EXCLUSIVE: West Ham’s forgotten man running final laps on road to recovery
Gary O’Neil was told he only had a 50/50 chance of playing again, now he is ahead of schedule in his battle for fitness
West Ham’s forgotten midfielder Gary O’Neil went running last week. That may not seem much to you, but for a player who has been on the treatment table for six months and who was told that he only had a 50/50 chance of ever playing again, that is a monumental step forward.
The 28-year-old remembers the moment when his world was turned upside down with a shudder.
“It was after my first scan on my ankle and before the op and the surgeon said we needed to operate straight away,” explained the Hammer. “I asked him the question ‘what are the chances that I will be okay?’ expecting him to say 99 or 90 per cent and he said 50/50 and really it was then that it started to sink in how serious it was.”
It was April 16 in only his ninth appearance in claret and blue that disaster struck for O’Neil in a match against Aston Villa and in a clash with former Hammer Nigel Reo-Coker.
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“It was quite strange because I didn’t really see him coming. I wasn’t aware he was there at all so that when I got hit I wasn’t ready for it,” said O’Neil.
“I was just getting ready to have a shot and normally when you are going to get hit you know and you can brace yourself, whereas I was still sort of loose because I didn’t see him coming.”
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Reo-Coker clattered into the Hammer, though it took a little while for the player to realise just how serious things were.
“I didn’t know instantly that it was that bad,” he said. “I spoke to ‘Rollsy’ (physio Andy Rolls) when he came on and then tried to stand up and it was only then when I tried to stand on it that I realised I was in trouble.
“I could tell in the medical room that something was not right because it was very quiet, nobody was saying too much, but even then I was thinking two or three months out.”
In reality, it was beginning of a nightmare time for O’Neil and his family. A complication with the operation meant the surgeon had to revert to a new plan and change the course of the op, something that O’Neil was not aware of until afterwards.
“It was only when I woke up and I asked my wife how it went – Donna was the first to get it in the neck because she was sat there when I woke up!” he explained.
“I just asked her how it went and she said they had to do something different, so I was pressing the button trying to find someone who could tell me what was going on.”
The original plan had been to screw O’Neil’s torn chunks of cartilage back in place, only for the surgeon to discover that they were too messed up to do it.
The operation, of course, was just the beginning of a long road back for the player, as he explained.
“Early on it was completely non-weight bearing,” he said. “I had my foot up for 55 minutes of every hour. I was only allowed it down for five minutes to wander to the loo on my crutches or get a drink and then I was back with my foot up above my hip for the next 55 minutes.
“I have a little girl, who is now four, and she didn’t really understand what was going on and why I couldn’t play with her. Thankfully that is better now.”
It certainly hasn’t all been plain sailing for the midfielder and there were times when he thought that the ankle was never going to improve.
“There was a spell when I first came off crutches and started to walk and try and do some work in the gym and it just seemed to me impossible that this ankle was ever going to get near to where it was before,” he admitted.
“That was probably the worst time; the middle four months where I was trying to do stuff and the ankle wouldn’t let me, it was so frustrating.”
Since those dark days, things have slowly begun to improve for O’Neil and he has special thanks for the medical team at Chadwell Heath for the improvement that will hopefully see him back in action in the new year.
“The specialist is pleased with it. The area they were really worried about has healed over better than even he expected. He has been delighted with it every time he has seen it which is thanks to the medical team here with the work they have done with me in the gym.
“There has been a lot of swimming, quite a lot of bike work and unbelievable amounts of strength work for the ankle just to try and get it as strong as possible.
“It was tough for the medical staff as well as I don’t think they have seen any injury like this, so it was hard for them to find the right balance.
“It is just a little bit nerve-wracking every time you come to do something new, getting your brain to trust the ankle to do it, but we are starting to do new stuff now outside, we are running, running with the bungee in the gym and it has been good.”
It has been six months already since O’Neil suffered the injury. How much longer is he likely to have to wait before he can pull the claret and blue shirt on again?
“We haven’t really set a date,” he admitted. “When I first did it, it was about a year, so I am a long way ahead of that providing everything goes well.
“I guess we are talking about January or February time. Getting back to running and training is one thing, but having been out so long, getting ready to play is going to take a while as well.”
For one person though, O’Neil is already recovered and that is his daughter Summer.
“She is certainly pleased to have me better, so I can take her around the park and stuff like that,” said Daddy O’Neil. “I’m good enough for her now, it is just the football side we need to work on!”
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