOUT: Offaly and Rhode legend Niall McNamee is hopeful of playing his part for his county later this year. Pic: Sportsfile

IN WITH A SHOUT: Offaly and Rhode legend Niall McNamee is hopeful of playing his part for his county later this year. Pic: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

IN WITH A SHOUT: Offaly and Rhode legend Niall McNamee is hopeful of playing his part for his county later this year. Pic: Sportsfile

Niall McNamee is no stranger to life's travails but his latest challenge, the prolonged recovery from a particularly nasty concussion, has tested the Offaly veteran like few others.

"If somebody came into a dressing-room years ago and said that they couldn't train with concussion, they would have laughed them out of the dressing-room and said, 'You're grand'," he says.

"It was a tough few months, I'll be honest with you. Even at the minute I'm still not 100 per cent; it's coming and going every now and again."

Eight-and-a-half years ago, McNamee faced down his gambling demons and emerged triumphant.

Almost eight-and-a-half months ago, the Rhode talisman suffered a head injury in the Offaly SFC semi-final against Clara that left him badly shaken, on the day and long beyond.

But this is another battle he plans on winning … all going well, he hopes to feature for club and county in 2020. That will depend on continuing progress in the nation's collective war on Covid-19. It will also be determined by McNamee's physical well-being.

On March 5, the 34-year-old took his first tentative steps backs into county football with a cameo appearance against Limerick in the Faithful Fields. "The week leading into the challenge game against Limerick, I was feeling fairly good and I came on in that game and felt alright," he recalls.

A week later came GAA lockdown, and by that stage he was "back to square one - I didn't feel good at all again. It's very much trial and error."

In a virus-free world, in a normal summer, Offaly already would have faced Carlow and, victory permitting, Kildare. In the absence of high-octane collective training, McNamee cannot be sure if he would have been ready.

The extended break has been "good in one sense", offering a window to "get myself back at my own pace. But I haven't really a deadline to try and push myself towards … it will be interesting now, once the training does start back up," he ventures.

"I'd still be a little bit cautious in terms of getting impact, so we'll just have to see how it pans out. But all going to plan, hopefully, if there's any ball this year, please God by the end of the year we should be raring to go."

McNamee's enthusiasm for football is all the more refreshing when you consider he made his SFC debut half a lifetime ago. It came against Laois in May 2003; he was 17, counting down the days to his Leaving Cert.

This precocious talent would prove a spectacularly prolific one in the years that followed. He has amassed ten Offaly SFC medals with Rhode, and was chasing another in late September when he shipped "a bad auld bang" in a fractious semi-final.

Local media reports implicated Clara as chief instigators in an "unsavoury" first half marked by three red cards - one for Rhode which was later rescinded. Both McNamee and teammate Brian Darby were forced to retire with head injuries.

At this remove, McNamee doesn't want to reopen old wounds about what happened. "To be honest, I don't really want to talk about it," he says.

Over the years, he had suffered "maybe four or five" concussions but never symptoms in the aftermath. This one was different.

"I was a bit disorientated for a few hours after it, but then I got a very bad headache that night and went into hospital then, just as a precaution," he recounts. "For the next couple of weeks then I had very, very bad headaches. And emotions were a little bit all over the place. You could be happy one second and then, all of a sudden, you'd be very, very low."

Hospital pamphlets had offered some forewarning. "About three or four days after it, I was at home sitting on the couch, and Laura was there with me and I just started crying. And I looked at her and went, 'What in the name of God?' because nothing's wrong.

"I just couldn't stop. And she just went, 'That's exactly what they said to you is going to happen in the hospital.' It's not emotionally based. It's just that's how you feel … it's difficult to describe but you just feel really, really heavy."

A fortnight after that fraught semi-final, Rhode were back in another county final, chasing four-in-a-row. The medics advised against playing; management "weren't going to play me at all" … but after Ferbane came from five down to surge clear in the home straight, "I more or less said, 'Look, bring me on!' I kind of took the decision out of their hands."

McNamee came on after 49 minutes. "Probably the wrong thing to do," he accepts. "But it was off my own bat." That remains his last competitive outing.

"Some days you'd be a little bit more fatigued than others," he explains. "Some days then you get headaches and feel a little bit disorientated. Just lacking a bit of energy. Yeah, in the earlier stages that was very much the case. At the minute it's not as bad."

Compounding his initial frustration, all the scans "showed up clear". The medical experts urged patience: time, however long it takes, was the only healer.

Away from football, life went on. He and Laura got engaged before Christmas - they plan to marry next year. He didn't resume any training until the third week of January. Even then it was a case of cautious steps.

Warming up at Offaly's Kilcormac base, he would find the lights "really bright". During training itself, his timing was "way off" - missing his mark in handpassing drills, second-guessing himself.

He likens it to your vision "skipping a frame every now and again. So, you might see a ball coming and you think it's going to be somewhere, but actually it ends up not being where you thought it was going to be. And that's really frustrating … that would be something that you'd nearly pride yourself on.

"I try to play bit of racquetball and I find there are certain days now where for five or 10 minutes I just wouldn't be myself … the lads in Santry and in Beaumont had kind of said, to expect that; but just to step out for five or ten minutes and you'll be okay to go again. Then I could go out another night and not feel too bad and I'd be absolutely flying it."

He has retired once from Offaly duty, in August 2017, only to be coaxed back at the start of last season when John Maughan's managerial odyssey took him to O'Connor Park. The comeback kid was "reinvigorated" after his year out - and by the new boss, who has been "a breath of fresh air".

His original plan for 2020 was to see how it went; but injury coupled with a global pandemic has stopped the clock for a player who turns 35 in October.

"We'll hopefully get a bit of football this year but, if not, we'll probably put the head down for next year and see after that. A lot of my friends have retired and they've all said, look, you'll be retired long enough," he concludes.

The Faithful departure can wait.