Dundalk begin what is arguably the most crucial seven day period in the club’s recent history when they face bottom of the table Athlone Town on Friday night in the first of three fixtures that could end with the Lilywhites crowned champions.
With that in mind, there is a real upbeat mood at Oriel Park ahead of the trip to the midlands, a world away from the doom and gloom that seemed to attach itself to everybody with an affiliation to the club before the last trip to Lissywoollen, back on Easter Monday.
A wretched game, settled by Richie Towell’s injury time penalty, did little to lift the despondency. The real concern, though, was about a spectator in the main stand, a seriously downbeat Stephen O’Donnell.
Less than 72 hours had passed since the Dundalk skipper had been carried off on a stretcher in the Good Friday clash with Shamrock Rovers, the lateral ligaments in his right knee torn, the popatia muscle ripped off the bone, and serious damage sustained to the meniscus and cruciate fibres.
The influential midfielder put on a brave face when he spoke to fans and the assembled media afterwards as people eagerly enquired about his welfare. Little did we know that O’Donnell, after undergoing a scan on the Saturday morning, was told his career was over.
To say the outlook has changed since then would be an understatement of epic proportions. A successful operation left O’Donnell with a target of October to begin running again and chit chat about his impending return to full training was confirmed on the club’s website last week.
It is a testament to modern medicine that O’Donnell is able to resume his career full stop but, to be in line for a comeback, less than six months after suffering the injury, is nothing short of remarkable.
The 28-year-old confirmed as much at the launch of the club’s new promotional video at the Fyffes production plant in Swords on Saturday, his words coming across as music to the ears of Dundalk fans.
“I came back to training about two weeks ago but I was still getting some pain in the knee,” he explained. “Then I picked up a virus and flu which can often happen when you are coming back after being out for so long.
“I think that might have been a good thing, though, because it meant I had to rest the knee and it feels as good as new. I’ve been going full pelt in the last three training sessions and the lads are now over that thing where they would step out of tackles in case they injured me.
“I need to keep on top of the muscles around the knee that supports it but it feels brand new. It’s all systems go.”
Most players would need a batch of games to get back up to speed but O’Donnell said he has been working extremely hard on getting his fitness up to the required levels that would enable him to integrate seamlessly back into the side, if selected of course!
“I’ve dedicated myself to the gym,” he said. “I knew I’d have a small enough window when I came back so I’ve kept myself in the best possible shape that I could without playing or training.
“My touch was a bit rusty in the first couple of sessions but it’s back now. Obviously I won’t know 100% until I’m thrown into a match situation but I think I’m in as good as shape as I can be and if someone had offered me this position when I came out after my first scan, I would have snapped the hand off them,” he said with a smile.
“It’s human nature now I suppose. Once you get back training then you want to get back into the team. There’s no big panic for me to come back in, the lads have been unbelievable but if I can help in any way over the next four games then I’ll be delighted.”